The cool, crisp air is the first thing anyone feels walking into an ice rink. Sounds of skates crunching through the ice and echoing through the building can be heard over the cheering fans. Players crash into one another at 20 mph, slamming ad nauseam against the plexiglass boards .
It’s what brings fans through the doors.
Cristiano Simonetta, director of broadcasting and hockey relations for the Lincoln Stars hockey team, said the physicality and drive of hockey players is something fans in The Cornhusker State can connect with.
“It’s a really blue collar sport,” he said. “And I think that’s what brings in this community. There are a lot of hard workers in the state, and they see the hard work on the ice.”
In Nebraska, the Lincoln Stars, Omaha Lancers and Kearney’s Tri-City Storm, located in Kearney, call The Cornhusker State — and its diehard fan bases — home. While the NHL has not expanded into Nebraska or seven other states in the Great Plains, the state’s three United States Hockey League teams — the only Tier I junior hockey league in the United States — are among 14 teams scattered across the upper Midwest with no teams in Kansas or Missouri.
Before moving to Lincoln, Simonetta covered the Chicago Blackhawks and the 2018-19 Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues, two of the richest hockey markets in the United States. Once he arrived in Nebraska, the robust hockey culture surprised him.
“It’s remarkable,” Simonetta said. “When I first came here, I wasn’t sure of the organization. Someone that I grew up with, Biagio Lerario, was a captain here with the Stars. He told me that Lincoln is an incredible hockey community. That’s all I had ever heard of Nebraska: It was this underground, untapped hockey market.”
Simonetta credits the fans of Nebraska’s local programs for building communities around the sport. He understands why the teams in the state have been so successful.
“When you come to a game at the Ice Box, you just feel the energy,” Simonetta said of the Star’s arena and in-game experience. “It is palpable. You can’t describe it. Once the national anthem starts and the fans start slapping the boards and doing their traditions they’ve had over the last 25 years, it’s no secret as to why they’ve built up this community.”
Kearney resident Randie May has missed less than 10 Tri-City Storm home games in two decades since the team’s inaugural season started in November of 2000. Now, May is the keeper of many team artifacts, such as the unofficial original Nebraska Cup, which holds the scores and winners of each game between the Storm and biggest rival, the Lincoln Stars.
After the team released season tickets to fans, May’s friend suggested he invest. Then, just a few moments after the puck dropped for the first time in Kearney, May said he was hooked.
But he had already had his tickets for the next two nights sold to other people.
“About four minutes into the first period, I was calling people, letting them know that they didn’t have tickets anymore,” he said.
May said he and many Midwesterners identify with the sport’s core values.
“The Midwestern culture and hockey culture are millimeters apart from each other,” May said. “The commitment to sport, commitment to working hard, commitment to your craft, the integrity and the family atmosphere. The family part is what endears itself to the Midwest, and I think that’s why the game has grown here.”
Brandon Hofstra, Omaha Lancers’ director of media relations and broadcaster, credits the championship Chicago Blackhawks for some of hockey’s Midwest surge — the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
“Once the Chicago Blackhawks became a dynasty, people in the Midwest and places like Nebraska and Iowa jumped on that bandwagon,” Hofstra said. “That fueled their passion for the sport. When you go to games here, you see Blackhawks jerseys. While they may not be able to go to Chicago for a game, they have top-notch talent in their backyard.”
The growth of Nebraska’s USHL game at the junior hockey level naturally caused an increase in youth hockey participation.
“We at Tri-City have these relationships with the Lancers and Stars and their youth associations,” said Matt Nickerson, hockey director and vice president of the Tri-City Youth Ice Hockey Association in Kearney. “Those relationships have helped us form the Cornhusker Youth Hockey League.”
Simonetta said he believes Nebraska’s hockey community is not going away.
“This community is sports-ridden,” he said. “They love their football, but hockey is surprisingly close behind it. The community here will never say die, and neither will the team on the ice.”