Sunday, November 25, 2007

Knoxville Ice Bears Dance Team 

Posted by Sasha at 10:06 AM ET

ICE, ICE BABIES: The Hunnies are your ambassadors to Ice Bears entertainment

By Steve Wildsmith
of the The Daily Times Staff

For those who think the Ice Bears Hunnies — the team’s cheerleaders and dancers — are just a bunch of pretty faces, think again.

The stereotype of the giggly, vapid-brained cheerleader does not apply here. Just ask Erica Wilkerson, the squad’s captain. In addition to duties as a dancer and cheerleader for Knoxville’s Southern Professional Hockey League team, she also serves in a number of other capacities, all of them unofficial.

Greeter ... coach ... contest coordinator ... ambassador to the team’s boosters ... liaison between players and fans ... even, on occasion, herder of wiener dogs that go skittering across the ice on “Wiener Dog Race Night,” one of the more oddball promotional events that’s part and parcel of the Ice Bears entertainment experience.

It’s a far cry from the Jefferson County High graduate who went to her first hockey game less than five years ago and knew nothing about hockey.

“I knew nothing about hockey,” Wilkerson told The Daily Times this week. “In East Tennessee, it’s just not around that much, and before attending my first game while I was at UT, I hadn’t been to a Speed (an earlier hockey franchise based in Knoxville) game or anything like that. One thing I noticed, though, was how very interactive the dancers were with the fans.

“I had seen and done some of that dancing for various football teams, but it was nowhere near the same level as it was for the Ice Bears. And that was four or five years ago — now, the interaction is so much more.”

Wilkerson moved to Knoxville after high school, obtaining her bachelor’s degree in child and family studies. She achieved her master’s in early childhood education, and now she teaches first grade at Green Magnet Math and Science Academy in Knoxville. By day, she deals with a classroom full of screaming, energetic 6-year-olds; by night, she tries to rein in several thousand 6- to 60-year-olds who pack the Civic Coliseum to watch the Ice Bears play.

It’s not always an easy job. Consider her schedule:

“I don’t have any down time,” she said. “We get there about an hour before the doors open to practice our dance routines and warm up. Then we have a team meeting to go over promotions for that night with the staff; then we touch up our makeup where we’ve sweated it all off during warm-ups. We go down to the doors for an hour — giving things away, selling raffle tickets, taking pictures — and then we go down and get ready for the opening of the game.

“We walk out on the ice, and then all the players skate through. As soon as the game starts, we’re running out and getting the stuff for contests, making sure the contestants are down on the ice at the right time and things like that. Even during intermission, there’s some sort of promotion going on, and we’re running from one end of the Coliseum to the other. For five hours every game, I have maybe five minutes down time to say hello to family and friends.

“But that makes it exciting,” she added. “Because if there’s down time for us, imagine how much there would be for the fans.”

The fans are always top priority. Sure, there’s a hockey game going on in the middle of all of that Ice Bears madness, but Wilkerson and her fellow Ice Bears staff members — from the other Hunnies all the way up through the corporate offices — realize that many who attend an Ice Bears home game do so with little intention of actually watching hockey for three periods. That’s why there are so many other things to do.

“We’re constantly doing things like contests, and even though only four people out of 4,000 fans might win something each night, it’s a different group of fans every week,” Wilkerson said. “If you go to a game, maybe your friend will get thrown a necklace; maybe you’ll get chosen to get out on the ice for one of the contests. It just makes it feel a little more personal, because to us, it’s important to try and include the fans in as many different ways as you can.

“It makes it personal for them, so that they go home and talk about it through the week and come back because they’ve had such a good time. I’ve had fans develop pictures they’ve taken with me and bring me a copy. It’s almost like we’re a really, really large extended family. And that’s the way it should be, because we have 26 home games a year and some really, really loyal fans who are there no matter what.”

Wilkerson became a part of that family when she first auditioned for a position as one of the Hunnies not long after attending her first game as a spectator. She danced for roughly a year after making the squad before ascending to the role of captain. In her time with the Hunnies, she’s seen (and taken part in) a lot of hilarity. Such as the wiener dog races.

“It’s just mayhem,” she said, laughing. “The wiener dogs run in all different directions. Half of them don’t run across the finish line; they slide on the ice; they pee on the ice. It’s always crazy and very interesting to watch. Last year, one of the dogs was pregnant and was just out there waddling on the ice. You never know what’s going to happen.”

The dancing, actually, is a small part of her duties — maybe 10 minutes throughout the three periods that the game lasts. When the team is away or the games aren’t going on, she’s often at area events and functions at which the Hunnies are billed as celebrity guests. There’s also booster events and team fund-raisers for charity in which she takes part.

But just because the girls don’t do a lot of dancing on the ice, doesn’t mean she gets to sit around and watch, however.

“It depends on how the game’s going,” she said. “If it’s a game where we’re winning 11-2, we actually get to watch less, because that’s when the fans get bored, so we’re running around throwing things to the crowd and holding up signs. If it’s a really close, really intense game, we might get to watch a little more, because then the fans don’t want any of the promotional stuff getting in their way or distracting them.”

Including the outfits — the Hunnies have new uniforms on order designed to make the girls appear more professional, she said. The ones they wear now don’t generate complaints, however — if anything, they add a dose of titillation to the game — but the revealing, ahem, cuts to the uniforms raise an interesting question: Do the Hunnies ever get cold on that ice?

“No,” Wilkerson said emphatically. “We’re always running around and sweating too much to get cold. Sometimes at the opening, when we’re having to stand there, it might get a little cold. But other than that, no — it’s always hot down on the ice.”

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