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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: The Green Light

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW:  The Green Light

Blog #32 – March 23, 2021

By: John Peterson

 

Sometimes it takes a risk to make history.

We’ve all had ideas that force us to pause and think: Will this get shot down in a blaze of glory? Will I receive pushback? Will people think I’m crazy? What will happen if this idea is a complete flop?

Here’s a good recent example: the November 2, 2019 Guinness World Record lightsaber battle culminating on Star Wars Night at Wings Event Center.

That was a crazy idea. It caused countless headaches, immeasurable stress, and a wave of doubt throughout the planning process. But we pulled it off, thanks to our fans’ help.

Whether that game stands the test of time is something we’ll look back on 40 years from now.

One idea that left a lasting impact, not only in Kalamazoo, but throughout professional hockey was the Green Ice game.

As popular and famous as it is today, the Green Ice experiment was groundbreaking, risky and downright out of the ordinary when the Kalamazoo Wings debuted the tradition March 17, 1982.

Nobody could have guessed how big it would become.

The opening faceoff from the 37th annual Green Ice game March 17, 2018 at Wings Event Center. (Photo: Kimberly Moss)

THE INSPIRATION

It was February 1982. The Kalamazoo Wings staff gathered to brainstorm ways the team could boost attendance heading into the final stretch of home games.

One of those games happened to take place on March 17—St. Patrick’s Day.

Steve Doherty, the team’s Director of Public Relations Director, grew up in Boston, a city known for its Celtic music, Irish pubs and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. People of Irish decent actually make up the largest ethnic group in the city. Doherty remembers skating on an outdoor rink as a kid, one with a unique feature that would inspire a historic idea years later.

“It was an open-air arena, but there was a plastic cover that went across the ice,” said Doherty. “In the evening or the daytime when we skated, when the sun came through that green plastic roof or when the lights were on it cast a green image on the ice surface. I always thought that was kind of cool. We had green ice out there, only because of the natural lighting and the color of the roof.”

The focus shifted to the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day game and Doherty chimed in with the suggestion.

“I kind of said it as a joke,” said Doherty. “I said: ‘Why don’t we dye the ice green and see what happens on St. Patrick’s Day?’ and everyone kind of laughed, joked and fussed around with it for a little bit. We kind of came to an agreement that we had to try this and see what we come up with. That’s how the first game on March 17, 1982 came off.”

When asked if there was any pushback from his coworkers, Doherty laughed and dismissed that assumption. It was a smaller front office staff in those days, so there was only a few people in the meeting, including team broadcaster Terry Ficorelli and General Manager Bob Lemieux.

Others had a few questions.

“Probably the most difficult people to convince about the whole evening was the league office. We had to let them know what we were going to do and let the visiting team know what we were going to do. It was bizarre,” said Doherty. “No one had ever heard of anything like this. The coaches weren’t convinced that we would be able to see the puck. The goalies were concerned because they were the ones getting shot at and they were concerned if they were going to be able to see the puck.”

Special paint is used to color the ice today, after trial and error proved food coloring to be too messy. (Photo: Kimberly Moss)

HISTORY CAN BE MESSY

Following league approval and a little bit of convincing the coaches, the inaugural Green Ice game was a go.

“When it was all said and done, we just plowed ahead with this thing and when tickets started selling, we knew it was going to be pretty big,” said Doherty. “We could see the sellout approaching and thought: ‘we might have something here so let’s try not to screw it up.”

In the days leading up to the game, the K-Wings loaded up the Zamboni with water mixed with gallons of food coloring and dyed the ice, complete with shamrocks and prepared to host the Muskegon Mohawks on a Wednesday night in mid-March.

The crowd was enormous. 5,446 people packed Wings Event Center to cheer on the hometown team and experience history. But history can be messy sometimes.

As with any experiment, it takes some trial and error before perfecting something. The one thing to know about food coloring is there is a chemical in it that prevents freezing. The ice that night featured puddles of standing water and made it a sloppy game. The cardboard shamrocks underneath the ice developed air pockets and cracked. When players were knocked down, they’d get up with green dye all over their jerseys.

Muskegon’s Stu Irving even had a breakaway in the second period that was stymied when the puck hit a water spot and stopped dead in its tracks. What’s the saying? The post is a goalie’s best friend? In this case, it was a green puddle.

At night’s end, the Kalamazoo fans, staff and players celebrated a 4-1 win and even managed to laugh about some of the mishaps.

“Everybody was thrilled. They were playing in front of a standing room only crowd—the largest crowd we’d seen in years. It was just a fun night,” said Doherty. “I think, if anything, we laughed and joked about all the things that went wrong during that evening, the players included. We knew when it was over with we needed to start planning for 1983 and what we’d do to fix all these mistakes, because there were a ton of them.”

5,446 fans packed Wings Event Center for the first-ever colored ice game anywhere in hockey March 17, 1982 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A LASTING LEGACY

The success of a promotion like the original Green Ice game will never be measured by what mistakes were made. It’ll be measured by its impact locally, its reach nationwide, and its innovativeness, inspiring future minor league sports promotions. March 17, 1982 checks all three boxes.

“We received so much publicity locally and eventually nationally,” said Doherty. “USA Today came to one of our games and we were on the front page of the sports section. We had the NHL approach us and they interviewed me and some others between periods. That was placed on one of their broadcasts for an intermission segment. We received all kinds of recognition nationally, which was really wonderful.”

The Green Ice tradition has been a staple of the K-Wings promotional schedule every year since. More often than not it’s a sellout game. Throughout the years, the organization designed special jerseys for the event, brought in the wailing sound of bagpipes, and presented giveaway items.

Substituting the food coloring for a special green paint, the team has also perfected the ice-dying process. Now the food coloring is used to make green beer. After all, who wants their beer frozen?

A few years after the original Green Ice event, the K-Wings became the first hockey team to dye the ice pink, which has also become an annual tradition. The Pink Ice game occurs each February around Valentine’s Day and the team uses the event to honor cancer survivors and raise money and awareness for cancer research.

Now hockey teams in juniors and throughout the minor leagues make Green Ice and Pink Ice a yearly spectacle.

“It’s pretty neat that we were the ones that started it here in Kalamazoo, Michigan,” said Doherty. “I don’t know that we ever knew that it was going to explode the way that it did, and that it would become as large and successful as it has become.”

Kalamazoo pulled the 39th annual Green Ice event off of St. Patrick’s Day. The team instead reserved back-to-back home games on the green ice for the organization’s first ever Green Ice Weekend. As Doherty points out, it wasn’t the first time the event was moved from St. Patrick’s Day.

“We tried to get those Friday and Saturday night dates when we could, but there were times where we played a Wednesday or Thursday night on St. Patrick’s Day and they didn’t draw as well,” said Doherty.

The K-Wings’ last game of the 2019-20 season ended up being March 11, two days before Green Ice Weekend. Both of those games were announced sellouts, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of the weekend and ultimately the rest of the season. Ironically due to a March 12 Gabriel Iglesias show, the K-Wings had to put the ice in early that week, so the season’s final game was played on the green surface.

When the team hits the ice in October for the 2021-22 season, start clearing your calendar for mid-March. Assuming all goes as planned, Kalamazoo will prepare for the 40th installment of the Green Ice event. Tickets will be at a premium.

As for the legacy of the tradition that started as Doherty’s innovative idea in a February 1982 staff meeting, he puts it best.

“It’s a special date each and every year here in Kalamazoo simply because it’s been the biggest and best one-night promotion this franchise has ever had. The success in terms of people at the gate, the excitement, enthusiasm and even the team record…it’s just been a wonderful experience and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.”

 

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Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!