United States Hockey League regular season and postseason championships, and during the Gold Cup era, a handful of Junior A national titles help make the team’s past sparkle. Last minute playoff goals, rousing individual achievements, superb coaching and memorable rivalries are embedded into the minds of those associated with the franchise since its optimistic berth during an era that seems so long ago.
The Metro Ice Sports Arena (now called Buccaneer Arena) had already existed for a couple decades when September 1979 rolled around and the facility was showing its age. It had been a few years since the arena last had a regular tenant and while professional minor league hockey had called the arena home throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Des Moines was off the radar of organized hockey at this point. Nonetheless, the facility was able to snag a preseason National Hockey League exhibition featuring the St. Louis Blues and the U.S. Olympic team which was starting its own tour. By now everyone knows where the U.S. Olympic team finished that following February and in many ways the seeds of that Gold Medal were sewn at the Metro Ice Sports Arena, however, the seeds of the Buccaneers were also planted.
Hockey enthusiasts in the area were hopeful the game would attract another franchise for the arena and help save the sport in the region as interest had fallen off greatly since pro hockey’s departure. Upon asking for his own suggestions, Olympic coach Herb Brooks recommended the area start a junior team to serve as a regular tenant for the facility and help fuel the slowly dying youth hockey program. Brooks himself had seen the effects of junior hockey and its potential for growth having brought several players from the St. Paul Vulcans to his Minnesota teams in the 1970s.
With Brooks’ advice local hockey parents and community supporters went to work and on Valentine’s Day February 15th, 1980, area hockey fans received a gift better than any heart-shaped candy box…the announcement of the formation of the Des Moines Buccaneers, and the team has played continually every since. While Central Iowa has seen a host of other sports entities in the region fail since that day, the Bucs continue on as the USHL’s third oldest franchise.
In that first season, the Bucs finished second in the South Division with a 23-25-0 record, led by Steve Palmisno’s 91 pts (47 goals).
However on-ice success mostly eluded the Bucs in the 1980s with only two seasons in which the team finished over .500%. One of those seasons was 1987-1988 when Des Moines ended the year one game over .500% and featured Bob Nardella who led the USHL with 111pts, a franchise record that stands to this day. Nardella went onto play at Ferris State before enjoying a long career in the minor leagues that didn’t end until 2006 with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
1983 saw the first ever Buccaneer draft pick when Jamie Husgen was selected in the 12thround by the Winnipeg Jets and though his career fizzled in the AHL by 1989, he still has a place in the team record books as the first alumni selected by a major league organization.
In 1986, goaltender John Blue was selected in the 10thround by Winnipeg after three seasons at the University of Minnesota that was preceded by a season with the Bucs. He would eventually play 46 games in the NHL, mostly with the Boston Bruins, starting in 1992 and will go down as the first player in franchise history to make it to the “show”.
That said, Blue wasn’t the only person with Buccaneers’ ties in the 1980s to go all the way. Jim Wiley was the head coach from 1984-1990 and helped to cultivate the franchise through its early seasons. He continued his coaching career mainly in the minor leagues but did get a chance in the NHL serving as a midseason replacement behind the San Jose Sharks’ bench during the 1995-1996 season.
In addition, Steve Carroll, the team’s first ever radio announcer from 1980-1985 finally reached the NHL in 1999 when he became the radio voice of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, a position he still holds today.
Nevertheless, all these pockets of success would pale in comparison to the glory years that awaited the team in the 1990s, a decade characterized by a fierce rivalry with the Omaha Lancers, long winning streaks and a chest load of championships. All the while the Metro Ice Sports Arena was filled to the ceiling with adoring fans.
This is when the Buccaneers’ exploded and it started in the summer of 1990 when the Bucs hired Bob Ferguson as the team’s newest head coach. Ferguson, or “Fergie” as many fans would later come to call him, was already a successful USHL coach having guided the Sioux City Musketeers from 1981-1990, winning two Clark Cups and one Gold Cup, a winning tradition he would carry this over to Des Moines.
He also would carry over a preseason tradition that the USHL continues to this day.
While in Sioux City, Ferguson assembled a preseason exhibition tournament dubbed the “Corn Bowl” and when he moved to the Buccaneers he brought along this tournament that would now fall under the name of the “Buc Bowl”. It’s a tradition the USHL has had ever since, though it has now returned to Sioux City in later seasons.
Under Ferguson’s – and later Scott Owens'- leadership the Bucs became a powerhouse in the 1990s winning a total of 383 regular season games. In Ferguson’s first season the Bucs showed signs of promise winning 28 games while Todd Sullivan finished with a .919% save percentage in goal. The team was also paced by Marc Boxer’s 66pts. Boxer has since continued his connection to junior hockey serving as USA Hockey’s manager of youth and junior hockey for the last few years.
Then came 1992, the breakthrough season for the Bucs who went 35-11-2 and finished only one point behind Thunder Bay for the Anderson Cup. However, it would be the Bucs laughing last as they would go on to win the Clark Cup for the first time in team history, taking the championship in the dramatic fashion that was a trademark of the decade.
