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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Fans’ loyal dedication all part of the show

Ashlee Salamon / Arizona Daily Wildcat
Ashlee Salamon
Ashlee Salamon / Arizona Daily Wildcat

The atmosphere at the Tucson Convention Center on Friday and Saturday nights is what makes a club hockey team in the middle of the desert actually relevant. 

The 6,000-seat arena transforms the Arizona Icecats’ players from club-sport athletes into Tucson celebrities. But the entire entity known as the Icecat Nation would be absolutely nothing without the diehard fans who keep it alive.

If you’ve ever been to an Icecats game, you’ve seen the infamous Rocky Balboa run between the second and third period. If you’ve ever set foot in the TCC on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ve seen the YMCA bit or the infamous chant, “”He shoots, he scores! Hey goalie, you suck! It’s all your fault,”” when the Icecats score.

By day, Icecats fans like Jason Criscio, James Reese and Justin Aniba, among others, are all Average Joes. But by nightfall, they gear up for a different persona, not just as fanatics, but also as local celebrities.

“”I think every guy grows up and wants to be a superstar or rockstar or just be known, and in some weird way, running around at the Icecats games and being recognized for it kind of taps into that rockstar dream,”” said Criscio, also known as “”Rocky”” at Icecats games.

A grad student at the UA, Criscio started going to the games in 2000 when he was still an undergrad. After a few years thriving in the arena’s most rambunctious setting at the time—section 120—he raised his fan status to an entirely new level.

As the public address announcer played “”Eye of the Tiger,”” Criscio did his best Rocky impression, running up the TCC steps. But it didn’t stop there. In fact, it was just the beginning.

“”It started off as something really small, the guy randomly played it, and it just became a staple of all the games,”” Criscio said.

Two years later he started running all of the stairs, every game, pumping up the crowd and delivering high-fives along the way.

“”After I finish running and I hated myself for doing it, I always say: ‘Oh everyone’s just cheering for a drunk guy,'”” Criscio said. “”It’s a very bitter side of it, but it’s stuff like that when kids come up to you and say ‘you’re awesome’ that make it worthwhile.””

Sam Levitz furniture deliveryman James Reese — better known as Hemsky for his trademark Edmonton Oilers Ales Hemsky jersey — took over for Criscio when he moved to North Carolina in 2004.

“”When (Criscio) wasn’t there, everyone was waiting for someone to step up and do it, and I was like, ‘Why not me?'”” Reese said.

Hemsky held down the fort with Rocky gone, gaining the support of fans and players alike. When Rocky returned to Tucson a year later, he and Hemsky tag-teamed the Rocky run and have been doing so ever since.

Both men meet at the second level above the south-side goal after the run. They lead cheers by pointing to each side of the arena in unison. Chants of “”U of A, U of A”” ring through the TCC.

After almost a decade, the Rocky run, along with all of the other mid-game skits and antics put on by these diehard fans, has become not only a huge part of the enjoyment of the games, but also a mainstay in the lives of these dedicated members of the Icecat Nation. 

“”It’s been an undercurrent of my life for the past 10 years,”” Criscio said. “”It’s always been there and I have so many memories and I’ve had so many friends that have come and gone.””

It is clear that the Arizona Icecats games are more than just a sporting event; they provide an experience, led by a strong community of Icecat devotees.

The core group of fans can be seen during the second period, as they all gather by the 200-level railing that overlooks the entire arena. They come together not just as a group of random people, but as a community.

They sit together, tailgate together and even travel together.

They drive to Tempe for every ASU series. They’ve traveled to Colorado and Las Vegas for games. They’re more than just fans; they’re a big part of what the Icecats represent.

Hemsky hasn’t missed a home game in about six and a half years, Rocky has been roaming the TCC for almost a decade, and Aniba has been around the Icecats games since before he could see over the boards.

“”I can’t say enough about our fans and the loyalty and dedication that they have,”” said junior forward Jordan Schupan.

“”They’re big fans through the thick and the thin,”” added sophomore forward Brady Lefferts. “”Even last year when we didn’t have the best start, our fans helped get us through that and kept us hopeful and we were able to pick up our game.””

Even when the team is struggling, as has been the case this season (9-10), you can always hear the heart and soul of the Icecat Nation. Through thick and thin, these Icecat diehards will always be there, and they continue to keep The Madhouse on Main Street alive and well, while loving every second.

“”I was driving to the game, and I was just thinking about all of the stories and all of the stuff that’s happened over the years, and it’s been a great part of my life,”” Reese said. “”I would never trade it.””

Celebrity Status

Hemsky has certainly made his presence felt at the TCC. So much, in fact, that a random four-year-old boy spotted him out on a delivery.

“”This kid comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, I know you,'”” Reese said. “”I’m looking at this kid going, ‘I don’t know this kid.’ So I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, how do you know me then?’

“”This little kid goes, ‘You’re that guy that ran the stairs at the hockey game!’ I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this kid!'””

“”That made my week dude,”” Reese said. “”That’s what it’s all about.””

Bringing the Icecats Nation to the Web

Tucson local and Icecat supporter Edwin Kirpes took the fandom a step further, bringing the Icecats to Facebook.  He created the name ‘Icecat Nation’ a little over a year ago. “”Something just clicked,”” Kirpes said. Thanks to the help of Kirpes and Hemsky, among others, the Icecat Nation Facebook page has accumulated 173 members, 40 pictures and 14 videos in about a year’s time. 

 

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