(By Liv Rogowski & Brent Hollerud)
The instant success of the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights has given a false impression on the difficulties of building an expansion team. Most of the time, before a team can enjoy sustained success, record-breaking performances, and contend for league titles, they have to endure some growing pains. Just as the saying goes “Rome wasn't built in a day,” the same could be said for professional hockey teams (again, Vegas notwithstanding).
Nearing the end of their fourth season of existence, the Indy Fuel have seen their fair share of ups and downs since they entered the ECHL in 2014-15. A furious second-half push brought the Fuel to the cusp of a postseason birth their first year, but 36 and 42-loss seasons followed in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Where in previous years the Fuel were still the new kid on the block - learning to navigate the ECHL and establish an identity within sports-crazy Indianapolis - the 2017-18 group looks poised to help the organization take the next step. With three weeks before the official start of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, Indy finds itself just two points out of the fourth seed in the Central Division.
If the Fuel do make their first postseason appearance in franchise history, they won't be writing it off as beginners' luck. Rather, a playoff berth would be the realization of a goal - part of a process that has been several years in the making.
“We've evolved in a positive way with how things are going. Last year was quite the learning experience and right now, our focus is just making sure we are ready to compete each night,” said head coach Bernie John, who has been with club since its inaugural campaign. John served as an assistant for much of the first two seasons before taking the reigns at the end of the 2015-16 campaign.
The current Fuel contingent has made marked improvements across the board compared to a year ago. Finishing 25th out of 27 teams with 53 points in John's first full season at the helm, Indy is on its way to breaking multiple club single-season records as 2017-18 heads into the home stretch.
With eight games left to play, Indy is poised to set new high marks in wins, points, goals scored and power play percentage. In the box office, the club has seen an uptick in attendance over 2016-17. A total of 11 Fuel players have earned AHL call-ups over the course of the season, more than any of the three previous seasons. Where 12 months ago the club had all but been eliminated from postseason contention, the Fuel and their fans are making plans beyond the end of the regular season.
“We have a much different team than last year - our vibe is different. We believe we can win here. I think we know what we have here in our room and we know we can win games,” said forward Josh Shalla, who joined the Fuel at the midway point last season. “This year, we have set a goal, and everybody is pushing towards it.”
“We're in really good spirits and we know what we need to do. We control our own destiny and the guys are really excited about that,” said defenseman Zach Miskovic, who is in his third season with the Fuel, serving as either a captain or alternate captain the entire time.
“At this time of the year, it's not about X's and O's - it's about who wants it more,” explained John. “You can expect to see guys who are playing desperate hockey, playing with urgency, playing to continue the season, and playing to continue a job that's a whole lot better than going to work for eight or nine hours every day."
There's no more electrifying time in sports than the playoffs. It brings out the best in the players, fans and the community as a whole. It's the most rewarding part of the year, where teams can be genuinely proud of how far they have come and how much further they're meant to go.
“With us this close to making the playoffs, there's going to be exciting hockey down the stretch, and we're going to bring it every game. We have a lot of home games coming up, which is exciting for us,” Miskovic said. “We're going to play well in front of our home fans and reach our goal.”
“Playoff hockey is the best time of the year and it's just another chance to do what we love and be around the team,” Shalla explained. “We're pushing. We want to get there.”