It would be easy to write a story around the premise ‘if you build it, they will come’ regarding the importance of American hockey and the state of Iowa. But Kevin Costner’s famous line in Field of Dreams doesn’t quite do service to the more than four decades of rich hockey history in the Hawkeye state.
Iowa is home to five United States Hockey League member clubs, the nation’s top tier junior hockey programs. Each team, unique with its own history and traditions, has for decades played home to future NHL and NCAA Division I talent for 16 through 20-year-old hockey players.
The Des Moines Buccaneers are one of the most historic USHL clubs, beginning operations in the league’s second season in 1980-81. The team has played at the same arena since that first season, more than 40 years ago.
Fueled by a hockey-crazed town, and new ownership, the Buccaneers recently announced plans to build a new facility at the Merle Hay Mall, still in the passionate community of Urbandale just outside of Des Moines city limits.
Most fan bases, and teams, would be ecstatic about moving from an aging hockey barn into a state-of-the-art facility. And the excitement is felt by all, but one thing that can’t be lost in the move is the connection to history and the community.
“I was at a home game watching from behind the net and another guy and his son were standing there watching the game and we got into a conversation at a break in the action,” said Michael Devlin, who was introduced as part of the new ownership group in October of 2017. “He told me about his dad taking him to Bucs games and now he’s taking his own son. It’s great to see the multi-generational fans we have.”
It can be a daunting task to change, or attempt to recreate any of that rich tradition, but sometimes the challenge is worth the opportunity.
“The hockey families in Des Moines are a very close-knit group and they are extremely passionate about their hockey, and they are loyal,” added Nate Teut, now in his fourth season as president of the Des Moines Buccaneers. “The Buccaneers have season ticket holders that go back to the inception of the team. Des Moines hockey families are itching to have the ability to build the youth hockey programs in the market.”
Those same hockey families itching for more youth hockey programs have looked up to the likes of Kyle Okposo, Trevor Lewis, Jeff Petry, Matt Read and most recently Mario Ferraro while playing for the Buccaneers prior to their respective NHL careers.
Okposo, Lewis and Petry were all teammates during the 2005-06 season in which Des Moines captured the league’s Clark Cup championship title. Okposo was also named Clark Cup MVP and USHL Rookie of the Year.
One of the most important names on the team’s alumni might be Scott Clemmensen. The Des Moines native was the first Iowa-born goalie to play in the NHL after starring with the Buccaneers from 1995-97. The 12-year NHL veteran, now a minority owner of the Buccaneers organization, was able to play for his hometown team from 1995-97 prior to a collegiate career that spurred his professional success.
One of the main objectives for the new ownership group while planning the new Buccaneers facilities was to offer more opportunities for young hockey players in the Des Moines area, beginning with more ice.
“We hope to provide the resources that if you want to develop and grow as a player, and as a person for that matter, you can stay right here in Des Moines,” said Devlin. “You’ll be able to follow your passion and if you commit to it, you may receive a college scholarship like so many of our Bucs players have.”
Clemmensen isn’t the only player hoping to develop as a future NHL professional while playing for their hometown Buccaneers. Vegas Golden Knights prospect Noah Ellis is playing in Des Moines this season, his second full season with the club, after playing for the local Iowa Wild AAA team.
“Years ago we had a local kid play for the Bucs, Scott Clemmensen, who went on to play for Boston College and then on to the NHL. And he’s one of our partners now,” said Devlin. “Today we have a local kid who used to watch the Bucs as a youth, Noah Ellis, who is now on the team, he has a commitment to play in college and he is an NHL draft pick. Our dream is that there will be more locals like them.”
The organization clearly understands the monumental lift to carry the team’s history into a new building. The magic, or mystique, isn’t something you can pack into boxes. But one way to ensure an intimidating home ice advantage is to have thousands of hockey-crazed fans, including young local hockey players, cheering on their Bucs.
No matter where you go around the country, young kids have their faces pressed up against the glass looking at what they one day hope to become. The new Buccaneers arena will offer opportunities between practices, games and tournaments for kids passing by, walking past with their gear in hand, to peak into the rink while a USHL game is in full tilt.
“We’ve always kept our doors open to the youth hockey players and there will be even more room for them in the new facility with multiple sheets of ice and the ability to keep at least one sheet active year-round,” said Devlin of the future rink’s programming goals. “I don’t think Des Moines has ever had that or at least hasn’t in a very long time.”
Devlin and the Buccaneers have worked alongside the Midwest Amateur Hockey Association while making considerations for the new arena, and acknowledged that numbers in the region continue to grow. Over the past decade, Iowa has seen a 30.8% increase in ice hockey players according to USA Hockey.
But sometimes the local team’s popularity can only go so far. After all, you need ice to play ice hockey.
“The announcement of the new arena has already captured the attention of everyone in the hockey community. We have a great relationship with Des Moines Youth Hockey Association,” said Teut. “It’s no secret that Des Moines needs more sheets of ice in order to grow the numbers in youth hockey. The addition of our new facility would not only allow youth numbers to grow, but also expose the community to new programs and more tournaments, that would most certainly be a chain reaction to hockey growth in the region.”
The new arena is already making significant progress, and while all major construction projects come with their own unique form of constant uncertainty, the team feels confident in the plans it has this year.
“We’re pretty far along at this point,” said Devlin. “I think we have a terrific location situated right at the mall, so there’ll be all sorts of amenities right there. All of the municipalities have been exceptional to work with, Urbandale, Des Moines, Polk County and our State representatives have been very supportive.
“If all continues to go as planned, we could begin construction this summer and complete the main arena in time to open our 2022-23 season there and we’ll be ready to light the lamp.”
Buccaneer Arena played host to four Clark Cup championships, four Anderson Cup championships and two Gold Cups, has been home to more than 35 future NHL players, and has seen hundreds of thousands of fans pass through the concession area at the front of the arena, just above the coach locker rooms.
It’s an immense legacy to consider, as the dust sets on possibly the final season inside the 40-year-old rink.
But the Buccaneers are looking to build something larger than that legacy. There are new championship banners to be hung, future players looking to put on the traditional Des Moines red, white and blue, even more college and NHL scouts to host, and most importantly, young boys and girls and in the stands falling in love with their new favorite sport.
Des Moines has built it, and they will continue to come.