Between 1996 and 2001, for five memorable if not bizarre years, a minor professional ice hockey team called The Kentucky Thoroughblades used the town of Lexington as their base of operations. The first team of its kind, the Thoroughblades played their homes games at Rupp Arena, giving fans from the state a chance to see a live sporting event in the same venue as the widely beloved college basketball team, the Kentucky Wildcats. As an American Hockey League affiliate of the San Jose Sharks, the team positioned these pioneer players one step away from the NHL. The Thoroughblades franchise utilized a burgeoning presence of amateur hockey in the south and community-based marketing to achieve a distinct cultural import for the bluegrass. In a state known and shaped by basketball, fans were not only able to attend Thoroughblades events at a much reduced ticket price from that of a National Championship winning Wildcats team (which they achieved in both 1996 and 1998), but they were able to experience a new sport first hand and the spectacle that came with it.
Former Throughblades owner Ron Degregorio and others knew that to engage a potentially skeptical and unfamiliar fan base in central Kentucky, the incoming organization would have to make the games appeal in an entertaining and exciting in ways that did not rely on the sport itself. In 1995, while construction began on the facilities to give the team a rink on which to play inside Rupp, a year long marketing campaign was launched to build interest before the first home game. In part due to the veracity of the campaign and the low cost of media for the relatively modest population of the market, the news spread fast and wide. In addition to regionally appealing taglines like “Hockey with Horsepower,” the franchise used slogans on billboards and in newspaper ads like “Try out Hockey at the Rupp,” shamelessly acknowledging the low level of familiarity with the sport in their potential fan base. However, a surprising ground swell of interest appeared when the franchise held a name-the-team contest, the first of many such marketing activities. Shockingly, over 5,000 people participated. By asking for these submissions the organization made their first mark on the community by asking them to take ownership and get involved by cleverly choosing to run with a name that signaled a less than serious attitude.
This same attitude was be reflected in the team’s brash logo design. Contracted by McKinley Griffen Design and Advertising of Wilton, New York; the team’s logo depicted a brawny, anthropomorphic, pale grey horse wearing hockey gloves, ice skates, and hockey pants. The teals, purples and aquamarine colors used by the San Jose Sharks were also used by the Thoroughblades, who adopted this same color palette for team jerseys and all other merchandise. Both teams also used a triangle to frame the mascots in their logos, but instead of biting a hockey stick in half like the shark of San Jose, “Lucky” holds a hockey stick in his hand and is drawn shirtless with a toothy grin, flowing mane and tattooed chest.
For the 1996/1997 season, Rupp Arena averaged 7,741 fans per game, and in the second year of the team, attendance reached a higher average of 7,847 fans per game. These numbers seem low, and in comparison to the average attendance of a University of Kentucky basketball home game (23,000 fans per game, the largest in the country), they were drops in the bucket. And yet, if you were to talk to anyone who attended those games, and I will now confess as a young buck from Versailles, KY, I did, the stories and memories from this era recall a unique and peculiar fanaticism. For one I believe this has to do with how naive impressions of hockey were made manifest for us Kentuckians with the Thoroughblades. Unlike basketball, hockey meant fights, and there were many. If you search the T’Blades on youtube today, on the first page you will get one newscast from WLEX promoting a special “White Out” night and ten fights. I highly recommend the “AHL: Kentucky Thoroughblades vs Hershey Bears Brawl” wherein the T’Blades goalie comes out from the goal to check a player into the boards behind the net of the rival team with all the speed and power that comes with traveling the length of the ice. In addition to the seemingly constant locker boxing, goals were signaled by alarms and sirens, not the silky swish of a net, or the clang of a rim. And on top of this high speed, high octane, full contact sport, the Thoroughblades were providing in game entertainment to match. Frequently seen during a home game were three man slingshots for t-shirts, hot dogs shot from CO2 cannons, and the antics of the beloved “Bud Light Crew.” Part Mad Max, part 90s’ candy raver, the “Bud Light Crew” were there to facilitate crowd involvement, sliding across the ice on knee pads in between periods. Pucks were tossed over the glass by players during pre game shootarounds for the kids to chase after, and a roving camera would look for fans dancing in the stands to show on the arena’s big screens throughout the games. Other highlights having nothing to do with goals, offense, defense, or the on-the-fly player substitutions include the moments when the crowd watched the national anthem performer step like a newborn foal onto the ice, releasing a collective breath of relief and disappointment once they found solid footing at the microphone.
And of course, this rosy nostalgia comes from being a kid myself during these years, watching the T’Blades first hand fight the Hershey Bears, bump gloves and toss pucks. Now, looking back on the team’s residence in Lexington, and the waning attendance after year two, one can track the ways fans welcomed an unfamiliar cultural presence south of the Mason-Dixon enthusiastically, and just as quickly shied away. Despite deeper playoff runs, and two division championship wins, fan support declined conversely to the team’s individual success. Wins proved irrelevant, and contrary to the town’s basketball team, the Thoroughblades had no legacy to maintain, no storied history and were a pressure release for the community’s typical “defend the crown” stance on sports.
Additionally, the initial marketing push to gain support for the team proved so successful that the organization could not sustain increasing financial demands from both Rupp Arena and San Jose. The home opening game set an AHL attendance record with 17,503 fans and this momentum would never repeat itself. At the end of the fifth season a sale took place, and the Thoroughblades left Lexington for Cleveland to become the Barons. Lexington tried their hand at another amateur hockey team in 2002 with the “Men O’ War,” but this team lasted only one season and again Rupp was without a hockey presence. Aside from the University of Kentucky college hockey team, this remains true today.
Whether Hockey failed in the bluegrass, or the Thoroughblades failed in Lexington, the team’s impact on central Kentucky has a more complicated story than a brief stint of downtown family fun. High caliber hockey was played in Rupp Arena, and the team saw the largest amount of interest during the same three years that the University of Kentucky Wildcats hung two championship banners. As with any AHL team, the Thoroughblades matched both older goons on the downswing of their career and younger future NHL players, like Dan Boyle, Scott Hannan and Zdeno Chara. For this reason I feel that the team provided simultaneously an introduction to the sport for young fans like myself, and a dose of absurdity for others. In retrospect my memories remain fond, if not surreal; but above all, I now recognize what it meant for parents like mine, working and living on a modest income, to have the opportunity to bring their kids to the most important building in the bluegrass. Seated underneath the banners, we had access to the hallowed halls of Kentucky basketball through the roundabout purchase of a ticket to watch hockey, and maybe even learn what “icing” meant. I never did.
The author would like to thank Lee Douthat, who when asked about the team said, “God, I hated the Hershey Bears. The Thoroughblades were the best 5 years of my life.” Additional thanks to Austin Luttrell, William Kyle Goebel, Charlie Brown’s and those six pitchers of White Russians.
Ryan Filchak is an arts writer, editor and educator based in Chicago. When not covering contemporary artists and their exhibitions, he can be found supporting (most) sports teams from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Go Cats.