Does professional hockey work in Rapid City?
After 10 years, the answer is still yes.
A decade ago I wasn’t so sure, and there were other doubters by the dozen when owner Scott Mueller and then-minority owners Barry Peterson and Donnie Ward announced in mid-2007 plans to bring pro hockey to the Black Hills with an expansion team in the Central Hockey League.
Up to then, Rapid City was considered more of an indoor football or minor-league basketball town, in spite of what was a revolving door of franchises in those sports coming and going.
A new game and a new franchise, not a rehashed version of a team moved from another city, seemed like a fresh start for Rapid City’s latest foray into professional sports.
Assigned by then-Journal sports editor Andrew Cutler to cover the team, I was a hockey neophyte, having never seen a live game until the Rush and Colorado Eagles dropped the puck for Rapid City’s first game in October of 2008.
Covering the Rush through its first eight years was a wild ride, to say the least.
As with many others, I had to learn the nuances of the game by being there for morning skates, player public appearances and games and along the way, asking some pretty stupid questions.
Head coach Joe Ferras, then general manager Jason Rent, assistant general manager Tim Hill and that first roster of players were patient and helpful, taking my lack of knowledge in good humor.
So many highlights
Of course, one favorite memory is the Ray Miron Presidents' Cup win in Rapid City’s second season in 2010, which was clinched in an epic, nerve-wracking double-overtime win over the Allen Americans.
The most searing memory is actually the very first home opener against the Colorado Eagles at the new civic center ice arena on Nov. 29, 2008. I marveled at Rush staffers who worked without sleep for three days straight to get the newly completed arena in game shape.
A jam-packed house of 5,119 saw the Rush shut out Colorado 4-0 on that magical night. I’ll never forget the eruption of noise when forward Rich Hansen’s wrist shot hit the back of the Colorado net for the first home goal in Rapid City history.
Other highlights included Rapid City’s tumultuous playoff run in 2010-2011, including a controversy-laced series win over the powerhouse Fort Wayne Komets and a wild seven-game series with Colorado that ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to the Eagles in the finale.
So many people
Listing everyone who has worn a Rush sweater and had an impact on Rapid City would fill the newspaper.
Narrowing such an impossibly long list down to just a few leaves former head coach Ferras, who built the franchise and was largely responsible for assembling that remarkable roster of guys honored by that championship banner in the civic center rafters.
Then there’s Scott Wray, the longtime Rush captain who never wavered in his dedication to his teammates, the franchise, and the city, nor in his ability to deliver straight answers to sometimes tough questions.
Also on the list are former Rush equipment managers Romeo Vivit and Shawn “Stixy” Smith, trainer Osama “Sam” Kassab and the late linesman Butch Mousseaux, and longtime head of Rapid City’s off-ice officials, John Helsdon.
Since moving to the news beat at the Journal more than two years ago, my involvement with the team may have lessened, but not my interest.
My wife, Deb, and I still enjoy going to games with our family at the Ice Arena, although overall attendance has slipped over the past few years as the Rush have struggled to get back to those early glory days.
Has the novelty of a pro sports team in the Black Hills worn off? Maybe.
I’m thinking the franchise has just hit a lull as it retools for the future with a new 10-year lease at the civic center and a different attitude under new head coach Daniel Tetrault.
I’m ready to give South Dakota’s only professional hockey franchise a new look and get pumped about Rush hockey again.
Through thick and thin, the Rush are still Rapid City’s team.