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  • Writer's pictureMarc Viquez

Ford Center - Evansville Thunderbolts

Photos by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43

Ford Center 5600 Division St. Evansville, IN 47715

Year Opened: 2011 Capacity: 9,000


A Bolt of Thunder in Evansville

It was officially announced in March 2016 that the ECHL Evansville Icemen would relocate their operations to Owensboro, Kentucky after the conclusion of the season. The team also announced that it would be on hiatus and resume play for the 2017-2018 season at the renovated Owensboro Sportscenter in hopes of building a new facility somewhere down the road. However, those plans fell through and the club wound up moving to Jacksonville, Florida.

Enter the Southern Professional Hockey League and placed an expansion franchise in town for the 2016-2017 season. The club was nicknamed the Thunderbolts after the WWII Fighter plane that was manufactured in the town. The Evansville plant produced 6,000 P-47 Thunderbolt planes and helped save the town during the war.

The Ford Center is beautiful, modern, and perfect for minor league hockey with a seating capacity of 9,000 people. The $127.5 million indoor facility opened in 2009 and has been home to hockey since 2010. The cutting-edge design featuring a gorgeous interior and exterior design does not try to represent buildings of the past but set the tone for the future. The design should look as sharp now as it will 30 years from now.

Food & Beverage 3

There are various concession areas throughout the main concourse that offer hot dogs, bratwurst, chicken tenders, pizza, mini corn dogs, French fries, popcorn, pretzels, and nachos. The prices are reasonable, and there is something for everyone. The more unique options are highlighted by chipotle cheddar burgers, loaded nachos with chicken or beef, pork tenderloin sandwiches, and grilled chicken sandwiches. The nachos are big enough to share for two and are a bargain at $8.

If you are with the kids, they will enjoy chicken tender baskets and Dippin’ Dots ice cream. There is also a kiosk that serves falafel and baklava. Bud and Bud Light cans sell for $7.25 a can and local Carson’s Red Dawn and Tin Man Rivet are on tap for $8. Wine and well drinks are also available costing between $7.25-$8.

Atmosphere 3

The game-time atmosphere at the Ford Center is somewhat peculiar. There is a lot of action taking place in the main lobby where fans enter and are greeted by staff personnel, the official team mascot, and Iceman cheerleaders. There is usually something that is given away for free and I can’t think of a better way to start your evening of hockey.

Fans then hop on the escalator and move up to the main concourse toward their seats. This is where they will find the official team merchandise table, ticket information, and the Chuck-a-Puck table. It is also where they would find the majority of the concession menu items of the arena. There is a lot of synergy taking place on these two levels and one feels very energized before the game.

Ford Center Escalators, Photo by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey

Once fans enter the seating area and get a view of the ice, which was decorated in pink graffiti for Breast Cancer Awareness Night, they might take a look around the venue to see where everyone is at. They must be patient since fans arrive at the game right before the faceoff.

However, looking around one might get the feeling that hockey takes a back seat to the Evansville Purple Aces basketball program; a collection of championship banners, retired jerseys, a memorial, and memorabilia in the front lobby adorn the building. Deservingly, the Aces have been the main sporting event in town for many years.

Neighborhood 3

The Ford Center is in a nice part of downtown that appears to be up and coming. Fans walking the streets before and after the game are within a stone’s throw away from the Backstage Bar and Grill, Milano Italian Cuisine, and the Children’s Museum.

Less than two miles away is Franklin Street which offers a few additional great restaurants including Lamasco Bar, Gerst Haus, and Bru Burger in a renovated Greyhound bus terminal. Carson’s Brewery is an ideal spot for craft beer, especially Carson’s where one can sample 25 different beers including Vanilla Cow, Sweet Leaf, and Red Hot Harlot, a cinnamon-infused honey blonde ale. Tami will serve you quite well in the room. Tip her well.

There are plenty of lodging options in Evansville. They include the Fairfield Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Suites, and Baymont Inn & Suites. The only decision is price and location, but you’re sure to find a nice price somewhere in town.

Fans 4

The team has averaged between 2,000 to 2,300 fans during its time in the SPHL. The Evansville hockey supporter has been through a lot during the last decade. They welcomed the Icemen into ECHL in 2010, only to lose them to Owensboro in a public fiasco with its owner, and then quickly welcomed in an SPHL team.

This could be quite irksome to any fanbase, but they have shown respectable support for minor league hockey in the River City. Another interesting note is the copious amounts of different jerseys worn by the fans during the game. There must have been at least 12 different styles during my final visit to see the Icemen in Evansville.

Access 4

Being a downtown location you would think it would be difficult to find a parking spot. However, that is not the case for the Ford Center. There is free parking a couple of blocks away from the arena in vast lots. Many locals complain about the distance, but the walk does not seem to be that much of a problem. Inside the arena, there are plenty of restrooms that serve men, women, and families.

Return on Investment 4

Tickets for Bolts games start at $13 for upper deck seats and top out at $32 for glass seats. This is common with the other teams in the league and affordable with other minor league operations. You have your choice of ticket prices and the arena has more than enough tickets on most occasions. The parking is free and concession prices are varied and reasonable.

Extras 3

The Ford Center provides great views of the ice from your seats and there is not a bad seat in the house. It is a great size for a minor league hockey arena and features a wraparound concourse for easy access. One final point for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) for finally connecting Evansville to Indianapolis with the nearing completion of I-69. Instead of a 3-plus hour drive through multiple state roads and downtown squares, a motorist can drive a two-lane highway in much less time.

Final Thoughts

The Thunderbolts have created a new piece of history for the sport in the River City. Evansville’s history in minor league hockey is much younger compared with other teams in the league but they might just play in the best arena in the SPHL. The Ford Center is a fabulous state-of-the-art indoor venue for minor league hockey. The fanbase is strong, supportive, and knowledgeable; just give them a good product, and they will be back.

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