KEARNEY — There are no plans to move the Tri-City Storm out of Kearney, according to the new owners. In fact, they want to grow the hockey presence in south-central Nebraska.
As reported Friday afternoon by the Kearney Hub, Storm owner Kirk Brooks has sold a majority stake in the team, ending his 10-year tenure as the sole owner.
Besides the majority stake in the Storm, Brooks also sold complete control of the Viaero Center to a group of investors.
Dave Vennetti of Chicago is the majority owner of the new group while Mark Jalcovik of Frankfort, Ill., is the managing partner. Douglas Sharfstein, Andrew Bloomer and Stan Bowman also are part of the new ownership group of the Storm and Viaero Center. Chris McCormick has an ownership stake only in the Viaero Center.
“We had a family (manufacturing) business for 28 years with a majority interest and hockey has been a passion,” Vennetti said about his family. “This came along, and we wanted to get involved in hockey at a higher level.
“The town (Kearney) seems like an exciting place to help grow what Kirk has built. We want to grow it and continue to do what he’s been doing.”
Bowman is a familiar name in the hockey community. He brings extensive experience as the vice president and general manager of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.
Vennetti said, “There is no better name or family name than Stan’s and his family.”
This marks the fourth different ownership group for the Storm in the team’s 19-year history in Kearney.
The change in ownership of the Viaero Center was effective June 1. The sale of the Storm still is pending league approval and the new ownership group hopes it will be approved by the USHL in the next two weeks.
Details of the agreement were not disclosed. Numerous attempts to reach the USHL were unreturned.
The new ownership group confirmed they plan to keep the team in Kearney, Vennetti said.
Jalcovik said they are invested in the city and hope to build the hockey culture from the youth level to the Storm, who play in the top junior hockey league in the United States. The new owners also want to build the Viaero Center into a social destination for south-central Nebraska through concerts, hockey and other events.
“As a whole, from the hockey and the event center, we were drawn to Kearney,” Jalcovik said. “We saw the potential and opportunities that’s there to kind of revive the community to come back out and fill the seats and provide entertainment for the entire community.”
The Storm last year posted their greatest season in team history.
They tallied 45 regular-season victories to win their second-ever Anderson Cup. They advanced to the Western Conference Final where they lost to eventual Clark Cup champion Sioux Falls. The Storm scored a team-high 232 goals, won five league individial awards, including the coach and three players, and could have at least five players selected in this month’s NHL draft.
Brooks said the new ownership group expressed interest in the Storm and Viaero Center back in August.
Vennetti said they didn’t want to interrupt the season and performance on the ice and opted to wait until after the season to take control of the team and arena.
“We’ve been moving towards this, but we just wanted to get our team in order and understand how the organization was running,” Vennetti said. “We want everyone to understand that the development of the players and the way they’ve been producing players will continue.”
Brooks of Las Vegas purchased the team in April 2009. He owns numerous businesses in Las Vegas, and after 10 years, felt it was best for him to find investors for the Storm and Viaero Center. Vennetti said Brooks will maintain control of the Storm hockey operations for the next two years because of his experience and success in the USHL.
Brooks said the entire hockey operations staff will remain in place, including President Steve Lowe and head coach Anthony Noreen, who both recently signed long-term contracts.
“It’s been 10 years, and I think I did about all I could do,” Brooks said. “I wanted someone else to take a swing at it. I just felt it was time. If I am devoting more time to my businesses here in Vegas, that means I have less time to devote to the Viaero Center.”
The new ownership group already has started making changes. They have hired Mike Lucas of Illinois as the general manager of the Viaero Center. He is married and has a 9-year-old son but will live in Kearney.
Lucas has spent the last 16 years working for the Windy City ThunderBolts, which is a professional baseball team in the Frontier League and located in Chicago. He most recently served as the ThunderBolts’ general manager.
“I got my start in the East Coast Hockey League with the Peoria Rivermen,” Lucas said. “For me, I always wanted to get back into hockey, but I had a long stay in baseball in between. I really enjoy hockey. I’m deeply ingrained in sales, I enjoy selling the product and building communities around the arena.”
Lucas started as the director of media relations for the ThunderBolts before working his way into the general manager role, which he held for the last nine years. Lucas said he handled all facets of the organization from sales, payroll, human resources and accounting.
Lucas’ first day at the Viaero Center was May 23. He assumed full responsibility as the Viaero Center general manager on May 28.
He wants to attract local fans and tourists for Storm games, concerts and other events at the Viaero Center. He believes building an attractive fan environment will be key for growing the interest in the Viaero Center.
“From what I can see in a short time being responsible for that side of it, there didn’t seem to be that much of an effort on the ticket side,” Lucas said. “It’s a change of mindset and culture right now.
“It has nothing to do with what was done or who was there in the past, I just think we have to make an effort to get people out for Storm hockey and other events. We are going to try to make it as great a fan experience as possible.”