Randy Hankinson’s overtime goal in the decisive fifth game of the championship series against Dubuque brought the Clark Cup to Des Moines for the first time. The Bucs then rode that momentum to winning the USA Junior A National Tournament (i.e. Gold Cup) two weeks later in Omaha. The Bucs rotated two strong goaltenders in net to win the titles as Paul Sass and Kevin Deschambeault backstopped the team to victory. Sass went onto spend three seasons at Lake Superior State, while Deschambeault played at Miami of Ohio and then briefly in the minor leagues.
The team also featured another goaltender named Jeff Blashill who played in 10 games (and another 51 over the next two seasons) and has since moved onto coaching and is currently in his second season as the head coach at Western Michigan University.
Offensively Jamie Adams and Pat Miskesch provided the scoring punch.
The 1992-1993 season brought another second place finish, this time behind Omaha, but there wasn’t a postseason run in the cards for Des Moines despite Bobby Clouston’s 76pts (26 goals).
Then in 1993-1994 the Buccaneers finally achieved that elusive first Anderson Cup outlasting Waterloo by four points. Again, the Bucs would fail to continue the momentum, falling in the playoffs, but they had that first regular season title led by players such as Brad Frattaroli, who eventually came back to serve as a Bucs’ assistant coach a decade later. The season also saw the emergence of Reggie Berg who began his two year Bucs’ career with 37 pts. Berg would go onto the University of Minnesota then play minor-pro hockey for a number of seasons.
Buccaneer fans were also at the forefront in 1994 as the franchise and the arena were selected to host that year’s Gold Cup Tournament. A regional televised broadcast showcased the Buccaneers’, their fans, their arena and Junior A hockey with the tournament eventually being won by the Compuware Ambassador’s out of Detroit and the North American Hockey League.
1994-1995 would be Ferguson’s final season with the Bucs on his first tour with the franchise and he definitely made this last call count, leading the franchise to what locales affectionately refer to as the “Triple Crown” season. The Bucs went 38-5-5 as they ran away with the Anderson Cup and after a couple postseason victories were set to face their nemesis the Omaha Lancers in the Clark Cup Finals. A team as equally as dominate throughout the 1990s as the Bucs, the Lancers would give Des Moines a sizeable road block but at the same time even more reason to remember the season. Despite just five losses during the regular season, the Bucs would do anything but cruise through the final round of the Clark Cup playoffs.
Trailing in the series, and facing elimination in Game Four in Omaha, the Bucs rattled off an amazing five unanswered goals to force a fifth game which Des Moines would win in comeback fashion earning the franchise’s second Clark Cup.
The Bucs’ magical run wasn’t done there as the memories only grew at the Gold Cup Tournament in Detroit that season.
In the semi-final game, Geoff Bennetts pushed the Bucs into the final with a double overtime goal to beat Dubuque. Bennetts went onto continue his career at Ferris State the following season.
The drama of the semi-final would amazingly be topped by what would then happen in the Gold Cup Final as once again Omaha provided the competition. Trailing by one goal in the final minute of regulation, Reggie Berg forced overtime with a heart-stopping goal and then in the extra session, Trevor Rosen put an end to the game, and capped the amazing season, when he buried the puck. Its a moment most Bucs’ fans still remember vividly and clearly. If they weren’t there in person they remembered the moment on radio and where they were when Rosen finished off the “Triple Crown” season.
Ferguson left the team after that season, lured away by minor league hockey and he would prove to be just as successful in the East Coast Hockey League helping to build not only a team but a fan base for the Fort Myers based Florida Everblades. To this day, the Everblades are routinely an ECHL powerhouse both on and off the ice and Ferguson’s tutelage in those first few seasons are the key. His first post-Buccaneers’ job was actually three seasons in Indianapolis coaching the International Hockey League franchise there. At the time, the IHL was considered by many the second best professional league around.
Scott Owens would take the reins from Ferguson and it didn’t take long for the Buccaneers to return to the top winning the Anderson Cup and the Gold Cup in Billings, MT in 1998. In net, Bob Revermann led all USHL goaltenders with a miniscule 1.61 GAA and Peter Fregoe netted 31 goals.
The following season, the Bucs lost just seven games en route to yet another Anderson Cup title, followed by yet another Clark Cup championship. The Bucs went through a 19-game winning streak that still stands as a USHL record. Eventually the Bucs fell in the National Tournament to the Compuware team once again in what would prove to be the Bucs last visit to that event. The Gold Cup was soon discontinued with the USHL’s move up to Tier I status, separating itself from the North American and America West Leagues. Once the NAHL and AWHL merged shortly after the USHL’s move, USA Hockey stopped calling the winner the “Gold Cup” champion, though a Tier II Junior “A” champion is still crowned.
All in all, the Bucs put together an impressive resume in the decade with two Gold Cups, hosting one National Tournament, taking four Anderson Cups and another three Clark Cups. The 1990s featured a number of memorable names and a few who went onto careers in the NHL. Goaltender Scott Clemmensen was a product of the Des Moines youth hockey program and eventually became the Bucs’ goaltender in the mid 1990s. In just about two years he went from being a backup on the Capitols’ high school program to the Bucs starter and he parlayed his success into a collegiate scholarship, a Frozen Four title and a spot in the NHL where he still plays today.
