Now that the 2012-2013 National Hockey League season is almost certainly delayed at least for the foreseeable future, hockey fans will be looking for other venues to channel their emotions and dollars during the long fall and winter months ahead. Once they move past the “cursing Gary Bettman and/or Don Fehr” anger stage of grief and into the bargaining stage, many will surely be looking for NHL alternatives in order to get their hockey fix during those cold January nights when Iowa versus Michigan college basketball just isn’t getting the job done. Luckily for those who either live in the Midwest or are willing to travel to the nation’s “Flyover Country,” there is a great option that often goes overlooked when discussing hockey in North America: The United States Hockey League. No, it cannot replace the level of play of the NHL, but for those with an open mind and a desire to see some of the game’s stars at an early age, there is a lot of great hockey that often goes overlooked by those on either coast.
Head downtown to the local hockey arena in cities across Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin on a Friday or Saturday night throughout the winter and chances are good you’ll happen upon a USHL game. In these games, young players who are still in high school suit up alongside 20 year old prospects who have already been drafted by NHL teams. An American from California who came back to the league from an NCAA team while waiting to transfer schools may score a goal against a Canadian goaltender hoping to receive a scholarship from an Ivy League hockey powerhouse. In the stands watching you will find a family of four looking for an affordable night out who may be seated next to a grizzled NHL scout taking a look at his team’s next first round draft choice. All of this comes together in an environment replete with history, tradition, and an atmosphere that is more unique than any NHL game outside of Montreal. Interested yet?
It’s not a sin to be unfamiliar with the USHL; it is definitely overshadowed in the United States by the abundance of high level college programs in the North and East, and in Canada by the more established junior leagues of the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. However, the USHL is certainly a league on the rise and has proven to be able to at least hold its own against teams from the “Q” and OHL during recent preseason tournaments. Like the three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League, the USHL is high level junior hockey for players between the ages of 16 and 20. The players live with host families, attend school, and often work in their team’s community while playing a long NHL-like schedule from September to May. However, unlike the Canadian junior leagues, the USHL allows players to retain their college eligibility by not allowing players with an NHL contract to suit up in the league. This means that the USHL has become the prime proving ground for the best young players from the US and Canada who are considering playing NCAA hockey and want to hone their skills against the highest level of competition in their age group.
While most of the USHL’s alumni do continue on to play college hockey (the league had 256 NCAA Division I commitments in 2010) some, such as John Carlson and Sam Gagner, have played in the league to maintain their college eligibility even though they eventually chose the Ontario Hockey League as their preferred path to an NHL career. The league has established a much more respected position for itself over the last ten years with its move to official Tier I status in the USA Hockey system and has seen an explosion of NHL talent come from its ranks over that time span. Players such as Matt Carle, Paul Stastny, David Backes, Alex Goligoski, T.J. Oshie, and Joe Pavelski have all put in extensive time in the USHL over the last ten years, while names like Phil Housley, Brian Rafalski, and Gary Suter provide the league with a proven pedigree of success reaching back to the 1980s. With the return of the U17 and U18 United States National Teams to the league a few seasons ago, the chance to see the best young players the US has to offer is another draw that cannot be matched anywhere else in North America. Simply put, if you’re a hockey fan the USHL has something for you. While the games may attract their fair share of casual fans looking for an affordable night out, there is no doubting the hockey credibility the league has built over the years.
Listing the number of NHL prospects to emerge from the league surely earns the league credit with hockey fans, but there is far more to this league than draft rankings and save percentages. Attending a USHL game is, in its own special way, a welcome departure from what many fans see is wrong with today’s NHL. The 15 year contracts, constant rule tinkering, ongoing fight for respectability with ESPN, and of course the recent lockout have left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans. Luckily, having grown up in centrally located Kansas City and having family in the USHL hotbed of Omaha, Nebraska, the league has always been a part of my hockey fandom. With this entry, I do not just want to recite statistics and list alumni, but rather give those who may live in New York, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles a taste of what high-level junior hockey in the Midwest is all about. During January, February, and March of this past season, I embarked on road trips to three of the USHL’s most storied cities: Waterloo, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Omaha, Nebraska. I saw some great hockey, but more importantly I enjoyed three hockey atmospheres that made me remember why I love this game so much. It would take much too long to describe all three trips, but my visit to Waterloo encompassed everything I love about the USHL.
