116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Brad and Jill Johnson were asked to do an interview Saturday night at the ImOn Ice Arena to talk about the return of Cedar Rapids RoughRiders hockey.
The longtime season-ticket holders and player billets graciously accepted, though kept getting interrupted during it. People just kept coming up to them to say hello and give them hugs.
Which, in the end, probably said more than the Cedar Rapids couple ever could, honestly. More than anyone could.
After almost two years, this was family being back together again.
“Live hockey is the greatest thing in the world,” Brad Johnson said. “Of any sporting event, live hockey is the best. Watching it on TV isn’t the same, but watching it live is heaven … So not having it for a year, it was like ‘What do we do?’ You could drive and go see it, but it’s not the same as seeing your own team.”
It’d been 604 days (Feb. 29, 2020) since the Johnsons and every other fan had seen their own team play in their own rink. The end of the 2019-20 season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the August 2020 derecho that destroyed the city made ImOn Ice uninhabitable and a 2020-21 United States Hockey League season impossible.
So the RoughRiders took a sabbatical, their players moving on to other teams in the league and the only coach and general manager they’ve ever had since their inception in 1999-2000, without a hockey club to run.
“It was incredible to be back in here,” said Mark Carlson, after his team lost to Des Moines, 6-4, before 2,175 fans. “I drove really slowly past The Stable tonight before I pulled into the parking lot. Taking a couple of extra seconds there. I thought the crowd was fantastic, the environment was great. It was a good competitive hockey game there right up until the end. Obviously we would have liked to get the two points there, but certainly a lot of positives.”
Carlson was asked what he was thinking as he drove around the arena.
“I always think about our city. What the city went through,” Carlson said. “Second would be what we went through here at the arena. It was great to have hockey back again. Just so excited with the enthusiasm and the turnout tonight.”
The ImOn Ice Arena is fully functional again, both sheets of ice. The Olympic side sustained the heaviest damage, with a huge hole being blown into that part of the sheet-metal building.
The NHL/RoughRiders side wasn’t hit quite as hard, though there still was substantial damage. The Riders locker room was flooded when sprinklers went off inside of it and has been spruced up in its repair, with new carpeting among other improvements.
The arena also has a brand new scoreboard/videoboard above center ice that replaces the rudimentary original scoreboard. All this, and the reaction they got from the home crowd Saturday night, made an impression on players, only one of whom (forward Nate Hanley) has ever spent much time playing in Cedar Rapids.
“It was obviously an unbelievable experience. The fans were awesome,” said RoughRiders forward Adam Flammang, who scored his team’s first goal. “I mean, you’d get chills just (skating) out to the rink, seeing all the fans go crazy. I absolutely loved it.
“I was in Sioux Falls last year, and I thought they had the best fans in the USHL. But it doesn’t compare to Cedar Rapids. That was unbelievable tonight.”
To the game.
Des Moines remained unbeaten in the early part of the season with five power-play goals and an empty netter. The Bucs had nine power plays in the game to five for Cedar Rapids.
Des Moines ran to a 4-1 lead on four of those power-play goals early in the third period, only to see the Riders get back within 4-3 on goals from Cole Burtch and Grant Ahcan. Burtch, acquired in a trade last week from Youngstown, had a pair of goals in the game.
Of course, it was one more man-advantage goal in the final two minutes that took away C.R.’s chance for a big comeback victory. So strange that the RoughRiders (1-4) could lose a game in which they outscored their opponent at even strength by a 4-0 margin.
“We took way too many penalties, and we’ll clean that up,” Flammang said. “That’s kind of been our problem all year. We’ve taken too many penalties. Coach Carlson has been harping on us to figure it out in order for us to do well.”
But it’s very early, this team, in particular, has a lot of room for growth. The bottom line is their fans are just happy to be able to watch them play.
“Last year, the whole COVID thing, there was a lot of stuff that we couldn’t do in the community,” said Troy Jensen, longtime president of the team’s official fan club. “Baseball, we couldn’t get in (a season). Then the derecho derailed us even further. To me, for the last 10 years this has been a second home.
“And it’s really good to be back in it.”
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