When people think about hockey hotbeds, states like Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota come to mind, as do northern states hosting loads of hockey facilities and talented professional and college teams.
One region that does not often come to mind is Kearney, Nebraska — a city of just over 33,000 residents in the center of the Cornhusker State. The town and surrounding county are known for its agriculture with over 1,000 farms and ranches. Herds of cattle and rows and of detasseled corn cover the vast landscape of the city’s surrounding areas.
Few look at Kearney and see a hockey community. The class-A public schools there do not have a hockey program, nor does the Nebraska Schools Activities Association. However, since 2000, the city has been home to the Tri-City Storm, a tier-I hockey program in the United States Hockey League.
“The setting of Kearney doesn’t change how we run our hockey operations,” Tri-City Storm Head Coach Anthony Noreen said. “We’re not in Minnesota or Michigan, but we offer a unique experience to our players and allow them to grow in our environment. The USHL is a hugely competitive league filled with top talent.”
While the setting of Kearney is unlike many others in hockey, it’s here that the Storm players and staff can focus on the game while gaining high-level experience and coaching.
“It’s a culture shock for them,” Noreen said. “They sometimes come from places like Los Angeles and are placed right in the middle of farm-country Nebraska. It’s a huge transition for a lot of the guys.”
In Kearney, the USHL’s third-smallest host city in metro population, the Storm has players from four different countries and players from all over the US.
“These guys are coming here to chase their dream,” Noreen said. “For all of these guys, the dream of eventually making it to the NHL is still a reality. Last year, we had more players drafted to the NHL than any other junior team in the world. Most people wouldn’t expect that to happen in a little town like Kearney, Nebraska.”
Nick Portz, a second-year Tri-City player from St. Cloud, Minnesota, is committed to play Division I NCAA hockey at the University of North Dakota, and said that while Kearney may be different to other hockey-centric areas, it provides him and his teammates everything they need to succeed.
“We have the best coaching out there,” Portz said. “The town is a little smaller than what I’m used to, but at the end of the day, it has everything we need. We’re here to play hockey first and foremost. We have great fans who support us. There’s not much else you can ask for as a player.”
The Storm tied its program record in the 2020 draft, as six former Storm players were drafted by NHL programs, which was the third most in the USHL behind the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and Chicago Steel.
“The goal of our program here is development,” Noreen said. “We want this place to be a hockey factory that pumps out NHL talent. The team loves to win but that will come if we have the development right. Our goal is to give players the best chance to form into solid professional players.”
The size of Kearney is treated like an advantage for the Storm’s coaching staff. Noreen said that since Kearney is not a night-life hotbed, the players can focus on hockey, rather than getting distracted hanging out downtown.
“When you play hockey in a huge market, there are a lot of things a player can do on his off nights that can be detrimental to them, he said. “In Kearney, the guys can focus on what will make them better. We’re very happy to be in this town.”
The Storm have produced a steady stream of Division I athletes, as 19 members of the 2019-20 roster are committed to play high-level college hockey after their time in the USHL.
Missouri native Cole McWard played two seasons for the Storm and is committed to play at the University of Michigan.
“We are given so much opportunity to grow as players here,” he said. “The environment is different from when I played AAA hockey in St. Louis, but I’ve loved my time here. It’s weird to think that a lot of my growth as a player happened in Kearney, but I’m thankful for my time here with this coaching staff.”
For most of the Storm’s roster, college hockey is just beyond their time in Kearney as the USHL However, Portz said he must keep himself in the moment and focus on his development.
“You look forward to it. It’s kind of in the back of your mind, but you know that you’re here because you need to develop and win a championship,” he said. “You have to put that future in the back of your mind, focus on what you can do to get better today and take advantage of all the opportunities we get here.”
Like the rest of the sports world, the ongoing pandemic has affected the USHL. Two teams, the Madison Capitols and Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, suspended operations for the season. Players on other teams reported to practice at a later date, and league officials pushed the season’s start back from its usual early October start to Nov. 5.
McWard said it has been a bit difficult with the complications of COVID.
“We’re all wearing masks and staying spread apart to make sure everyone stays healthy, but I think we’re doing a really good job overall. It’s not affecting us too much. We’re still able to go out there and work hard. If we keep that up, I think the season will run smoothly.”
The setting of Kearney has helped Noreen and his staff realize its vision of a hockey development factory. Noreen said the city of Kearney and the community surrounding the team have aided the program’s efforts to push players forward to the next level.
“The quality of life here has been great,” he said. “What I would say that’s unique about Kearney is when we win, the fans support us. When we lose, the fans support us. When we trade guys, the fans support us. The people here are behind these guys because of what they represent and how they carry themselves. That wholesome part of the game way is more important than wins and losses.”
“when we win, the fans support us. When we lose, the fans support us. When we trade guys, the fans support us … That wholesome part of the game way is more important than wins and losses.”