Driving north on Interstate 35 at 70 miles per hour, I look out the window of my Toyota Tacoma over the barren winter landscape of central Iowa. It is late January and every square inch of farmland on either side of the interstate is covered in six inches of snow. High clouds filter a low hanging winter sun and the flatness of the landscape means I am constantly pulling on the steering wheel to keep driving straight against a strong and cold wind. I’m about twenty miles north of Des Moines, on my way to Waterloo, Iowa to see a Sunday afternoon game between the historic Waterloo Black Hawks and their cross-state rival, the Des Moines Buccaneers.
I have no specific reason to attend this game other than deciding a few days prior that I wanted to witness a game in Waterloo’s Young Arena, one of the hidden treasures of junior hockey in North America. Growing up in Kansas City, I had the old IHL’s Kansas City Blades to provide my hockey fix and having family 200 miles away in Omaha meant I had plenty of chances to get acquainted with a league I did not fully understand called the USHL. My introduction to the USHL came watching my goaltending hero Dan Ellis pitch back-to-back shutouts for the Omaha Lancers in the old Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. Playing their first 15 or so years in Ak-Sar-Ben, the Lancers built themselves into something like the USHL equivalent of the New York Yankees, and the atmosphere of a sold-out Ak-Sar-Ben helped me fall in love with the game of hockey. Although the building was dark, had support pillars blocking views of both goals if you sat between the blue lines, and had a sound system that operated between the levels of uncomfortable and deafening, each game featured an atmosphere that combined a college football game with a rock concert. Coordinated chants, flags, and a bizarre arena architecture quirk of a stage holding cheerleaders (yes, the first known sighting of “Ice Girls”) behind the end boards on one side of the stands meant you couldn’t go to a Lancers game and leave feeling like you didn’t get your money’s worth. The Lancers eventually moved to a modern arena with all of the bells and whistles in the early 2000s, and while their success on the ice carried over, there was no question the special atmosphere of the old hockey barn was gone. It was in search of this atmosphere that led me to start a six hour drive to the middle of Iowa in the dead of winter. Hockey fans will understand.
Since my formative hockey years watching the Lancers, I’ve been lucky enough to catch games in many different leagues all around the country. I became a fan of the Washington Capitals and saw many a game at Verizon Center (both before and during the Ovechkin years), have been to numerous college games, and have attended NAHL, Central Hockey League, and American Hockey League games both as a fan and as an intern in the Capitals front office. Seeing the game from the inside certainly made me respect the work that goes into building an NHL roster on a whole new level, but the more NHL games I attended the more I noticed I was missing something from a fan’s perspective. The level of play of an Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos is unique to the NHL, but I felt the game drifting more and more away from why I became a fan. Businessmen in suits were a common sight in the lower bowl and the fact that I could have hardly afforded the tickets to the game if not already there on behalf of the team made it seem like a luxury just being in the arena. I loved every moment I spent in the Capitals front office and I cannot say enough good things about the entire staff, but as a consequence of this position I started looking at the game of hockey less as a fan and more as a job (not that I’m complaining). After moving back to Kansas City, I took the first chance I had to get out of town and spent some time in the hockey meccas of the plains; a chance that would allow me go in search of that old hockey barn that started the whole fascination with the game in the first place.
After eating lunch in Ames, I pull into the Young Arena parking lot about an hour before game time. Nestled next to a frozen river in downtown Waterloo, the arena is a squat concrete structure that could easily be mistaken for a warehouse of some sort. Instead of the skyscrapers and nightlife districts that surround most NHL arenas, Young Arena is surrounded by modest industrial buildings and simple, modest offices. A basic matrix board outside the arena acknowledges the game that afternoon against Des Moines. I walk in the arena, climb a few stairs to get to the concourse that runs around the entirety of the rink, and am immediately hit by the smell that signals “I’m in a hockey barn.” The combination of ice, hot dogs, beer, and nachos sounds horrible, but somehow it works and reminds me of every small, older arena I’ve ever been in.
