For the second straight September, the NHL returned to Wichita for a preseason game between the St. Louis Blues and Arizona Coyotes at Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday.
The biggest difference between last year’s debut and the second iteration of the ICT Ice Classic?
After the absence of fisticuffs last September, the 6,324 fans were at their loudest on Saturday night when players dropped their mitts and squared up three different times. It was the highlight of a 5-1 victory by Arizona in a game where both teams brought mostly training-camp invites rather than NHL players.
“These are guys who want to play in the NHL, so they’re trying to prove that they can,” said Arizona coach Steve Potvin, who heads the organization’s AHL affiliate in Tucson. “When you’re challenged, you’ve got to respond and they did. They stood up for each other and I’m proud of our boys.”
While fighting is commonplace during regular-season games, it is more rare in preseason games with little at stake.
But neither side was surprised that Saturday’s game turned chippy toward the end, as it marked the first appearance in a game for the players after beginning training camp.
Even St. Louis Blues forward Sammy Blais, an NHL regular who was the most accomplished player in Saturday’s game, got in a scrap in the third period.
“I think we live and die by standing up for each other,” said Arizona center Conor Geekie, the No. 11 pick in last year’s NHL draft. “We aren’t going to take anything lightly, so kudos to the guys who fought and gave up their bodies to block shots. It all adds up, whether we’re winning 4-1 or losing 4-1.”
Outside of the game, lowered ticket prices and the addition of merchandise were both hits with local fans this time around.
But after attracting nearly 8,500 fans for last year’s debut event, ProHoops Sports & Events president Linda Hargrove, who spearheaded the effort to bring the teams back, was a little disappointed in Saturday’s turnout.
“The atmosphere is amazing and the game was really, really good,” Hargrove said. “Obviously, we wish there was a little more in the stands, but I think everyone who is here is really enjoying themselves.
“We want to keep bringing special events like this to Wichita, so it’s important for people in Wichita to support this so we can continue it.”
Hargrove hinted a different matchup is on the way for next year’s iteration of the event, one that will bring some new excitement.
“I can’t say who it is yet, but we’re going to have a really exciting game that hockey fans in this area are really going to be excited about,” Hargrove said. “I think people are going to be fired up about it.”
The good news for Wichita is for the second straight year, the professional hockey contingent raved about their experience.
“This is a first-class event,” said Potvin, Arizona’s coach. “It was a lot of fun. We love the buzz in the crowd and the energy here. It was like that last year, so we expected this and we knew it was going to be a great place to play.”
The players particularly like the set-up at Intrust Bank Arena.
“It’s honestly very professional here,” St. Louis center Nikita Alexandrov said. “The whole layout is really good. The rink was really good, the dressing room was really good. We have everything we need here.”
“This is a really nice facility,” added Geekie, who had a goal and assist for Arizona. “You have a really nice training room and then a gym right across from the dressing room. That’s pretty unbelievable. You don’t get that in too many places.”