It's been more than a year since the Tri-State's lone professional hockey team took the ice. And after a year of going dark, the Evansville Thunderbolts are emerging from the Coronavirus, looking to pick up where they left off.
"I really missed hockey last year," said long-time Evansville hockey fan Paul Jensen.
After a solid decade of professional hockey in the Pocket City, Coronavirus snapped that streak, as the Evansville Thunderbolts were forced to sit out the 2020-21 season. An especially painful decision as, after years of struggle, the team had finally put a winner on the ice.
"Oh, I was so happy," said Jensen. "Here we were, in February and we were in fifth place, and we were winning like five and six in a row. And we had great, great talent. And I knew we were going to be great and I knew we'd win in the playoffs because we were playing better every night."
"It was sad to see, because we were just starting to flourish and everything was just kind of hitting there by the end of the last season." said Evansville Thunderbolts Team Governor and Ford Center Executive Director Scott Schoenike.
Then came COViD-19, halting the season less than a month before playoffs. A place no Evansville team had gone since taking up residence int he Ford Center. And no one felt the pain more than team governor and Ford Center Executive Director Scott Schoenike.
"By far, this is probably the hardest year I've ever had," said Schoenike. "People say "oh yeah, but you didn't have to do much work. But the reality is, if you're in this industry, you love the hockey games. You love the concerts. You love the night events."
Now the team is coming back, and job one is to try to put the pieces of that successful puzzle back, one that includes reigning league MVP and Rookie of the year Austin Plevy and head coach Jeff Bes.
"Coach Bes is coming back," said Schoenike. "We're going to try to pick up where we left off and go from there and I think his coaching strategy seems to be working here. All the teams retain their rights to their players. So even if you didn't play this year, the list you have from the prior year will still be good."
So the first big question has been answered. Professional hockey is returning to the Ford Center this coming fall. Now the next big question is, how many fans will be able to attend and still maintain Coronavirus regulations and protocols.
"Right now we're still sitting at fifty percent capacity level," said Schoenike. "But I think in the near future, that will even change statewide and for us locally. But right now, we're content with that and that seems to be fitting the shows we're doing right now."
Schoenike looks crosstown to Bosse Field, and finds hope with the Otters back playing in front of crowds.
"Them opening up is a great sign for us, that there's less concern for us, that we go through all the motion and get tightened up," said Schoenike. "I guess that's our greatest fear, that we get almost in motion, then something would happen and we'd have to pull back or change of plans."
However Schonike sees little chance of that, and for this longtime season ticket holder, there's only one sweeter sound than that.
"My favorite sport to watch is ice hockey," said Jensen. "It's the fastest, most skilled game of anything."