As I walk around the concourse with the few hundred diehards who show up right as the doors open, I’m struck by the lack of amenities and absolutely love it. Instead of luxury boxes ensconced in leather, every seat is made of simple red plastic with one end holding only metal bleachers instead of those red seats. There is no video board to speak of, high definition or otherwise, but rather a simple scoreboard that displays the important information: time, score, and penalties. The arena holds slightly over 3,000 fans, but the roof is low enough that the noise generated rivals that of a sold-out Madison Square Garden. I make my way down to my 15 dollar seat, four rows up from the blue line; a seat that would go for a price in the triple digits at most NHL arenas. As warm-ups begin and the arena starts to fill up I notice a large percentage of fans are decked out in a variety of Black Hawks jerseys. These aren’t jerseys purchased at the arena fan shop in an attempt to fit in at the hot ticket in town, but rather authentic jerseys purchased during various team auctions over the years. I see home, away, third, military tribute, and several other variations bearing the names Pavelski, Smith, Montpetit, Kessel (Blake—not his slightly more famous brother Phil), and many more. Although the latter two players have yet to make the NHL, they are still viewed as superstars to these fans. And instead of being worn over suits and Cole Haans, these jerseys are worn over jeans and tennis shoes. While this may be an easy transition into numerous Iowa jokes, it also goes to show that this level of hockey does not require a commitment of thousands of dollars per year simply to see your favorite team thirty to forty times.
As the Zambonis replace the players on the ice after warm-ups, the house lights dim and the last of the fans make their way to their seats. During an NHL game, this would be the point at which an extensively choreographed opening video sequence would appear on the video board above center ice; and most of the fans would simply chat with their friends, text, or make another beer run. At Young Arena, there is no video board, so the entire opening sequence is a mix of loud music, lights, and a PA announcer yelling at the top of his lungs. This cacophony of sound works the crowd into a frenzy and all I can hear are several hundred cowbells and the extremely loud goal horn situated directly on the concourse behind one of the goals as the players make their way to the ice. Like in a college game, the players’ hometowns are announced as part of player introductions. As you hear the likes of Fairbanks, Alaska; Mississauga, Ontario; and Surrey, British Columbia announced you realize how far most of these kids have traveled away from their friends and family just to get a chance to continue playing the game at a higher level. The fans clearly recognize this and there is an almost paternal relationship between the fan base and the players at this level of hockey. On one hand, some of these players could find themselves playing in the NHL in less than a year, but that same player may have never lived away from home before suiting up for the Black Hawks.
The game eventually starts and I find myself following the best prospects for each team. Waterloo is a prospect factory and is traditionally one of the stronger teams in the league. Although Des Moines also has a handful of solid players (not to mention Anze Kopitar’s younger brother Gasper), it is a clear mismatch from the outset. In describing the hockey, it would be fair to categorize it as very close in quality to Canadian juniors. Waterloo’s top line could probably stack up well against the top lines of the Oshawa Generals or Red Deer Rebels, but the depth at the USHL level is not quite to the CHL level as of yet. The speed of the game is noticeably slower than the NHL and the amount of missed passes and checks show that these are players still developing their skills, but the intensity of the game is absolutely on par with the fiercest NHL rivalry. Unlike college hockey, the USHL allows fighting and the lack of refined skill actually makes the league more exciting than the NHL. Although there always seems to be disagreement among hockey fans on fighting’s place in the sport, I personally enjoy a good hockey fight provided it arises naturally and for the right reasons. Most NHL fighters are so skilled at their craft that the fights are about positioning and throwing one or two good punches, but the players in the USHL have not yet developed their fighting skills to this level and the fights usually see two kids throwing haymakers at each other with reckless abandon. Seeing two players have the respect for each other to each throw off their visored helmets before engaging in a fight is another concept that I wish would carry over to the NHL.