Names such as Erik Cole, Peter Sejna, Noah Clarke and a host of others became recognizable throughout the area with many seeing at least some time in the NHL. Cole in fact earned a spot on the Stanley Cup as one of the Carolina Hurricanes stars during the championship run in the spring of 2006. Goaltender Marc Magliardi who helped backstop the team to its 1995 Triple Crown was eventually drafted by Chicago and though he never played in the NHL, he reconnected with his head coach, joining Ferguson in Fort Myers for a time.
Behind the bench Owens made his own name after working away from Ferguson’s shadow and is now behind the bench at Colorado College. His 146 career victories rank second only to Ferguson in team history.
All the while fans developed rivalries through the close-knit USHL which saw only a few changes during the decade. Fans came to expect seeing the Dubuque Fighting Saints, the North Iowa Huskies, the Madison Capitols, the St. Paul Vulcans and of course the rough and tough Thunder Bay Flyers. The USHL wasn’t the professional operation it is today, but at the same time it was nowhere near as fan friendly. Teams were run on shoestring budgets and many playing is dilapidated facilities with no fan bases. What helped make the Buccaneers as strong as they were was the people behind the scenes who ran the team as a not-for-profit entity but gave the façade of a professional operation.
The Bucs were one of the first teams to introduce promotions, a flashy lightshow, a website and more to the USHL. For visiting teams, coming to Des Moines meant playing in front of 3,000 fans and an atmosphere only a few others could duplicate.
As the 1990s morphed into the 21stcentury, the USHL was changing and the Buccaneers would have to follow suit. The USHL’s move to a Tier I status early in the decade topped off what was a fundamental shift in the league to operate like most professional leagues with full-time staffs and promotions as a key to survival. Places such as Mason City, IA and Dubuque, IA lost their franchises while communities such as Kearney, NE and Sioux Falls, SD entered the league. While the USHL was stable throughout the 1990s, the early part of the 21stcentury saw the league crisscrossing the Midwest trying to find better cities as towns popped up like kernels of corn. The hockey neophyte city of Topeka, KS was on board shortly, as were Tulsa, OK, Chesterfield, MO (outside St. Louis) and Danville, IL.
All the while the Buccaneers adapted, eventually moving to a private ownership structure soon after the Tier I move, a set-up that remains in place today. At the time of the move, the Buccaneers remained the only Junior A not-for-profit operation, a feat that wasn’t common in the 1980s let alone in the 2000s.
On the ice, success wasn’t as grand for the Bucs after the 1990s, as the USHL saw a move to greater parity. Between expansion, better operations, better recruiting and better coaching, the USHL was a much harder place to dominate as it had been in the 1990s. Still, the Bucs continued to make the playoffs year after year. Tom Carroll followed Steve Owens behind the bench for 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons before Bob Ferguson made his return to the Buccaneers’ bench.
Ferguson would coach another three and half seasons, finishing with 261 victories in his Bucs’ career.
The 2005-2006 season will always go down as a pivotal point in Buccaneers’ history. Led by highly touted Kyle Okposo and USA Junior A player of the year and future Los Angeles King Trevor Lewis, the Bucs returned the franchise back to the top of the USHL. All the while, giving the franchise as sizeable jolt against an outside competitor. After years of talk dating back to the late 1990s, the city of Des Moines finally opened a new 14,000 seat downtown arena and had successfully lured the Dallas Stars’ American Hockey League affiliate to town. The Iowa Stars were to be the main tenant and a question that had been asked since the 1990s was going to be answered. “Could the Buccaneers survive with a pro hockey franchise downtown?”
Predictably attendance dipped, but not alarmingly so, and was no doubt helped by the fact the Bucs put together a 33-21-6 record and returned to the playoffs in 2005-2006 under former player Regg Simon. The Buccaneers then went onto win the 2006 Clark Cup in a thrilling five-game series against Sioux Falls which was won in South Dakota on a Monday night. The Bucs were back on top and while there is no tangible evidence to prove it, it can be argued that the championship reminded area sports fans the level of success the Bucs had over the years and the memories they provided.
In following seasons, the playoffs have eluded the Bucs but success has been found in other areas. As the USHL's status has grown, so have the level of player and the Bucs have seen a number of players reach the NHL in the last four seasons. All the while, most players who puts on a Bucs' uniform either comes to the team with a Division I scholarship or leaves with one.
On January 16, 2011, the Buccaneers became only the second USHL team to get to 800 all-time regular season victories. An overtime goal by Gasper Kopitar in the opening seconds of the extra session pushed the Bucs to that milestone win...just one of many milestones for the franchise.
Anderson Cup (regular season title)
Three - '93-'94, '97-'98, '98-'99
Clark Cups (playoff title)
Four - '91-'92, '94-'95, '98-'99, '05-'06
Gold Cup (defunct national tournament)
Two - 1992, 1998