Omaha-Lincoln hockey rivalry takes center stage at “Battles on Ice”

By Tom Schreier

Gage Hough - Omaha Lancers

Photo: Omaha native Gage Hough was the scoring hero for the hometown Omaha Lancers at the USHL "Battles on Ice" game (courtesy of Mitch Highman/mJoy Photography)

There is a new rivalry brewing in Nebraska.

No, it is not the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Iowa Hawkeyes, or the UNO Mavericks and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Rather, it is between the Omaha Lancers and the Lincoln Stars of the USHL.

What makes this rivalry unique is that it is between the two most populated cities in Nebraska. Right now, UNO’s football team wouldn’t stand a chance against Nebraska and the Huskers do not field an ice hockey team to compete against the Mavericks. So, really, it is the proximity between these two cities and good ol’ civic pride that fuels this junior hockey rivalry.

“I’d be lying if I said [the primary rival] was Tri-City,” says Lincoln coach Chad Johnson, referring to the Tri-City Storm, another USHL team based in Kearney, NE. “It is Omaha. It always has been.”

While Omaha and Lincoln are about an hour apart, Kearney is more than two hours away from both cities. It is also less populated. Omaha is the largest of the three cities, with 875,000 people in the metro area. Lincoln has a population of 300,000. Kearney has a mere 30,000 residents and nearby Lexington and Holdrege are even smaller.

To put that in perspective, when the Huskers hold a football game at Memorial Stadium (capacity: 81,000) there are nearly double the number of people at that game than there are living in the Tri-City area.

“I don’t think [Tri-City] has quite the population out there, as far as fan support,” said Johnson, when asked about the rivalry, or lack thereof between the Storm and Stars. “I just think Lincoln and Omaha battle in everything and it’s a love-hate type relationship.”

“A lot of people know about it,” says Omaha forward Robbie Baillargeon. “It kind of reminds me of certain areas back home in New England, the college hockey that I’ve seen, and with the Bruins and Montreal. Just two teams that every time they play it is going to be a great game.”

While the rivalry is acknowledged in the Cornhusker State, it may be overlooked nationwide. Despite its location in the Midwest, Nebraska has never been known for its hockey culture like Minnesota and Michigan have. In fact, there have only been two NHL players to come out of Nebraska: Johnny Matz, who played 30 games for the Montreal Canadiens in 1925, and journeyman Jed Ortmeyer who played 345 games for the Rangers, Predators, Sharks and Wild before hanging up the skates last year.

That all could change in the near future, however. Last weekend, Omaha hosted a two-game outdoor hockey event at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. The event, called "Battles on Ice", consisted of a Stars-Lancers matinee and a UNO-UND contest under the stars. “I’m starting to get emotional about this,” said Lancers coach Mike Aikens, stopping to gather himself, “but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these players.”

While college hockey had been played outdoors before, this was the first time two USHL teams had taken the ice al fresco.

There are five teams in Iowa that could have hosted the tournament. It could have easily been played between the Waterloo Black Hawks and Cedar Rapids Rough Riders, the Sioux City Musketeers and Sioux Falls (SD) Stampede or even the Chicago Steel and Green Bay Gamblers. All of those cities are located near each other and Chicago and Green Bay clearly have a strong football rivalry. But the USHL chose Lincoln and Omaha.

“I think it’s getting recognition now, slowly but surely,” says Johnson of hockey in Nebraska. “Of the six goals tonight, three of them were scored by Nebraska natives…so that’s a testament to where hockey in Nebraska is and the direction it’s headed right now.”

Lancers forward and Omaha native Gage Hough scored two goals in the contest, a 4-2 win for his club, and Will Suter, a Lincoln-born member of the Stars who grew up in Omaha, notched the final tally of the contest.

“Whether you’re from Omaha or not,” says Hough, “it’s always special to score like this.”

It is unlikely that Suter, 21, will make it to the NHL while Hough is 19 and remains undrafted. Still, to have two Nebraskans score in an outdoor game played in downtown Omaha, you have to think that it won’t be long before one of the city’s residents surpasses what Matz and Ortmeyer accomplished in the NHL. And better yet, maybe one day the CenturyLink Center (capacity: 17,000) across the street from TD Ameritrade Park will fill up for both Creighton basketball and UNO hockey games.

“Hopefully there were a lot of new fans here that were entertained by it,” says Johnson of the event, which drew 13,000 spectators. “You got Nebraska-Omaha fans, pretty passionate, you got North Dakota fans, pretty passionate, you got Lancer fans, very passionate and Lincoln Stars fans, extremely passionate.”

He stops to smile.

“You got a perfect storm for a good fanbase.”

Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter via @tschreier3