As the game progresses into the third period, the Black Hawks start pulling away and piling up the goals against Des Moines goaltender and Winnipeg Jets draft pick Jason Kasdorf. The train horn mounted on top of an air compressor on the concourse sounds again and again followed by an ear splitting rendition of Glenn Frey’s “Party Town.” Arena workers even let fans walk over and sound the horn for play stoppages and other game events—try doing that in an NHL arena. True to their theme song’s chorus, the game has turned into a party for the 3,000 or so Black Hawks fans in attendance. Several times the arena DJ blasts Billy Idol’s version of “Mony, Mony” during play stoppages and the fans sing and chant along with their cow bells. It’s true that traditions like these are somewhat cheesy and would make many “sophisticated” NHL fans scoff, but there’s something fun about it at the same time. Like finding your favorite guilty pleasure movie on TV on a Sunday afternoon, you can’t help but smile even as you realize the whole thing is slightly ridiculous. At the end of the day, everyone is having fun and watching hockey while paying less than it costs to park at most NHL arenas.
All too soon the game comes to an end and I head back into the early, cold Iowa night wishing hockey included double headers. As everyone heads out to their cars, I realize how important hockey is to this small town in rural Iowa. Most NHL cities have baseball, football, or basketball teams to call their own, not to mention art museums, concert venues, and numerous other entertainment options. Here in Waterloo, the Black Hawks are the team in town; attending a Black Hawks game is something almost every person in this community has probably done. Few towns outside of possibly Green Bay and Montreal can say their city identifies so strongly with one sports team.
While eating my dinner at Applebee’s (Waterloo isn’t exactly the culinary capital of the country), I look over and notice several of the Black Hawks players eating with their girlfriends. From the jerseys and hats, it’s clear the majority of the patrons here have, like me, just arrived from the game. Even though the players are here on their own accord and not as part of any official team function, they take every opportunity to talk to these fans, sign autographs, and talk hockey with anyone who cares to join in. Seeing them out of uniform you realize they really are just high school kids who are still learning how to be adults and make their way towards the NHL at the same time. The chemistry between the players and the fans is enough to make you wonder how a lockout of this great sport would ever be possible.
After dinner I make my way back to my hotel room at Waterloo’s Isle of Capri hotel/casino and catch up on the NHL scores from that night. I see Steven Stamkos unleash a rocket of a slap shot from the right circle, Jonathan Toews appear to have eyes in the back of his head to set up a goal, and Henrik Lundqvist do what he does best to post a 32-save shutout. And yet, even after seeing all of that I know what I just witnessed topped all of it. I think to myself that if a non hockey fan asked me why I love this game so much, all I would have to do is take them to a game in Waterloo, Omaha, or Lincoln and let them take it all in. At the end of the day, we all fell in love with the game of hockey for different reasons, but I find it hard to believe anyone could attend a game like I just saw and not be hooked on hockey.
