Tag Archives: hockey

An Omaha Hockey Legend in the Making

October 5, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Former UNO hockey star Jake Guentzel left school in 2016, after junior year, to pursue his dream of playing professionally. No one expected what happened next.

The boyish newcomer with the impish smile went from nondescript rookie wing prospect to elite scorer during two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League. Upon joining the parent Pittsburgh Penguins in November, he made an immediate splash. In his NHL debut, he scored a goal with his first shift. He followed with a goal on his third shift. Two shots—two goals.

By January, Guentzel secured a permanent seat in the NHL team’s locker room. The club showed faith, placing him on its top-scoring line alongside captain Sidney Crosby. The Crosby-Guentzel pairing proved pivotal in Pittsburgh’s second straight Stanley Cup win. Their team defeated Nashville four games to two in the finals.

Guentzel would make NHL playoffs history before hoisting the Stanley Cup overhead: His 13 postseason goals made him the first rookie to lead the NHL playoffs (five of those goals were game-winners); his 21 points tied the league rookie record for a postseason; and he became the second-ever rookie to score a hat trick in the playoffs.

UNO has produced several NHL players but Omaha hockey historian Gary Anderson says, “I don’t remember any who have had the same impact.”

Indeed, the Maverick who signed with Pittsburgh as a third-round, 2013 draft pick (77th overall) became the talk of the hockey world. He paired with future Hall of Famer Crosby to form a lethal scoring tandem on the NHL’s best team. He was in the running for playoffs MVP (Conn Smythe award) won by his superstar teammate.

His former coach at UNO, the recently retired Dean Blais, marvels at Guentzel’s exploits.

“It’s hard to explain,” Blais says. “I don’t think anyone would have forecast that. He played well in the American League, but he was up and down, and when that happens you don’t expect great things.”

Not from someone who would have been playing his senior year at UNO.

“Then he goes into Pittsburgh, has a pretty good season, and in the playoffs he’s a couple goals or points away from maybe winning the Conn Smythe. For Jake to step in and do that is pretty special,” Blais says.

Sharing it all was former UNO and current Penguins teammate Josh Archibald. They became the first Mavs to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Guentzel’s performance recalled what local icon Bob Gibson did as a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher in World Series competition half a century ago. Like Gibson, Guentzel is now an Omaha sports legend. The city has a legitimate claim on him, too. He was born in Omaha when his father coached the Omaha Lancers. His two older brothers, Ryan and Gabe, also played collegiately.

He’s the second Omaha native to reach the NHL (Jed Ortmeyer in 2003 was the first).

The local connection extends to Guentzel’s father assisting one season at UNO under Blais (in 2010-2011), while the younger Guentzel also helped lead UNO to its only Frozen Four in 2015.

Mere weeks removed from gaining hockey immortality with his improbable heroics, he unwinds from the spotlight with family in his other hometown of Woodbury, Minnesota.

“It’s hard to put into words what happened,” he says. “It was hard to soak it all in at some points. With each win, the media got more and more crazy. It was definitely a crazy journey.”

photo by Richard Gagnon, Omaha Athletics

Preparation meets success

Guentzel’s skill and mindset proved well-suited for hockey’s biggest stage.

Mike Kemp, UNO associate athletic director and former Mavericks coach, praises his “high hockey IQ.”

“What makes him a special player at the highest level is his ability to think his way around the ice,” Blais says. “His biggest asset is his playmaking ability and his ability to get to the net.”

Former UNO teammate Justin Parizek says Guentzel has long-mastered the mental aspects of the game: “He thinks the game really well. He’s always a couple steps ahead of the play.”

UNO hockey broadcaster Terry Leahy admires Guentzel’s pedigree: “He just knows the game, and that comes right from his father and his brothers. He was just built from the ground up. His dad had a huge influence on that. His two brothers were really good college hockey players.”

Parizek envies the extra push Guentzel got at home: “His whole childhood he was pushed trying to keep up with his older brothers. Keeping up with bigger, stronger guys gave him that competitive edge. His dad’s a really good coach, and having that 24-7 extra coach in his ear has given him insights into how he can do things better.”

Archibald says it’s no wonder Guentzel was ready to shine: “He’s been preparing his entire life for that moment. Everybody along the way has put their piece in with him, and he’s taken it all in.”

“He was definitely groomed well,” says another former UNO linemate, Austin Ortega.

Even Guentzel’s father, University of Minnesota associate head coach Mike Guentzel, says the moment is “never too big” for his son.

The rising star credits his family for giving him what he needed to excel. “They instilled ‘you gotta work every day.’ It definitely implanted in my brain,” Guentzel says.

He’s grateful they shared in his shining moments—from that memorable first NHL game to hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“It’s definitely a family thing. I realize all the sacrifice they put in for me over the years in everything they did. They’re always there for me,” he says.

