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USHL becoming big business in Midwest

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KEARNEY - The 16- to 20-year-olds come from faraway places, playing hockey for nothing more than the opportunity to catch the eye of a college recruiter who might offer a scholarship.

This has been the mantra of junior hockey for decades, with mom-and-pop organizations developing talent amid little or no fanfare.

While cold and mostly empty junior rinks remain the reality in many places around the country, enterprising businessmen have found success selling the product in nontraditional markets in the nation's midsection.

In places such as Lincoln, Kearney, Council Bluffs, Iowa, and even Wichita Falls, Texas, rabid fans wearing the home team's jersey fill arenas by the thousands to cheer and jeer players who just started shaving.

"Junior hockey has changed dramatically from 20 years ago," said Jim Floria, president of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stampede. "More than ever, it's a business."

Big business.

The United States Hockey League is the nation's highest-level junior circuit, with 12 teams in Nebraska and five other states. More than 100 USHL players a year earn Division I scholarships, making it the top feeder to college programs.

In the last 10 years, the league has expanded as a business enterprise as annual attendance has doubled to more than 1 million.

Coaches earn $50,000 to $100,000 annually and operating budgets are $800,000 to $1.2 million, commissioner Gino Gasparini said. The Council Bluffs-based River City Lancers spend $27,000 a year just on sticks for a 60-game season, general manager Mike Hastings said.

Six of the 12 USHL teams have moved into new buildings in the last five years where they are the major tenants.

Franchise values, likewise, have risen. The Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers, a middling USHL team, were sold for $1.9 million last summer. The Kearney-based Tri-City Storm was for sale this winter for $2.5 million.

Ted Baer of Omaha, who owns the Kearney and Council Bluffs teams, is recognized as the first owner to turn junior hockey into a profitable venture.

He said he bought the Lancers in 1988 for less than $25,000 and hired a staff of a half dozen to start marketing the team to a community that was hungry for hockey.

"We looked at it differently from the way traditional USHL teams did, where owners were doing it because they loved hockey," Baer said. "They saw the hockey end of it. They didn't look to merchandise the team."

The Lancers became the model for junior hockey success.

It's now the norm for a night at the junior rink to feature smoke and lasers during pregame introductions, mascots, promotions and between-period entertainment.

The pageantry is greater than most players will see when they get to college.

"It's almost a letdown for guys when they go to school because they're getting a better atmosphere here," said John Dingle, an Ohio State-bound forward who plays for Tri-City.

Jim Livanavage of Phoenix, who owns two teams in Texas (Wichita Falls and Belton), said junior hockey ownership is much more attractive than owning a minor-league pro team.

As in pro hockey, there are revenue streams from ticket sales, advertising and the sale of team merchandise, but there are no player salaries.

The product is attractive to fans, Livanavage said, because of the players' youthful exuberance.

"The smaller communities really enjoy it because these are still kids fighting to make it to the next level," Livanavage said. "They have the ambition to get on scholarship, maybe make it to some level of pro hockey."

Sioux Falls' Floria said junior hockey is an easy sell to fans that have become cynical about professional sports.

"When I speak to business people, I tell them that I can guarantee there aren't going to be any strikes, no agents, no collective bargaining agreements," he said. "I get cheers."

Three of the top five drawing junior teams in the nation are in or next to Nebraska.

The Lincoln Stars are No. 1 with an average attendance of 4,511. Kearney's team averages 4,419. The Lancers, who moved from Omaha to neighboring Council Bluffs two years ago, average 3,398.

Sioux Falls is drawing 3,646 a game and Wichita Falls, which plays in the North American Hockey League, averages 4,181.

"When I tell my buddies back home that I'm playing out here, they can't understand it," Dingle said. "Nobody thinks of these small towns in Nebraska and Iowa as being hockey towns at all. It's always Michigan, Minnesota or Canada. I tell them, 'You have no idea. Come to a game and see what I mean."'

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