USHL Alumni in the NHL
|Player||USHL Team||Professional Team (League)|
|Justin Abdelkader||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders||Detroit (NHL)|
|Andrew Alberts||Waterloo Black Hawks||Vancouver (NHL)|
|Richard Bachman||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders||Dallas (NHL)|
|David Backes||Lincoln Stars||St. Louis (NHL)|
|Keith Ballard||Omaha Lancers||Vancouver (NHL)|
|Stu Bickel||Sioux Falls Stampede||New York Rangers (NHL)|
|Jason Blake||Waterloo Black Hawks||Anaheim (NHL)|
|Jared Boll||Lincoln Stars||Columbus (NHL)|
|Brandon Bollig||Lincoln Stars||Chicago (NHL)|
|Justin Braun||Green Bay Gamblers||San Jose (NHL)|
|Adam Burish||Green Bay Gamblers||San Jose (NHL)|
|Chris Butler||Sioux City Musketeers||Calgary (NHL)|
|Matt Carle||Omaha Lancers||Tampa Bay (NHL)|
|John Carlson||Indiana Ice||Washington (NHL)|
|Ryan Carter||Green Bay Gamblers||New Jersey (NHL)|
|Scott Clemmensen||Des Moines Buccaneers||Florida (NHL)|
|Erik Cole||Des Moines Buccaneers||Montreal (NHL)|
|Erik Condra||Lincoln Stars||Ottawa (NHL)|
|Ty Conklin||Green Bay Gamblers||Detroit (NHL)|
|Joe Corvo||Omaha Lancers||Carolina (NHL)|
|Joey Crabb||Green Bay Gamblers||Washington (NHL)|
|Davis Drewiske||Des Moines Buccaneers||Los Angeles (NHL)|
|Mark Eaton||Waterloo Black Hawks||New York Islanders (NHL)|
|Dan Ellis||Omaha Lancers||Anaheim (NHL)|
|Justin Faulk||Team USA||Carolina (NHL)|
|Ruslan Fedotenko||Sioux City Musketeers||New York Rangers (NHL)|
|Sam Gagner||Sioux City Musketeers||Edmonton (NHL)|
|Nathan Gerbe||Omaha Lancers||Buffalo (NHL)|
|Tom Gilbert||Chicago Steel||Minnesota (NHL)|
|Alex Goligoski||Sioux Falls Stampede||Dallas (NHL)|
|Matt Greene||Green Bay Gamblers||Los Angeles (NHL)|
|Matin Hanzal||Omaha Lancers||Phoenix (NHL)|
|Jack Hillen||Tri-City Storm||Washington (NHL)|
|Tim Jackman||Twin Cities Vulcans||Calgary (NHL)|
|Rostislav Klesla||Sioux City Musketeers||Phoenix (NHL)|
|Chad LaRose||Sioux Falls Stampede||Carolina (NHL)|
|Louis Leblanc||Omaha Lancers||Montreal (NHL)|
|Brian Lee||Lincoln Stars||Tampa Bay (NHL)|
|Trevor Lewis||Des Moines Buccaneers||Los Angeles (NHL)|
|Ryan Malone||Omaha Lancers||Tampa Bay (NHL)|
|Alec Martinez||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders||Los Angeles (NHL)|
|Drew Miller||Omaha Lancers||Detroit (NHL)|
|John Moore||Chicago Steel||Columbus (NHL)|
|David Moss||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders||Phoenix (NHL)|
|Andreas Nodl||Sioux Falls Stampede||Carolina (NHL)|
|Kyle Okposo||Des Moines Buccaneers||New York Islanders (NHL)|
|T.J. Oshie||Sioux Falls Stampede||St. Louis (NHL)|
|Max Pacioretty||Sioux City Musketeers||Montreal (NHL)|
|Joe Pavelski||Waterloo Black Hawks||San Jose (NHL)|
|Toby Petersen||Fargo-Moorhead Bears||Dallas (NHL)|
|Jeff Petry||Des Moines Buccaneers||Edmonton (NHL)|
|Nate Prosser||Sioux Falls Stampede||Minnesota (NHL)|
|Teddy Purcell||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders||Tampa Bay (NHL)|
|Matt Read||Des Moines Buccaneers||Philadelphia (NHL)|
|Patrick Sharp||Thunder Bay Flyers||Chicago (NHL)|
|Craig Smith||Waterloo Black Hawks||Nashville (NHL)|
|Tim Stapleton||Green Bay Gamblers||Winnipeg (NHL)|
|Paul Stastny||Omaha Lancers||Colorado (NHL)|
|Mark Stuart||Rochester Mustangs||Winnipeg (NHL)|
|Thomas Vanek||Sioux Falls Stampede||Buffalo (NHL)|
|Blake Wheeler||Green Bay Gamblers||Winnipeg (NHL)|
|Tommy Wingels||Cedar Rapids RoughRiders||San Jose (NHL)|
|Jason Zucker||Team USA||Minnesota (NHL)|