Heading north up the Funk/Odessa road to I-80, I asked myself for the umpteenth time — why was I going to a hockey game? Other than the Winter Olympics, hockey had never been much of an attraction for me. The puck is hard to see on TV and some of the rules make little sense to me – what the heck is “icing” anyway, other than something you do to make a cake great? But I wanted to find out how the Storm averaged more than 2,500 fans per game, ranking it above much larger cities in its league, so here I was.
When I got to the Viaero Arena in Kearney where the Tri-City Storm plays its home games, there was already a small crowd lining up at the box office 45 minutes before game time. Many were decked out in the distinctive Storm purple and white colors. That day was Scout Day, so there were also many Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts there in uniform with their friends and families.
The Arena itself is the perfect size for a hockey game. It is spacious enough to hold several thousand comfortably, but small enough to make it feel like you are right up there close to the action. The first thing I noticed was the players warming up. It was incredible how fast they were moving! They were doing a high-speed drill sending dozens of pucks from all angles at the goalie, who calmly gloved pucks or flicked them away.
The action is fast and furious
Soon after the players left the court and then re-emerged through smoke and fog lights as they were introduced to thunderous applause. 3000+ fans were here to see them play their fierce rival and the first-place team, the Waterloo Blackhawks. The game began with a face-off and immediately the action was fast and furious. A player for the home team got the puck and went flying down the rink, checked aggressively by the Waterloo player. Wheeling on a dime, he sent the puck to a teammate who tried to force his way through several flying sticks. Waterloo intercepted and whipped down the other way. Before a shot could be made on goal, a Storm defender blocked it to the side and two players crashed into the glass behind the goal, struggling to control the “biscuit.” The Storm player sent it around the curve of the rink to a waiting teammate who streaked down the other way, spitting ice-chips in his wake.
Play continued like this without pause as the action went on at a frenetic pace. Unlike football, there was no time to re-group and plot strategy, decisions were made instantly and on the fly, with a combination of speed, skill and fast-twitch reactions.
Several minutes into the first period Waterloo scored a goal. There was a brief silence followed by some boos from the crowd as the score registered on the large video board. Would Waterloo repeat it’s winning ways from the previous night?
After a face-off, play resumed. Things got even testier when a little later a fight broke out between two players who exchanged several blows before the refs broke it up. The Storm player was sent to the penalty box for two minutes and the crowd got tense as the seconds ticked off while the Waterloo players, with a one-man advantage, repeatedly shot the puck on the Storm end of the rink. Sterling defense play, including two saves by the goalie, kept the puck out of the net and everybody cheered when the penalty time elapsed and the Storm player raced back into the fray.
A little later sirens went off and crowd erupted into cheers when a Storm player took an assist in front of the Waterloo net and sent the puck flying just past the goalie’s glove and into the net. For those of us who missed it, the video board repeated it all in slow motion. The crowd, revved up by now and grooving on the rock music over the PA, continued to cheer as the play resumed. Periodically the heavy beat of the music was accompanied by fans at rink-side who banged souvenir pucks rhythmically against the glass to rally the home team.
The Storm has built a loyal fan base
The period ended without further scoring and the players left the ice for intermission. The fans took to the concession stands while a group of fan recruits went on the ice and, using a giant inflated ball, swatted it back and forth to the laughter of the fans. Meanwhile many of the Scouts were taking pictures with Stormie, the giant Storm mascot.
People were having a great time. I had come to realize why the Storm, in the smallest market in the USHL, averages over 2,500 fans a game, ranking it above much larger cities in the United States Hockey League. The game of hockey is exciting to see live and the Tri-City Storm had, after 16 years, a loyal fan base that loved the game and these young players.
After intermission, play resumed at the same frantic pace and the fans had plenty to cheer about as the Storm maintained a one goal edge through the second period and eventually ended up with a decisive 5-2 win.
So, why was there such fan interest in a sport that, unlike Husker football, most people never followed growing up? I caught up with David Fine, the Storm’s director of media relations and their radio broadcaster, a man who exudes a passion for the game. He came to Kearney after four years broadcasting hockey in Syracuse, New York, and was on hand last season during the Storm’s exciting run to the league’s Clark Cup Championship for the first time in its history. He marveled at the loyal fan base.
