Often you’ll hear that the nicest gifts come in small boxes. Although this term usually applies to fine jewelry, the thought can just as easily apply to the Ice Box where the United States Hockey League’s Lincoln Stars play. Located on the Nebraska State Fairgrounds, the facility is also known as the Coliseum — host to horse shows during the State Fair. As you arrive, you can’t help but get the impression that this is, indeed, is little more than an unassuming box.Year Opened: Early 1950s
Capacity: 4,600 (hockey)
Suites: Galaxy Club and three corner skyboxes
Owner: Nebraska State Fair
Architect: Ayars & Ayars (Galaxy Club renovation)
Web Site: lincolnstars.com
Anchor Tenant: Lincoln Stars (USHL)
Parking: Plenty of free parking is available in the area throughout the Nebraska State Fairgrounds.
Directions: Take the 27th Street exit #403 toward State Fair Park for 0.12 miles. Turn left onto North 27th Street for 3.34 miles. Turn left onto Theresa St. for 0.07 miles. Turn right onto State Fair Park Drive for 0.14 miles.
By Jim Robins
Often you’ll hear that the nicest gifts come in small boxes. Although this term usually applies to fine jewelry, the thought can just as easily apply to the Ice Box where the United States Hockey League’s Lincoln Stars play. Located on the Nebraska State Fairgrounds, the facility is also known as the Coliseum — host to horse shows during the State Fair. As you arrive, you can’t help but get the impression that this is, indeed, is little more than an unassuming box.
As it turns out, within the Ice Box you will find a small jewel. Even Stars President Jim Pflug sees it that way. "It isn’t much to look at, but it changes personality when it fills up," he said.
The place can hold 4,600, but actual seating appears to be slightly less. A series of changes since the Stars arrived in 1996 have seen arena capacity increase from 4,200 to 5,000, and then scaled back to 4,600. While the Stars had some capacity crowds after a $4-million first-phase renovation that included new ice-making, improved lighting and sound and expanding capacity to 5,000, some dissatisfaction was expressed with the most-distant seats behind the goal.
Having realized that those original seating changes were flawed, the Stars’ front office reacted quickly and showed why this franchise ranks among the most-respected in minor-league hockey. At a cost of around $500,000, the Stars sacrificed about marginal 400 seats and put in the extremely popular and spacious Galaxy Club featuring a full bar and dedicated restrooms. Priced at $21-25 per person a game, the Galaxy Club accommodates 160 and sells out on a season-ticket basis every year. About $1 million additional spent on other seating improvements brings the total renovation price tag to around $6 million since the late 1990s.
The Galaxy Club is not the only feature that makes the Ice Box a jewel. The old adage, "there’s not a lousy seat in the house," really does apply to the cozy confines of the Ice Box. Despite its age, you’ll find virtually no obstructions. In the corners, most of the seats are angled nicely toward center ice.
The concession stand options are amazingly varied, reasonably priced and interesting, and you’ll have no problem finding the beverage of your choice. Head over to the Igloo Brew where you’ll find no less than 18 kinds of hard liquors, only to be outdone by the 19 beers, hard lemonades and NAs offered there. You can try a Sol cerveza, or Ketel One if you’re looking for fine vodka.
Some of the concession areas are shoe-horned in, but that’s not surprising considering the challenges presented in any older venue. "There’s not a lot of wasted space," Stars President Pflug commented.
About half of the games sold out last year. Early-season attendance invariably suffers, especially on Friday nights when high school football competes for recreational attention. But the Stars put on a great show, even before the game when the first-class light show and live introductions get the crowd revved up. The locals take their seats early and never tire of the pre-game festivities. The crowd is pretty interesting. Some of the knowledgeable older gentlemen probably have been watching hockey since the Ice Box was built more than a half-century ago. The crowd is generally young, with a surprising number of young families in attendance.
Even on an early-season Friday night when we found a goodly number of open seats, the crowd was exuberant. It might have helped that the first slugfest came less than two minutes into the game resulting in two major fighting penalties – not at all unheard of in USHL action. Sioux City seemed to get the best of the battle, skating to a three-goal lead before the first intermission and then holding on for a road win.
The crowd kept its enthusiasm despite the deficit. The Ice Box appropriately features some cute sayings posted over the aisles, such as: "A lube job… for your vocal cords," and "This ain’t tennis… you’re welcome."
The price of admission to this older facility is reasonable, held down somewhat by the lack of Ticketmaster charges. The only ways to get tickets are in person or by phone (ticket prices are not even listed on the team website). That’s OK, though, because you are most likely going have the opportunity to talk to Micki Buhrmann, the personable and capable director of ticket operations for the Stars. By the way, season-ticket prices had held steady for six straight years. The price finally went up by two bits per ticket this year, a direct result of higher costs associated with city annexation of the arena.
Some relatively minor arena improvements to the aging Ice Box appear likely to come soon. The Stars have a long-term lease with the Nebraska State Fair, and manage a fairly busy ice-time schedule. A recently completed state fair facilities master plan calls for $900,000 in improvements to restrooms, concessions and other (unnamed) public spaces.
Despite its rare qualities, the idea of replacing the old Ice Box with a modern, downtown facility has been broached by city leaders. Naturally, Jim Pflug isn’t about to readily dismiss the thought. On the other hand, the Stars president can’t help but be a little wary of changing a winning formula.
"We would be cautious… Trying to recreate (the atmosphere of the Ice Box) somewhere else would be a risk," Pflug said.