OMAHA, Neb. - Since the 1940s, when Gordie Howe started his professional career here, Omaha has prided itself on being one of the best hockey towns this side of Detroit.
That passion is being put to the test now that Omaha has joined Providence, R.I., as the only U.S. metropolitan areas under 1 million population with three hockey teams at the junior “A” level or higher.
In Omaha, the teams compete for the same fans and each has the same worry — that three’s a crowd in a market this size.
“It’s not too many teams,” ESPN hockey commentator and former minor league owner Barry Melrose said, “if they’re all succeeding.”
The definition of success varies, of course. All three teams have winning records, but the minor league Knights, NCAA Division I Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks and junior Lancers of the United States Hockey League can’t fill their buildings to even half capacity.
The Calgary Flames placed their top farm club here in 2005. After ranking last in the 27-team American Hockey League in attendance last season, the Knights are 25th this year with an average of 3,332 a game.
Ken King, the Flames’ president and CEO, says the Knights have lost “well into the seven figures” in less than two seasons.
The Mavericks, who entered the market 10 years ago, are Omaha’s top hockey draw and rank among the NCAA attendance leaders at 5,579 a game — far below the 8,000 they averaged their first few years.
The Lancers were the story of North American junior hockey in the 1990s, when they sold out 241 consecutive games in a 6,200-seat arena that since has been demolished. Now they draw an average of 2,925 in their new building in neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The Lancers’ tradition, on the ice and at the gate, were among the reasons NHL greats Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille and 1980 U.S. Olympic hero Mike Eruzione joined an ownership group that bought the team in 2004. In the United States, junior leagues feature players seeking college scholarships.
Eruzione said the Lancers have a loyal following and are stable, but things could be better.
“It’s hard to have two teams in a city, let alone three,” he said. “What was Calgary thinking when they put a team here?”
King said the Flames hoped to tap into an Omaha market that was introduced to hockey almost 70 years ago when the first incarnation of the Knights began a run that lasted, off and on, until 1975. Fans flocked to see Howe and other NHL stars groomed on farm clubs operated by the Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.
Omaha was without a team for a decade, from 1976-85, but the passion remained strong as the Lancers began setting junior attendance records within a few years of their 1986 arrival. UNO started its program in 1997. The success of the Lancers and Mavericks led the Flames to believe there was room for one more team.
King said Calgary has so much invested in Omaha that, instead of leaving and cutting their losses, the Knights will come back next season with a re-energized marketing plan to cultivate fans.
Knights games are like most others in the minor leagues, with a screaming public address announcer, canned music during stoppages and rinkside fans slapping the glass in recognition of hard checks. But the Knights have gone over 5,000 fans in their 8,300-seat arena on only a handful of occasions. More typical was a recent midweek game when attendance generously was listed at 2,100.
Tami and Paul Allen are among the hardcore Knights fans. Tami has been to every home game for two seasons, and Paul to all but one. Adorned in red jerseys, the Allens sit with a handful of others in a rinkside section at the Civic Auditorium. There is plenty of room for their daughters, ages 4 and 2, to bounce around.
“This is the best hockey in town by far, so I don’t know why more people don’t come out,” Tami said. “I’ll wear this when I pick up my daughter from gymnastics class, and people will ask me what team’s jersey I’m wearing. I’ll tell them the Knights, and they say they’ve never heard of them.”
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