KEARNEY — With the third overall pick in May’s USHL Phase I draft, the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders drafted forward Cade Littler.
The 16-year-old was born in Kearney and his last name might spark memories for Tri-City Storm fans. His father, Bliss Littler, served as the Storm’s head coach and general manager for five years from 2003 to 2008.
The elder Littler guided the Storm to one of their best seasons in team history and posted a 164-108-28 record in his south-central Nebraska tenure. It was his longest stop in the USHL, as he also coached the Topeka ScareCrows for two years and the Omaha Lancers for four years.
Littler currently serves as the general manager of the Wenatchee Wild of the British Columbia Hockey League. He is eager to watch his son play in the USHL, whether that’s this year or in the future, especially since he has plenty of ties to the league.
"I spent 11 years in that league as a head coach, and I have a lot of respect for it," said Littler in a phone interview from Wenatchee, Washington. "I still stay in touch with a lot of coaches in that league and owners in that league. It’ll be pretty neat watching him, and hopefully, he keeps progressing."
Littler joined the Storm in the middle of the 2002-03 season. The Storm were in the midst of a 10-game losing streak in mid-December when then-general manager and head coach Jim Hillman resigned.
Storm owner Ted Baer originally interviewed Littler for the position when he was trying to start an expansion USHL team in Kearney. Baer planned on hiring Littler, but then he had to purchase the Twin City Vulcans and relocate them to Kearney instead, throwing a wrench in that plan, Littler recalls.
Hillman was the coach of the Vulcans, and when Baer moved the team to Kearney for the 2000-01 season, he kept him as the general manager and head coach. Hillman led the Vulcans to a Clark Cup appearance in the team’s final year in Minnesota.
Once Hillman resigned from the Storm, Baer turned to Littler, who was coaching the ScareCrows at the time.
The ScareCrows were experiencing an ownership change and were set to relocate to St. Louis after the 2002-03 season. Littler knew the new owners wanted Rick Zombo as the team’s general manager and head coach. That allowed Littler to pursue and accept the Storm vacancy.
"At that time, Tri-City was struggling to win games but they were selling out every night," Littler said. "It was one of the real special jobs in the USHL. I came in as a general manager in February and for the next two months basically recruited and evaluated the kids and staff that were there."
Littler was on the Storm’s bench in the fall of 2003 and guided the team to a remarkable season.
The Storm captured their first-ever Anderson Cup after posting a 43-12-5 record and 91 points. It marked the Storm’s second winning season in their four years of existence and eclipsed their franchise high of 27 victories set in their inaugural season in 2000-01.
That team still holds numerous team records, including the longest winning streak (10), goals scored in a season (225) and fewest goals against (138). The USHL named the Storm the organization of the year for the 2003-04 season.
The 2003-04 roster featured future NHL players Bill Thomas, Mark Van Guilder and Peter Mannino.
Mannino, who’s the current Des Moines head coach, and Eric Aarnio formed an elite goaltender duo. Mannino posted a 26-7-0 record with five shutouts and a league-best 2.11 goals against average, while Aarnio recorded a 17-5-2 mark with one shutout and a 2.23 goals against average, which ranked third in the USHL.
"The veteran players were excited to know that we had a really good chance to be a really good team, and I think in past they struggled in goal," Littler said. "I think knowing that they had two legitimate starters just gave everyone confidence. We were very offensive, and I think that was the case because we trusted our goaltending so much. We took a lot of chances and scored a lot of goals that year."
The Storm breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The magical season came to an end in the Clark Cup final, though. The Storm were the heavy favorites going into the championship series against the Waterloo Black Hawks, who went 30-27-3 in the regular season.
The Storm dropped the first two games, 3-2 and 4-1, and never recovered in the five-game series, losing in four games.
"Our goalie played good, but their goalie was outstanding," Littler said. "We gripped the sticks a little too tight. I think we were a pretty good favorite to win that. I thought we played pretty well. We just didn’t score."
The Storm made the division finals in 2004-05 despite finishing fourth in the division. They posted another winning season the following year, but then everything changed in the organization.
Baer sold the Storm to Joel Wiens on May 3, 2006. That decision altered the direction of the franchise. The Storm managed a second-place finish in the Western Conference with a 36-18-6 mark in 2006-07 but then posted the only losing season under Littler when they went 24-24-2 one year later.
The 2007-08 season was Littler’s last in Kearney. After the season, he resigned and accepted the head coaching position with the Omaha Lancers.
"We were selling out, the kids were treated probably the best they were treated in the league, the billets were amazing. It was truly one of the special places," said Littler of the team before the ownership change. "The ownership changed and immediately there was a falling out.
"He also owned the building. He bought the building and pretty much forced Ted to sell him the team. At that point, it really turned off a lot of people on how the transition went. We lost 1,200 season ticket holders that year. The players weren’t treated nearly as well. At the time the Omaha Lancers were probably looked at as the premier franchise in all of junior hockey."
Littler coached the Lancers for parts of four seasons. He then became the head coach and general manager of the Wild, who initially were in the North America Hockey League before moving to the BCHL in 2015.
He stepped down as the Wild’s head coach in December, citing personal health concerns. Before stepping down, he "went through a good stretch — a couple of months — where I was only getting two or three hours of rest at night," he said.
Littler’s health is better now, and he would consider coaching again in the future, he said.
In his 26 years as a head coach, Littler holds an 836-450-144 record and a .635 winning percentage. He is the winningest coach in U.S. Tier I and Tier II junior hockey history.
"It means that I am getting old," Littler said. "I was fortunate that in my 26 years as a head coach I’ve mostly worked with outstanding owners. Really, that’s where it starts. If you have a good owner, you have a chance. You have to really have good billets, good relationships with the schools and a good relationship with the building you play in. If you have those things, you have a chance to have a really good program."
Littler lives with his wife, Gretchen, and their two children, Cade and 13-year-old daughter, Grace, in Wenatchee, which is a town of about 35,000 people in the north-central part of Washington at the foothills of the Cascade Range.
Littler remembers his time in Kearney fondly. He regularly checks the USHL results and remains in contact with individuals in Kearney, including former Storm President Greg Shea and team bus driver Bob Haller, he said.
"It was five of my best years," Littler said. "I wouldn’t trade those five years for anything. Both my kids were born there. I absolutely loved it. If Ted Baer owned the team, I might still be there. We really liked the people there and the community. It was a great fit for us. As a coach, if you get five years at a place, that’s pretty awesome."