Guentzel’s dad and siblings never got this far in hockey, but they’ve been with him each step of the journey.

“Whenever I need something, I can look up to them and realize they’ve been through similar situations over their hockey careers,” he says. “They’ve definitely been huge for me, and it’s definitely cool to share this with my family.”

When dreams come true

Growing up, Guentzel dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup, just like thousands of other kids.

“But to have it come true my first year in the NHL is definitely crazy. I mean, I never would have expected that. It’s pretty special,” he says.

Securing the championship against Nashville, he says, was “a night I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Archibald says the occasion of two Omaha hockey products being part of a title team didn’t escape them.

“For both of us to play together at UNO and then to take that next step together in Pittsburgh was a great experience,” Archibald says, adding that as the Stanley Cup got passed around, “there was a moment on the ice when we were standing next to each other, and Jake looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re here. To do this together is the best thing in the world.’”

photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

Mind over matter

As the playoffs wore on, more hype came Guentzel’s way. Except for texts referencing his newfound celebrity, he says, “I tried to stay away from that stuff. You don’t want to get caught up in what people are saying. I just try to focus on what’s at hand.” As for media, he “gives them what they want” and moves on.

The well-grounded athlete applies a pragmatic approach to the game.

“Each level you go up, the competition gets harder,” Guentzel says. “You have to do whatever it takes to get there—if it’s staying late after practice, doing extra work. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. Growing up, you go through bantams, high school, juniors, and college. I’ve just stayed with it. I’ve tried not to think ahead of what’s happening in the moment. It’s the way you have to think. If you don’t think that way, you don’t really want to play, and you don’t really love the game.”

Others attest to his dedication.

“Everything he’s accomplished is due to the hard work he put in himself,” Ortega says, “and he got rewarded.”

Archibald knows well the sacrifice: “It doesn’t come easy. You have a lot of pressure on your back. But he pushed through everything. I think one of the things that helps him is being one of the hardest workers in the room.”

Guentzel feels his approach is consistent. “It hasn’t changed much,” he says. “People are going to be coming after you, so you’ve got to make sure you’re ready every day for everyone’s best.”

What some term “pressure to perform in the clutch,” he considers “a chance to do something special. I think as a player you like those moments. They’re fun to be a part of,” he says.

Of his Penguins debut, Guentzel says, “There were nerves for sure, but you just gotta stick with what got you there. There was a lot of emotion running through me that night. I was just trying to make the most of the opportunity, and remembering that all the hard work I’ve put in has finally led to my dream coming true.”

He felt at home in his new digs. His space in the Pittsburgh locker room was just beside Crosby, who took the rookie under his wing.

“It’s cool that they all kind of take you in and make you feel comfortable right away,” Guentzel says of his veteran teammates. “I think that’s why they have so much success.”

His own even-keeled attitude helped with the season grind, too.

“You want to be a good player in the league, so you’ve got to do the little things and keep working on them every day,” Guentzel says. “You’ve just got to stay with it, stay positive, because you’re going to go through tough patches.”

Coming up big

In the playoffs, he kept making big assists and goals.

“I watched all the games at home with my family,” Parizek says, “and sometimes we were like, ‘Are you kidding me, he did it again?’ It was a surreal run for him, and I couldn’t be more happy and proud.”

Guentzel’s scoring binge was out of character for someone reluctant to shoot in college.

“When I was at UNO, coach got upset with me that I was passing too much,” he says. “I was kind of a playmaker, and I always looked for the next play. As my career went on, I started to shoot more. I think I finally realized if I shoot more maybe I can score some more goals.”

“He’s a pass-first guy,” Blais confirms. “For three years we tried to get him to be a little bit more selfish, and when the opportunity’s there, shoot it.”

Making that transition in the NHL is unusual.

“That’s a credit to Sidney Crosby,” Guentzel says. “You’re just trying to find areas on the ice where he can get you the puck because he can pretty much get it to you wherever you’re at. I was very fortunate.”

Blais agrees Guentzel found the right mentor.

“I think when it really clicked is when he started playing with Sidney Crosby,”  Blais says. “It’s one thing playing for Pittsburgh, but it’s another thing for Sidney Crosby to want this 22-year old kid to play with him. That’s pretty special when the best player in the world wants Jake Guentzel as his linemate because he knows Jake plays the same way.


And I’m sure Sidney Crosby said, ‘Hey, Jake, when I get a pass from you, I’m going to shoot, and when you get it from me, you shoot.’ I mean, that’s the way it works. I think when Jake learned how to move and shoot the puck at the highest level is when he took off. Credit to Jake and his coaching staff but probably the most influential was Sidney Crosby.”

photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

Finding a coach and expanding his game

Despite not being the scorer his coach wanted, Guentzel treasured playing for Blais: “He was huge for me. I can’t thank him enough for all he did for me. He rounded out my game. He made me realize that to play every day you have to be at your top. That’s a big thing he impacted me with. I wouldn’t be the player I am today if I didn’t play in Omaha for him.”

