It's the longest road trip of the season for the Tri-City Storm of the U.S. Hockey League.
Ryan Dingle has made the 13-hour bus ride three times since arriving in Kearney, Neb.
He knows that though the familiar seats of the team bus seem comfortable as the trip begins, as the miles pile up across the seemingly never-ending plains of Nebraska and Iowa en route to Green Bay, Wis., Dingle admits the ride can become confining.
Dingle and his teammates long to get out of the seats as the journey cuts across the corner of Illinois before rumbling into Wisconsin and continuing north to its final destination -- the Resch Center, home of the Green Bay Gamblers.
But despite the stress of the long trip, Dingle insists there is no other place in the world he'd rather be.
"The road trips are crazy sometimes," Dingle said. "But this is what I've wanted for as long as I can remember, the chance to play hockey at this level."
Dingle, who has been sitting on the bench most of this season recovering from a series of injuries, doesn't get paid to play in the U.S. Hockey League, which has elite-level junior teams across the Midwest. He gets a place to live and some money to cover expenses. But the real payoff for the 19-year-old comes in experience and exposure.
The league, which is limited to players younger than 20, was formed to give the nation's top juniors a place to grow and develop as they prepare for college or the National Hockey League. Dingle has been recruited to play for the University of Denver's hockey program next fall.
"We get about 4,500 fans for our games," Dingle said. "There are a lot of good players in the league who are hoping to get noticed by college or professional scouts."
For Dingle, the league is the best way for him to make the next big step in his hockey career. Dingle started playing the game when he was 4 and has been pursuing a dream of playing in the NHL since.
Although he's considering a business major at DU, he would rather focus on hockey. Dingle played hockey in Steamboat from eighth grade through his sophomore year in high school. He left for Vail after his sophomore year to play with a AAA midget team there.
After high school, Dingle headed to the USHL, where he played his first season with a team in Des Moines, Iowa. He was traded in the middle of his second season to the team in Kearney.
As a forward, Dingle recorded seven goals and had 10 assists in his first season. He came to life in his second year, netting 23 goals and 23 assists between Des Moines and Kearney.
He was named the Tri-City Storm's captain at the start of this season, but a broken jaw kept him off the ice early this season. He returned to the ice and scored one goal and an assist in four games, but he is back on the bench with a knee injury.
"It's pretty rough at times," Dingle said.
Dingle is learning to use his quickness and speed, instead of getting physical, to beat much larger defensive players. That will be important for a forward who is 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds.
While Dingle has been waiting to get back onto the ice, his team has garnered a 7-2-1 record and is at the top of the West Division, three points ahead of Sioux City, which has a 6-3-0 mark.
Dingle said he would have to sit out the next three weeks but is hoping to get back on the ice before Thanksgiving. With a 60-game schedule, there will be plenty of hockey -- and long bus rides -- left before the end of the season.
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