Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The return of semi-professional hockey to Battle Creek in November will give players a chance to keep playing a sport they love while giving spectators a total fan experience, says Drake MacKenzie, Commissioner of the Interstate Hockey League.
A team of 25 players will make up the Battle Creek Cavalry Hockey Club who will play their home games at The Rink in the city’s downtown area. Their team colors are green and gold, they will have semi-pro status, and they will be playing hard to win, MacKenzie says.
“Every town deserves a good hockey team,” he says. “We want to make professional hockey stick in Battle Creek.”
David Darkey is the president of the Battle Creek Cavalry Hockey Club.
The Cavalry is not the first hockey team to call Battle Creek home. In 2008, the Battle Creek Revolution, a professional team and member of the All-American Hockey League, played its home games at The Rink, which was called Revolution Arena at the time. The team played for three seasons before disbanding in 2011.
During those seasons, The Revolution played against a team out of Lapeer. MacKenzie grew up in the small town of Hadley, just southwest of Lapeer, where he played high school hockey and became a fan of the Lapeer team. His memories of the intense rivalry between the Revolution and the Lapeer team is what prompted him to locate one of his IHL teams in Battle Creek.
“I thought, they must have crazy fans like we have,” he says of Battle Creek.
The Cavalry is one of 12 teams in the Interstate Hockey League, which was founded by MacKenzie in 2018. The other teams are located in Alpena, Bay City, Flint, Fraser, Holland, and Lansing, with a city or two yet to be named.
The Calhoun County Visitors Bureau will definitely be cheering on the new team, says Linda Freybler, Chief Executive Office for the CCVB. “I think it’s a great use of The Rink,” she says. “We’ve had a history of hockey being here and having a new league will be great for the community.”
Battle Creek’s amateur sports legacy
The Cavalry, which is being coached by Austin Hickner, will become part of an amateur sports legacy in Battle Creek that includes teams such as the minor league Battle Creek Battle Cats that play their home games at Bailey Park. Freybler says Battle Creek was the first city in Michigan to have a Sports Commission, created more than 30 years ago by city leaders with a focus on building an amateur sports presence in the area.
The addition of the Cavalry presents “opportunities to enhance the lives of our residents and bring visitors to our community,” Freybler says. “It’s great that people are continuing our amateur sports tradition.”
That tradition was boosted with the development of local venues such as Bailey Park, The Rink, and Kellogg Arena that are equipped to host these amateur teams.
The Rink has been undergoing extensive renovation efforts since being purchased in 2016 by Jennifer and Rick Powell, a local couple with strong ties to the venue and the city. Rick Powell is an engineer with an area company and Jennifer Powell is a vice president with a Pittsburgh-based bank.
Their familiarity with the venue grew when their son began playing youth hockey with the Battle Creek Bruins, which practices and plays at The Rink. They came to realize how many people were touched by the facility and being able to play there.
“It was our understanding that the facility could potentially be closed,” says Jennifer Powell. “We felt that it was important that someone step forward to save it for the community and we wanted to turn it back into the community asset it really is.”
Now closed for the summer as renovation work continues, Powell says in-season The Rink, which they are operating as a nonprofit, hosts drop-in hockey, open skates, learn-to-skate classes, tournaments, and also serves as a practice site for competitive figure skaters and members of the Kalamazoo Wings hockey team. During a recent open-skate, she says more than 200 children from different backgrounds and schools skated together.
So far, Powell says, just north of $1 million has been spent on the renovations with a portion of that funding coming from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, which has been a major supporter of these improvement efforts.
Powell says the addition of the Cavalry bodes well for The Rink’s future. “Certainly for us, it’s going to grow the exposure of our facility,” she says. “I anticipate having people from Kalamazoo to Jackson and Hastings to Coldwater coming in for games. For our facility, the increase in revenue allows us to put money back into the facility.
“For hockey in general for our community, this gives us a great place for our youth to interact with people who have made it to the next level who now have the option that they can continue to play a sport they love here in town.”
Building a team
Player recruitment for the Cavalry includes open calls on Facebook, efforts by Coach Hickner, and word-of-mouth referrals, says David Darkey, president of the Cavalry. He adds that the majority of players are from within 25 or 30 miles of Battle Creek.
For those who play, he says, it’s the best of both worlds because they can continue to work at their day jobs or focus on their education while participating in a sport they are passionate about without spending a lot of time or money.
“They can still have their day job and go to school and still get to act like a pro on the weekends,” MacKenzie says.
Darkey, who lives in Bellevue, has been involved in the local amateur sports team market since 1999. He will be handling the business end of the Cavalry’s operation, including ticket sales and working with the Powell’s. He says he saw a posting for his current position on Facebook and applied.
“The nice thing with this league is the business model,” he says. “They have games on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and all the teams are in Michigan. If it’s done properly this club could survive for years down the line.”
The IHL was borne out of MacKenzie’s love for the game of hockey. Like many who played hockey in their youth, he was not ready to hang up his skates when he graduated from high school and was no longer able to play for the Hadley Nepessings, his school’s team.
Growing up in a small town, he says, “that was my childhood, baseball all summer and hockey all winter.”
During this time, he became a huge fan of the Flint Generals, a minor league hockey team that left after its 2010 season.
“Somehow that lit a fire under me to do something with pro/semi-pro hockey and after I graduated in 2014, I founded the Union Hockey League which began play in 2016.”
Drake MacKenzie, Commissioner of the Interstate Hockey League.
The UHL had six teams which played in an arena, which though small, was always packed, simply through word-of-mouth marketing, MacKenzie says.
“It was pretty cool to have high-level guys playing and teaching the younger guys. It meant something to play for each team. Everyone took it seriously because everyone cared,” MacKenzie says.
But, the business model, which called for players to pay $15 to $20 to play, was not to last. After one season the UHL disbanded and MacKenzie admits to doing and saying “a lot of stupid things” at the time. He also learned that “good hockey players aren’t going to pay to play.”
As a result, MacKenzie says players who sign on with the IHL teams will only pay a $100 registration with the IHL picking up the cost of their equipment and uniforms. They also will share in 80 percent of the gate proceeds with the remainder going to The Rink and local youth hockey programs.
It continues to be a learning process for the 24-year-old MacKenzie who readily admits that he is not a typical entrepreneur, businessman, or even hockey player.
“I have no idea how to make my hair look nice, I wear button-up shirts and jeans to every meeting and I am easily identified by my hat, which is always on backwards,” he says. “I didn't go to college (well okay, I did, for like a week) and I got cut from high school hockey. I 100 percent run my mouth too much.
“But if you know me, you'll be hard pressed to find someone that cares about hockey and people as deeply as I do. I am just a young, aggressive guy.”
He is also part showman which is reflected in his plans to make inflatable characters, video boards, and food trucks a part of the fan experience at rinks that host his teams.
“I really encourage creativity,” MacKenzie says. “I know that what’s going to work in Fraser, may not work in Battle Creek.”
One thing that he knows will work across the board is making the games affordable with individual tickets priced at $7 and season tickets available for $100. Because he owns all 12 teams, he says he will be able to control a high standard of quality for each one of them.
The IHL’s annual budget is between $2 million and $5 million. MacKenzie says the league it has a lot of contracts with financial supporters pending and they are waiting for the checks to come in. Within the next few weeks, he says he is hoping to announce some major sponsorships that will give the IHL a huge financial boost.
“I have confidence in every one of our markets,” MacKenzie says. “I am so excited for the Interstate League to kickoff. There is nothing more noble than a person following their dreams, which I am doing to the fullest.”