Leaving after his junior year did not come lightly. “It was tough leaving Omaha for sure,” he says. “I just thought I was ready for the next challenge. It all worked out.”

Blais says being the close hockey family the Guentzels are, they made the decision jointly and he fully supported it. “Jake’s always been that player that has reached the highest level. He did it in college and now he’s doing it in the NHL. He’s one of the top players I’ve coached in all my years of coaching.”

UNO broadcaster Terry Leahy recalls Guentzel “began his college career the way he began his NHL career. “He had an assist right off the bat his first game as a Maverick—and he was on his way. The biggest memory I have of him is that his anticipation and passing skills were unbelievable.”

“He started out like gangbusters,” Blais remembers. “He broke Greg Zanon’s assist record his first year. Even though other teams were keying on him with their best players, Jake still managed to get his points. Even in the NHL, playing against the other team’s top line, Jake still managed to make plays and to get his goals.”

“He’s a complete package mentally and physically,” Leahy says. “He can fly, shoot, pass. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him wearing a [captain’s] letter for the Penguins in the not-too-distant future. He’s very mature…and he’s a pot-stirrer. He can chirp [trash talk] with the best. He was a little restrained his first year in the NHL, but there were moments in the finals you could see him starting to get under some Nashville skins. That’s definitely a part of his game. He’s got that baby face, but he can spring those horns pretty quickly after a whistle.”

photo by Mark Kuhlmann, Omaha Athletics

His UNO hockey family

Guentzel is happy his playing, not talking, is raising UNO’s national profile. “I only think it’s going to make the school become even more of a hockey place and have people realize Omaha’s on the rise,” he says.

“It’s a huge step for UNO hockey,” Archibald agrees. “It kind of puts it on the map in an unprecedented way.”

Leahy says with Guentzel and Archibald in the finals “UNO was on display through the whole run.” The fact that they are Stanley Cup winners “will be huge for recruiting.” UNO’s Mike Kemp and new hockey head coach Mike Gabinet have echoed such sentiments.

Austin Ortega takes inspiration from Guentzel’s example. “Seeing him do so well has definitely given me a little extra motivation and expectation to reach that goal and do what he’s done,” Ortega says.

Guentzel has not forgotten his UNO hockey family. “I keep in touch with them almost every day. They’re close friends. They’re definitely special to me,” he says.

“He has a lot of support back in Omaha and wherever his old teammates are,” Ortega says. “Myself and two other guys saw him for games three and four in Nashville. He was just the same old kid that we knew.”

“He’s not going to change, he’s not going to be cocky or arrogant about it,” Justin Parizek says. “He’s still going to go about his business and be the great guy he is and treat everyone the same.”

photo by Joe Sargent, Pittsburgh Penguins

Making his mark

Dean Blais can still hardly believe what transpired.

“To get his name on the Stanley Cup, to get a championship ring, to go from making $80,000 to $800,000, plus the Cup bonus. Not bad for a kid right out of college,” Blais says. “Everything looks bright for his future.”

Guentzel doesn’t think he’s arrived yet.

“I’ve still got to establish my spot,” he says, speaking with Omaha Magazine in June. “I’m still a young guy. I’ve got to go and try to make the team out of camp. You never know what’s going to happen, so you’ve just gotta try and make a name for yourself and do what it takes to stay at that level. You can’t take it for granted because there’s someone right behind who’s going to try to take your spot.”

Archibald senses Guentzel is hungry to “go back out there and prove to everybody he can do it again—I have all the faith in the world he’s going to be able to do it.”

“You gotta enjoy it, because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Guentzel says.

Visit nhl.com/penguins for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Third Time’s A Charm

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There will be a time in Larry Mercier III’s life when he won’t be lacing his ice skates and pulling a hockey sweater over his head. Until that time comes, the Papillion-LaVista South High School senior is determined to enjoy—and give back to—the sport he has played since second grade.

It was not readily apparent on an unusually warm and sunny day this past January, but the clock was already ticking down on Mercier (pronounced Muhr-SEE-err) and his time as a competitive high school hockey player for the Omaha Jr. Lancers. At 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he is a bit undersized by hockey standards. But talk with any of his teammates and coaches and you will find out the forward-playing right wing more than makes up for his diminutive stature with a give-it-everything-all-the-time attitude on and off the ice.

Even with the best work ethic, the numbers are not in his favor. Only 10 percent of the nearly 36,000 boys playing high school hockey will make it to the collegiate level, according to 2015 figures as provided by scholarshipstats.com. So Mercier is trying to make the most of his hockey experience by lending a hand to others who are pursuing that dream.

