On a mid-September afternoon with temperatures reaching the low 90s outside, a dozen or more young hockey players for the Des Moines Buccaneers who have traveled from as far away as New York, California and Michigan are working up a sweat inside 95KGGO Arena (formerly known as Buccaneer Arena) as indicated by the sight of their breaths hanging in the cool, refrigerated air as the Buccaneers’ new coach and general manager Jon Rogger leads them through drills at both ends of the ice.
It is one of several important practices being held just days before the Buccaneers’ first preseason games, and Rogger, who left Green Bay five months ago to coach in Des Moines, has little time to decide upon his roster of 23 players, which means cutting six players who are in camp and making critical decisions about the team that will compete at the upcoming United States Hockey League Fall Classic event in Sioux City, a preseason showcase and league-wide family reunion attended by collegiate and professional scouts.
“It’s too early to tell what kind of expectations to have for this team,” says 35-year-old Rogger, who joined the Green Bay Gamblers in 2008 and helped turn that franchise into a consistent championship contender. “It will be interesting to see where the rookies stack up and how quickly they can make an impact.”
If the preseason Fall Classic is any indication of things to come, fans need only to be reminded of the success Rogger’s former team had last year as Green Bay went 3-0 at the Fall Classic, setting the tone for their Anderson and Clark Cup season. Regardless of the Buccaneers’ success at the tournament, however, Rogger is certain that he has made the right move in joining the team and hopes to build upon its storied history, he says.
“The coaching staff and players at Green Bay were awesome. But when this opportunity came up, I couldn’t pass it up,” says Rogger. “I had coached games here the last few years and knew guys who played here, and I knew Des Moines had a great history in hockey. It’s a great atmosphere, and the fans are loyal and they know hockey. I’m excited for the season to get started.”
Rogger, a St. Louis native, became the Buccaneers’ 10th person to be named head coach of the team when he accepted their offer in May. This marks his first full season as a head coach at the United States Hockey League (USHL) level, but it is far from being his first time on the bench of a Junior A franchise.
He played Junior A hockey for the Danville Wings in Illinois as part of the North American Hockey League and followed that with four years as a forward at Division I Ferris State where he played in 95 games. After college, Rogger began his coaching career working as an assistant coach with the NAHL’s St. Louis Bandits and was a member of their 2007-2008 Robertson Cup championship team coaching staff.
In 2008, he made the move up to the USHL with Green Bay. During his time in Wisconsin, he worked under three different head coaches but maintained a continuity that allowed the Gamblers to become a USHL powerhouse. During his short tenure there, Green Bay won three Anderson Cups and two Clark Cups.
“I’m excited to bring some of the things that I used in Green Bay to a new team,” says Rogger, who called the returning players before he arrived in town and drafted about 13 new players for this season. “I’m ready to go.”
The 2012-2013 season marks the franchise’s 33rd consecutive year of competing in the USHL. Since 1980, the Buccaneers have produced hundreds of NCAA Division I players and dozens of professional alumni. A Tier 1 junior ice hockey team that has been playing in the West Division since 2009, the Buccaneers have won four Anderson Cup championships (1993-95 and 1997-99) and four Clark Cup championships (1991-92, 1995-96, 1998-99 and 2005-06).
The team has also had many players continue to play hockey in college and the pros after completing their USHL careers in Des Moines. They include Scott Clemmensen, a Des Moines native who played for the Buccaneers before going to Boston College to play NCAA Division I hockey and later played professionally for the New Jersey Devils and now for the Florida Panthers, as well as Kyle Okposo, who played on the 2005-06 Clark Cup championship team prior to playing for the University of Minnesota and is now playing for the New York Islanders.
“The Bucs have had some great players over the years and even though we have some holes to fill this year, which I would call a rebuilding year, there are some players who will play big roles on this team,” says Rogger.
Putting a winning team on ice is only part of the equation when it comes to selling hockey in Des Moines, says Scott Montesano, director of communications and radio broadcaster for the team. He says fans are loyal because they not only get to watch good teams, but because they can count on having a good time at the local ice arena.
“The tradition was built here in the 1990s when we had some great teams, and over the years people have discovered that going to a Bucs game is an affordable, good time. It’s a way to spend a Friday or Saturday night wearing your bluejeans and drinking a beer and having a good time,” he says. “We’re selling the fun and the atmosphere of it all.”
Sold-out or near-capacity crowds are a common occurrence at 95KGGO Arena, which holds about 3,700 people. The multi-purpose arena, which also was home to former hockey teams like the Des Moines Oak Leafs and Des Moines Capitols, was built in 1961 and is often referred to by fans as the “Madhouse on Hickman” or simply, “The Barn.”
“It’s got a lot of hockey seeped into its concrete,” says Montesano of “The Barn.” “You walk through the halls, and you can smell hockey.”
Montesano says that fans also respond to the team’s image of being a “mom and pop operation.”
“A lot of money has been put into renovations of the building,” he says. “Since 2008, they’ve added stadium seating, a lounge, new glass, new sound system, new scoreboard and new paint, and they’ve done it without asking for a single cent of local government money.”
Montesano says that renovations will continue for another two to three years, and that when they are completed they hope that fans will appreciate how they retained the original vibe of building while adding modern amenities.
“If you like to have fun, then you want to be here with your friends and family. We’re not just selling hockey; we’re selling a good time,” he says.
Rogger agrees with Montesano, acknowledging the home crowd and arena as factors in the games.
“A lot of teams have updated their rinks, but this place is special because it’s been around a long time and the fans are on top of you and the ceiling is low. It gets loud in here,” he says.