by Mike Wallin
October 16, 2002 - Central Hockey League (CHL)
The Indianapolis Ice are ready to drop the puck and begin their fifteenth season of professional hockey in Indianapolis. A new ice age begins as Ken McRae enters his first season behind the bench and brings in a wealth of talent.
McRae, a former NHL player, will guide the Ice after a successful run as an assistant coach with the Austin Ice Bats. The new bench boss has high expectations for his team and provides a welcoming demeanor for the organization.
"I'm a player's coach, but they know I'm the boss," said McRae. "What went on here in the past doesn't matter to me. We just have to come out and provide an entertaining brand of hockey by utilizing speed, strength and smarts. I have recruited a solid group of guys who are not only talented but also are all high on character."
Returning to anchor the defense is Bernie John. This season, John takes on a new role as he is now a player/assistant coach for the team. The offensive minded John enters his fourth season with Indy and is the only player on the roster who has been with the organization since its CHL inception in October 1999.
Joining John on the blueline are holdovers Ryan Aikia and Kevin Popp. Aikia looks to rebound from an injury plagued year while Popp will once again provide toughness.
"I don't even want to look back on last season," said Aikia. "With Ken McRae taking over, it's a fresh start for all of us."
Arriving in Indianapolis to bolster the defense are Scott Lewis, Nate Elliott and Jamie Carroll. Lewis has one season and 69 games in the ECHL on his resume, while Elliott and Carroll will make their professional debuts.
The goaltending duties will be handled by Jamie Morris and Shawn Silver. Morris is back in the purple and black for his fourth season, while Silver begin his first North American campaign after playing the past three years in Britain.
"I feel like I am starting new," said Morris. "I had to prove to Ken McRae and to myself that I can compete. This is a great situation for both Shawn and I. Both of us have played professionally and I think that will enable us to help each other out a lot."
With Morris and Silver, the Ice enter the season with two capable netminders. Considering the tough travel schedule that the Ice will endure, both of these netminders will be called upon to carry the load.
Expecting to make a huge impact offensively will be former IHL Ice Kevin St. Jacques. The 11th year pro will also serve as a player/assistant coach, however, it will be his offensive production that will be counted on most. St. Jacques began his career in Indianapolis in 1992 and returns with 736 points (270G, 466A) in 613 career games.
"I've been brought in to produce on a night-in, night-out basis," said St. Jacques. "It feels great to be back in Indianapolis and with the job Ken McRae has done in building this team, I expect a very special season."
St. Jacques will skate on the first line alongside former Kalamazoo Wing Randy Holmes and second year player Jason Baird. Holmes led the K-Wings in scoring each of the last two seasons and has averaged over a point a game throughout his six year career. Baird arrived in Indianapolis just two days before the start of the season. Last year, while playing for Cincinnati of the ECHL, he put up 39 points (18G-21A) and 160 penalty minutes.
Another former UHL player, Greg Olsen, is expected to guide the second-line. The feisty Olsen played in Elmira the past two years and has recorded 121 points (65G, 56A) and 354 penalty minutes in 181 games. Accompanying Olsen on the second line will be rookie Ryan Carter and veteran Andrew Taylor. Carter's four year numbers at Iona University were a lofty 179 points (93G-86A). Taylor will be counted on for his all-around game. The former 1995 NHL Draft Pick of the New York Islanders compiled 44 points (20G-24A) last year for the ECHL Charlotte Checkers.
"I was the go-to guy in college," said Carter. "Here in Indy, I just want to have fun. I know I'll get scoring chances with the players I'm skating with. I'll just need to convert on those chances."
McRae promises a third line that will provide a spark while utilizing speed. To carry out his mission, McRae has targeted Justin Kearns, Marc Suderman, Dan Fontas, Bryce Classen and Jerry Carroll to answer the call. Kearns returns to Indianapolis after skating 22 games for the Ice last season. An impressive training camp has provided Kearns with a second opportunity in an Ice sweater. Suderman makes his professional debut after a solid four year career with the Providence Friars. Fontas arrives from the University of Lowell, while Classen skated in 55 ECHL games last season in Augusta and Richmond. Carroll, 6-4, 210 pounds, played for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL last year.
"I look at myself as a spark plug," said Fontas. "My job is to mix it up a bit and to play all out on every shift."
Coach Ken McRae has assembled a very formidable team for the 2002-2003 campaign. Watching McRae's training camp, it is obvious that he is a coach on the rise. One or two years is all that Ice fans can expect to see McRae behind the Ice bench as he will move up the ladder toward the NHL.
While McRae is in Indy, Ice fans should enjoy it. His team will be fun to watch and will be a contender. Five solid veterans: John, Aikia, Holmes, Taylor and St.Jacques make up a solid core. McRae was able to bring Olsen, Baird, Classen, Kearns, Popp and Lewis who all have been successful in the minor leagues. Rookies such as Carter, Fontas, Carroll, Suderman, Elliott and Connell all come highly recommended and will contribute.
Finally, McRae has his players believing that defense wins championships. Give Shawn Silver and Jamie Morris skaters with that mentality and this team will be tough to beat.
After a dismal 20-win 2001-2002 season, improvement is imminent. With the experience on this roster, the playoffs are attainable and a run for the cup is not out of the question.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central.