For the Indiana Ice, this is the best of times and the worst of times.
On the upside, as of this writing, the U.S. Hockey League team boasts a glittering 16-3-1 record under new coach Jeff Blashill. That includes an 11-1 record on the home ice of the Indiana State Fairgrounds Pepsi Coliseum. This is coming off last season, when the team won the USHL's East Division championship.
Last year, the Ice — whose roster is composed of mostly American teenagers in search of college scholarships and the attention of the pros — placed 22 of 23 players into NCAA Division I programs. One of the recent players, 18-year-old John Carlson, was a first-round draft choice of the Washington Capitals last spring. Overall, in the team's history, 12 Ice players have been drafted.
In these economically challenging times, the Ice also are drawing reasonable home crowds that include a 30-percent uptick from families in search of affordable entertainment.
So, in many respects, the team's president and CEO, Paul Skjodt, and his hard-working staff, who have dedicated themselves to the somewhat long-shot proposition that hockey can work in Indianapolis, couldn't be much happier.
Or much sadder.
After a day at the office on Nov. 30, the team's president, Michael Schupay, went home and never returned. At the age of 47, he died of an apparent heart attack.
Schupay's passing was particularly devastating to the close-knit hockey community in Indianapolis, for he was universally loved, admired and respected.
"It's a loss for all of us and a huge personal loss for me," said Skjodt, who became acquainted with Schupay years ago when he coached one of Schupay's four sons, Craig, in youth hockey.
Back then, Schupay, a Purdue University graduate, was the principal owner of his family's engineering and construction firm. When Schupay sold the business, Skjodt saw the opportunity to bring him into the Ice organization.
"He told me he would work for free because he loved the concept of these kids playing hockey while preparing themselves for college," Skjodt said. "He thought the educational part of it made it the best of both worlds."
Schupay joined the franchise three years ago and had an immediate impact, largely because of his ability to inspire and engage the troops.
"He was a really effective leader," Skjodt said. "He wasn't a micro-manager. He allowed the employees to have input into every decision. He developed great relationships with the staff, the Coliseum, our partners. Our sponsorships grew."
In his second year, Schupay was honored as the USHL's executive of the year. Last year, the Ice were recognized as the franchise of the year. Schupay also worked to develop grass-roots hockey, helped the Ice start a foundation, and raised $125,000 in charitable donations.
No funeral home could handle his calling. Instead, it took place in the Grand Hall at the Fairgrounds. For six consecutive hours, the line to pay respects to Schupay, his wife, Susan, and their four sons never slowed. Nearly a thousand people came.
"That's an indication of how many lives he touched," Skjodt said. "Mike was always the one to find the good in people. He was a great listener. He believed in second chances. He was a true gentleman who treated everyone with respect."
For the remainder of the season, Ice players will wear a patch with Schupay's initials, MWS, on their jerseys.
But as with life, the season and the show go on. There is still hockey to market, promote and sell in a town dominated by the Colts, Pacers, colleges and high schools. The mainstream media cast their attention elsewhere.
"That was Michael's biggest frustration," Skjodt said.
Skjodt is convinced that, with or without the media's buy-in, this level of hockey — "the highest under-21 amateur league in the world," he says — can grow and prosper in this market.
"The first year was ugly, but it's progressively gotten better," he said. "We get good walk-up crowds and we continue to build the fan base. We're doing lots of things — like a $6 ticket on Friday nights — to get fans here and trying to be really creative once they're in the building."
Here's a wish that the Coliseum is home to a championship this season, providing a fitting final legacy for Michael Schupay.
Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.