Fifty percent of the season ticket holders are from out of town – many from Grand Island and Hastings, but also from small towns like Holdrege, Minden, and Elm Creek. He said that the fans in this area are not die-hard hockey fans like those in Michigan or Canada. Here the fans feel a more personal connection to the players and follow them even after they go on to college or professional hockey. Unlike larger cities, the players are more visible. They live with billet families in typical neighborhoods in Kearney and nearby. People know who the players are and where they live. Younger players (the ages range from 16-20) attend the local high school while many older players take classes at University of Nebraska-Kearney or Central Community College.
The team’s record of giving back to those communities has helped too. The Storm was recognized last year by the USHL as its Organization of the Year. Besides making impressive gains in season ticket holders in the past two years, the Storm was cited for its commitment to the community. During the 2015-16 season, the players and staff attended over 190 community events, raising funds for many projects in the Tri-City area, donating back more than $100,000 to schools and to cancer research and support groups like Sammy’s Superheroes Foundation, which is devoted to helping the families of children battling cancer.
Home away from home
I was intrigued to learn more about the billet families. Players come from long distances to play hockey in central Nebraska: Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Colorado, Canada or countries in northern Europe.
David and Shari Jorgensen, who have been providing a home to Storm players since 2004, are living proof of the program’s success. When their last kid graduated and moved out, they were empty nesters and decided for their emotional health they needed to stay connected to young people. Their daughter was a huge Storm hockey fan and encouraged them to become a billet family.
Dave and Shari both came from small towns. He grew up on a dairy farm in Ames, Nebraska, a very small town near Fremont. Shari was from Malmo, near Wahoo. They both were impacted by their rural upbringing. In farming communities, David pointed out it was natural for farmers to help each other out. If a farmer was sick and unable to harvest his crops, his neighbors would bring in their equipment and harvest the crop for him. Shari’s family looked after neighbors too, even offering their home to children of neighbors in crisis. Becoming a billet family was a natural fit for them.
The Jorgensens have kept in touch with many of the players who have lived with them over the years, following their college careers, travelling to college games, and even attending weddings. They have crisscrossed the country to see ex-Storm players.
When asked what kept them going, Dave said they love the hockey culture and the relationships they have developed with other billet families and the players. Providing a good home is important to them.
“The way we look at it, how would I want my kids treated if they went to live with someone else?” David said. The families who do this, Dave said, do it for all the right reasons.
What you remember are the people, just one big family
Scott and Ethel White live north of Highway 30, midway between Kearney and Elm Creek on rolling gravel roads. They have been a billet family for 10 years and have provided their home to more than 30 Storm players over that time. Years ago they remodeled their basement to create an enclave for the boarders. They have had as many as four players stay with them at a time and currently have two players from Michigan.
Scott was more convinced than Ethel to take this step. She worried about strange young men coming into their home, but when one of the players was traded mid-season, Ethel cried for three days. They still keep in touch.
The Whites, similar to the Jorgensens, have had many rewarding experiences as members of the Storm hockey family. They are very busy people. Both work full-time jobs and, besides being a billet family, they have two young foster girls living with them. The girls get along great with their “big brothers.”
Nico Sturm lived with them last year. He came from Augsburg, Germany, to play center for the Storm and now attends Clarkson University in New York. On his last day with Scott and Ethel, Nico left them a letter, which they have framed and hung in their house. He wrote, “I loved the car rides from the rink to the house after practice, watching the sun slowly disappearing behind the red barn. I loved coming home, just sitting on the porch, listening to music, trying to soak up every breath of Nebraska air. It calmed me down. After a stressful practice it reminded me that there is more to life than just hockey. What you remember are not the practices or the games or the goals you scored. What you remember are the people you got to share it with. Teammates, coaches, fans, billet families. Just one big family.”
Scott coordinates placement of players to each of the 20 billet families for the Storm and it is no accident that most of the hockey players get along well in their living situations. Every year he travels to the Storm pre-season tryout camp in Las Vegas to scope out the potential new players. Personalities can clash under the best of circumstances so making a good match with a billet family is just as essential to the team’s success as good coaching and supportive management.
The Tri-City Storm has put together a winning formula that has translated to success for junior hockey on the sparsely populated plains of central Nebraska. There are several parts to this – the coaching staff, the management, the team’s owner, the loyal fans , the players, and, certainly not least in importance, the billet families who pour so much of themselves into giving players a home away from home.