Friday, July 4, 2014

Commentary: Pan Am Pavilion leaves memories

The boards are gone, the scoreboard taken down, and soon, the walls will be coming down, too. The Pan Am Pavilion has closed its doors.

The Indiana Ice warm up for a game at Pan Am Pavilion.
Built in 1987 as a legacy of the city hosting the Pan Am Games, the two ice rinks and the adjacent plaza have stood as a monument to an event that really propelled Indianapolis into the national eye as a host of major sporting events. Regular visits by the NCAA Final Four, Olympic Trials, the Super Bowl and others have followed, but for those of us who were around, the Pan Am Games left a great legacy.

As a rink, it was built to be a participatory one -- the home of the Indiana/World Skating Academy (which relocated a year ago) and a downtown place for public skating and recreational hockey. It became, out of necessity, the part-time home of the USHL's Indiana Ice the last two seasons.

The closure is no surprise -- the property has been slated for redevelopment for years. The twin rinks -- one went out of service a year ago, the second earlier this month -- will be transformed into a two-tower hotel complex, leaving the Ice without a place to play in 2014-15. As a result, they were granted dormancy by the USHL as they seek a permanent place to play in the future. The pending demolition and redevelopment of the two rinks at Pan Am Plaza serve as another marker in Indianapolis' evolution, as the city's downtown continues to position itself to host major events, with the plaza's Georgia Street location being the epicenter of the city's burgeoning hospitality business.

And it's been a key bridge in Indianapolis' hockey progress, as the city's teams have gone from the historic old Fairgrounds Coliseum and Market Square Arena -- the homes of hockey for the first six decades of the sport in Indy -- to the spectacular amenities of the newly-renovated Coliseum -- the home of the ECHL's Indy Fuel -- and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which was a part-time home of Ice teams from 1999-2014.

But as we move forward, it's always good to take one last look in the rear-view mirror. Pan Am's rink was pressed into service on a limited basis as a spectator rink in 2009-10, when the Indiana Ice hosted a handful of midweek games and a pair of postseason games there. But it was really pressed into service in 2012, when the Fairgrounds Coliseum was closed for renovations for two years, leaving the Ice in need of a home rink. With Bankers Life Fieldhouse down the street, Pan Am's downtown location made it a viable temporary home for the USHL's Ice to play about half their home games the last two seasons.

As the remainder of the equipment in the rink was packed away, Ice owner Paul Skjodt told WTHR it was a "really sad day." The rink equipment is either being sold or given away. While the Indiana/World Skating Academy operated the rinks for its first 26 years of operation, the Ice took control of the rink last season, and made it the home for not just the USHL team, but several youth teams under the Junior Ice banner.

The new "temporary" home was ushered in with a bang -- Ice goaltender Dalton Izyk shut out Omaha 2-0 on Sept. 29, 2012. And it went out with an even bigger one, hosting the Clark Cup champions in the rink's final year of operation. The final game there wasn't memorable for the score, a 7-2 loss to the Waterloo Black Hawks. In fact, that continued an odd tradition. An Indianapolis team has never won an rink's swan song (the IHL Ice lost Market Square Arena's closing game in 1999 to Las Vegas, the last game in the pre-renovation Coliseum was a close Ice loss to Green Bay in 2012, and the same Gamblers won what is at the moment the last game in the foreseeable future at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Another temporary home - the Carmel Ice Skadium - was used for the last-ever CHL playoff game in 1984, which the Checkers dropped to the formerly-Tulsa Oilers).

What was memorable was the stage. Although it stayed packed away, the Clark Cup was in the house (as were several former Ice stars, including Bruins defenseman Torey Krug and Flames prospect Jon Gillies), a festive atmosphere was provided, a packed house full of both Ice and Waterloo fans made the approximately 1,400 fans in the building sound like 10,000. While that game was a loss, the playoff run that preceded it produced some fine hockey -- Hayden Stewart's shutout of Green Bay in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal, Sam Kurker tallying four points in a period to nearly pull the Ice back from a three-goal deficit the next night, back-to-back wins over Dubuque in the Conference Finals, and a near-perfect 4-1 win over Waterloo in the penultimate contest, Game 3 of the Clark Cup Final, in what's one of the best hockey games I've witnessed at any level, trumped largely by the Cup-clincher in Waterloo four nights later.

The playoff heroics in the building actually began four years earlier, when a scheduling conflict at the Fairgrounds forced the Ice to move two postseason games to Pan Am in 2010. Casey DeSmith slammed the door on Cedar Rapids in both, helping rally the Ice from a two-game series deficit to even their first-round series and eventually win it on Anthony Bitetto's fifth-game OT winner. 

It was where Scott Conway set a team record with four goals in a game in a 9-1 win over Dubuque in the rink's final regular-season game. It was where a weird doubleheader was played earlier in the season, when a shattered pane of glass forced the third period against Sioux City to be moved to Saturday -- and then saw the Ice rally from two third-period deficits in a matter of hours to win a pair of 4-3 games. It was where 16 NHL draft picks (so far) suited up for the home team -- and a significantly larger number passed through as visitors.

Pan Am's rink wasn't a place where one looked for amenities -- it was often cold, the seating was either on bleachers or standing along the glass, there were no red lights to signal goals, the radio announcers climbed a ladder to a makeshift media area in the corner, the locker rooms were underneath the rink -- requiring players to climb a flight of stairs and walk through the crowd to get to the ice -- and the benches were next to the penalty boxes, a unique setup in the USHL.

But with all those limitations, the Ice made the most of their surroundings, providing a solid game-night atmosphere, with the rink's coziness leading to loud crowds sitting right on top of the players. An old store had been turned into a spacious team store/ticketing area/concession area, the lobby of the adjacent office building became a gathering place for fans, and the team rallied around its unusual circumstances -- shuttling between two home rinks at opposite ends of the street -- to put together one of the best records in USHL history and win America's national junior hockey championship. A new sound system and a dedicated staff conveyed a solid game-night atmosphere.

Pan Am Plaza -- the main rink was renamed Pan Am Pavilion this year -- doesn't have the history of the Fairgrounds Coliseum, the incredible sightlines of Market Square Arena or the modern comforts of Bankers Life Fieldhouse or the renovated Coliseum. But it does hold a small, and important, part of the hockey scene in Indianapolis. It will especially be remembered for the spectacular team it hosted this year -- with NHL draft picks Josh Jacobs, Brian Pinho, Aidan Muir, Sam Kurker, Ryan Mantha and Dwyer Tschantz helping lead the way, goaltenders Jason Pawloski and Hayden Stewart setting records. 

And it couldn't have gone out any better -- with the Clark Cup champs giving it a sendoff.

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