The Knoxville Ice Bears
Pro Hockey's Persistent Popularity in an Appalachian City
Ya never know when that night might be. But, almost a quarter-century later, Mike Murray still feels the impact. In the early ‘90s, Murray was the captain of Knoxville’s pro hockey franchise at the time, the Knoxville Cherokees. One night against Louisville, it seemed like everything the center touched went in the net.
A little girl who was battling cancer was at that game and fell in love with the star. It convinced her to make a two-fold “Make-A-Wish” list: A trip to Disney World and a visit from her favorite hockey player at her birthday party. Murray, stunned by the invitation, took a signed jersey and stick to her. Six months later, Murray got word that she had lost her battle with the disease.
Fast-forward a couple decades to about four years ago when his kitchen was getting new appliances. As the delivery driver approached, he recognized Murray. The driver told Murray—part owner and general manager since 2006 of Knoxville’s current hockey franchise, the Ice Bears—that his daughter was the little girl with cancer. “He told me my stick and jersey were still in the same place his daughter put them,” Murray said. “I showed him my key chain. It still has the [charm] his daughter gave me to protect me. “Here we are, two grown men, ready to cry in the driveway.”
That’s the impact the Ice Bears can have on Knoxville, and that’s the message Murray sends to every current player. It’s fast-paced entertainment contained in a competitive environment. Add to it the iconic venue of the tradition-rich, 5,000-seat Civic Coliseum, and it’s a recipe for a great way to spend the winter.
The Ice Bears, under new head coach Jeff Carr, are part of the Southern Professional Hockey League. It’s down a few steps on the game’s professional food chain, but allows players—the Ice Bears’ roster has 19 players ranging in age from 22-28—the opportunity to make their mark or scratch an itch for anywhere between $250-$400 a week, though the club takes care of most of the players’ expenses.
Along with “representing the logo” on the ice, Ice Bears players are challenged to be ambassadors for the franchise within the community. “Playing in Knoxville has been the best two years of my life,” said defenseman Jake Flegel, 25, from Whitby, Ontario. “We’ve got dedicated and passionate fans who give life to every game. “I’ve had some tough days, but I’ve never had a bad day in the Ice Bears locker room.”
Flegel, who has dealt with Type 1 Diabetes all his life, has become an unofficial spokesman for overcoming challenges once his story was told locally. “I had athletes who taught me I could do anything,” said Flegel, who last season spoke to 14 youngsters with similar health issues. “This is my time to give back for those who changed my life.”
Besides 28 regular-season home dates (where they averaged 3,700 fans with four sellouts last year), the Ice Bears hit the road in Justin Timberlake’s old bus to SPHL outposts from Peoria, Ill., to Pensacola, Fla., in the 10-team league. The home portion of the Ice Bears’ schedule begins Friday, Oct. 27 against the Evansville Thunderbolts, and runs through April.
Whether it’s an opportunity to see zoo animals up close and personal, enjoy the Kids Zone, meet mascot Chilly Bear, share some time with a super hero, or watch more than 100 wiener dogs race on the ice, the entertainment value can be as important as the hockey. And, who knows? That night could happen anytime.