By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Most families keep their backyard games fairly simple – cornhole, horseshoes, bocce ball and the like. They may even have a basketball hoop for the kids.
Thomas Orr took things one step further. He built a hockey rink at his home in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Completed in 2012, the project was a “labor of love” for Orr, who uses the ice to share his passion for the game with his own children and other kids in the community.
“There’s just something great about hockey,” he says. “I think it’s the connections. There are so many great moments and opportunities to pass that passion on to the next generation.”
“I like other sports, too, but hockey has always been special to me.”
The University of Nebraska at Kearney faculty member started playing the game at age 3. He grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, and developed a connection with the University of North Dakota program as a youth.
His aunt, Jackie (Carlson) Aiken, played softball for UND and dated assistant men’s hockey coach Dennis Johnson, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1972.
“I had some really good access to the team,” said Orr, who still tells a story about his chat with former Pittsburgh Penguin Jay Caufield during his aunt’s wedding reception.
Orr never made it to the NHL, but he had a solid collegiate career at the club level.
After three years of junior hockey in Manitoba, Canada, and a “cup of coffee” with UND, where he earned a degree in history with a coaching minor, Orr enrolled at Indiana University Bloomington as a graduate student. He played three seasons for the Hoosiers, who compete in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), and one season for Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
Orr could have prolonged his playing career in Europe or the United States, but he was in his mid-20s, married and raising a young son.
“If you’ve seen that crime syndicate movie, where this Danbury team is owned by the mob and nobody is getting paid, that would have been the league I would have been in – one of the lowest levels of minor league hockey,” he joked, referencing a Netflix film about the Danbury Trashers.
Instead, he decided to remain in Bloomington to coach and pursue his doctoral degree. He served as an assistant for three seasons and was promoted to head coach in April 2008. Orr continued to coach and work as an adjunct faculty member at Indiana University until 2010, when he was hired by the University of Iowa, which planned to elevate its men’s hockey team from the ACHA to NCAA Division I.
“I think people know that didn’t work out,” he said with a laugh.
Orr spent the next year teaching at Indiana University as a visiting professor, then the family moved to Aberdeen. He was an assistant professor of sports marketing and administration and head of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Northern State University before accepting a job at UNK, where he’s an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences and coordinator of the sports management program.
GROWING THE GAME
Although UNK doesn’t have a club hockey team – that’s something Orr is working on – he’s still plenty involved in the sport.
Orr serves as the Midwest scout for Indiana University, and he evaluates and recruits players for several other collegiate, youth and amateur teams.
He also has an affiliation with the Boston Bruins through his role as director of Midwest camps for Pro Ambitions Hockey, which organizes youth development camps in North America and Europe. Orr directs camps for 8- to 18-year-olds in Omaha, North Dakota, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin each summer. He’s coached a camp with Tom Chorske, a Fox Sports analyst who won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, and his events have been attended by several future pros and first-round draft picks, including current Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel.
Orr considers himself a goodwill ambassador for the game.
“We’re trying to spread the NHL brand, the hockey brand and the Bruins brand all over the country,” he said.
In Kearney, he partners with the Tri-City Storm to offer youth development opportunities locally. He also officiates youth hockey events from North Dakota to Texas, operates his own consulting business and provides free advising for prospects and their families.
“I like to be busy,” Orr said with a smile. “It gives me something to do.”
Even when he’s not at a hockey arena, he still manages to find a way to bring up the sport.
“Those real-life experiences add an extra element to my classes and make them even more beneficial for the students,” said Orr, who teaches courses such as sports ethics, coaching methods and sports marketing.
Because of his connections, Orr’s students have worked on marketing projects for the Tri-City Storm and Pro Ambitions Hockey, something that looks good on a resume.
“There’s definitely a lot of value both ways,” he said.
Orr’s love of hockey extends to his own family, too.
His wife Matty was the first female to compete in the boys high school hockey tournament in North Dakota. She played at the University of Minnesota and University of North Dakota, where the couple met during one of her practices.
Their oldest child Lyndon, 18, played for the Colorado Springs Tigers, a AAA youth team, and recently signed on to play Junior A hockey in Saskatchewan, Canada. Daughter Jocelyn, 16, is a student and hockey player at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Matty still lives in Aberdeen with the three youngest children. Ellen is an eighth grader who already starts at goalie for the Aberdeen Cougars varsity team and Juliette plays on a 14-and-under team. Brekken is only 4, “but she loves hockey.”
“I taught her how to skate when she was 1,” Orr said.
What else would you expect from someone with a hockey rink in their backyard?