'Bolts Fans Battle to Fill Ford Center

The Evansville Thunderbolts are home for the holidays, but diehards wonder why more fans aren't joining them. In this growing hockey city, fans are calling for more fans to fill Ford Center.

This was a Friday night Christmas special at the downtown arena, against the Peoria Rivermen. But if you look around, it seems many missed the memo.

It's true, a game on ice in a state built for basketball isn't easy to pull off. Still, there's a loyal legion of fans who favor a stick and puck.

“It's good to follow the sports in town and support,” Duane Halsema says, whose painted face is easy to spot in a crowd.

But who are these boys in red, white, and blue he backs? It's clear many don't know. The Thunderbolts are drawing only half the amount of fans the old team who occupied Ford Center was.

The Thunderbolts play in the Southern Professional Hockey League, which isn't affiliated with the NHL like ECHL teams are; the league the Evansville Icemen belonged to.

Mark Owsley, who has season tickets despite living in Owensboro, says it doesn't matter what league exists in Evansville. “If the fans come out and watch them play, they're just as good as the Icemen were.”

ECHL reports the Icemen averaged about 4,000 fans in their final season in Ford Center. SPHL says the Thunderbolts are drawing about 2,000 fans. Far less than most fanatics feel is fair.

Halsema says it's disappointing to look around and see a mostly-empty arena. “We've been pushing really hard,” he says, trying to get more people to show up.

These Thunderbolts are different from the Junior-league Thunderbolts. The junior team is in a developmental league for student-athletes and they play at Swonder Ice Arena.

Randall McGrew, an Evansville native but Pittsburgh Penguins supporter, looks on the bright side to the downtown dilemma with the few fans. “There's a lot of room for growth,” he says.

Never phased, those diehards do their duty. In their first season, the 'Bolts battle to get back on a winning record. “Once we start winning more they'll definitely start filling these seats,” says McGrew.

But the score won't stop the fans on this Friday night, who line up in the rain to see their hometown team.

Owsley says it just takes one drop of the puck for even a casual fan to be sucked in.

“Watch it once, they'll be hooked.”


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