During a winter practice at Ralston Arena, Mercier was easy to spot in a forest green practice jersey that stands out amongst a midst of powder blue, black, and neon-green-colored jerseys worn by the other two dozen players on the ice. He led a drill that had each player sprint the length of the ice while guiding the puck, then taking his best shot to fire it past one of the team’s waiting goalies. Occasionally throughout the hour-long practice, a whistle sounded.

It is a signal to every player to sprint and skate several times around the center logo on the ice. It is one way to stay in top-flight condition built from a foundation of off-season training.

Offseason hockey camps are just as important as regular season practice or the approximately 40 games that the Omaha Jr. Lancers will play between October and March. Camp is a time to become a better skater, to improve on puck handling, or to work on shooting, passing, and individual skills. An hour on the ice in the summer and another hour of “dry land training” can often be the difference between making the roster of a team at the next level or ending up as a player who does not make the cut.

For the past two seasons, Mercier has been passing knowledge from his own regimented training routine to youngsters on the Jr. Lancers bantam program, a team made up of seventh and eighth graders who aspire to play high school hockey. His younger brother, Logan, took that path to Jr. Lancers’ junior varsity team.

“I liked to help out with their practices, whenever we don’t have games on the weekend and they did,” Larry says.”

Sometimes it was just fetching water bottles or pucks after drills. Other times, I would be in the locker room before games and give them a little pep talk or tell them what I was seeing between periods.”

While helping youngsters at camps is a possible career option after college, more realistic is Mercier’s path of progress in academics, not athletics. The past four semesters, the honor roll student has juggled a full load of advanced placement courses for college—government, history, honors calculus, statistics, and physics. His diligence off the ice is preparation for a career in engineering or aerospace engineering … possibly even an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Maybe I can become a test pilot of some sort,” he says with a tinge of enthusiasm. “I have always liked math. It not only has come easy to me, but I also enjoy it. That’s why I am thinking engineering.”

One of Mercier’s instructors at Papillion-LaVista South, Dustin “Bubba” Penas, noticed his potential in the classroom immediately.

“Larry is an outstanding student who always came prepared for class,” Penas says. “His positivity and smile were great to have and he was very engaged and active every day. He is a go-getter who will be outstanding in anything he goes into. He is able to take on any project and will always see it through to the end.”

And that end, as far as hockey is concerned, is likely right around the corner.

“I have always loved hockey ever since I started playing it,” Mercier says. “But there is a point for every athlete that they have to pick what they really want to do with their life. I have gotten to the point where hockey has been my passion. But I don’t think I want to play anything that is too huge as far as a time commitment. In the end, my education is going to be what gets me far in life. So I am hoping to focus on that.”

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

 

Austin Ortega

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How did a smallish soccer-playing Hispanic kid from sun-drenched Escondido, California, end up an ice hockey star in Nebraska?

Although his profile does not fit the stereotypical hockey player, UNO Mavericks forward Austin Ortega has risen to the top ranks of college hockey, a sport dominated by big bruisers from the North.

The senior—also known as “California Hot Sauce” and “Score-tega”—has proved doubters wrong ever since he left home at age 15 to pursue his hockey dreams.

He lived with host families while playing elite youth hockey in Colorado and during two seasons in the USHL. After a season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, he graduated from high school in Iowa. Then, he split his next season between the Indiana Ice and Fargo Force. A scholarship brought Ortega to UNO.

Despite being undersized (by elite hockey standards) at 5 feet 8 inches tall, 175 pounds, and a West Coast oddity, he’s been a prolific, crunch-time scorer everywhere he’s played. Competing in Division I’s toughest conference, he’s among Omaha’s all-time point leaders and holds two NCAA scoring records—for most game-winning goals in a season and a career. He’s made indelible memories and sparked frenzied cheers at the CenturyLink and, now, Baxter Arena.

Being Mr. Clutch is the result of instinct and intent.

“I’ve always tried to have the knack,” he says. “It really accelerated once I got here, especially over the last couple years, and it’s just something I keep trying to get better and better at.”

Players hit a wood board before stepping on the ice at Baxter Arena home games.

During a winter visit to Omaha, father Frank Ortega says that his son “lives for the moment to try to shoot the puck in when it matters. It started when he was younger, playing soccer. He wanted to be that guy doing the penalty kick. Over time he’s gained confidence, and now he’s developed into the guy who wants that puck.”

Austin Ortega and current-NHL player Jake Guentzel formed a potent one-two punch as sophomores leading Omaha to the program’s only Frozen Four berth in 2015. Last season started strong, with Omaha even netting its first No. 1 ranking, but fortunes sank, and the team missed making the playoffs altogether in 2016.

In Ortega’s collegiate season finale, despite losing Guentzel to the pros (the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Ortega’s linemate and the team’s captain before his senior year), he has continued to lead the Mavericks’ offensive effort.

In a two-game series with Lake Superior State, he got the game-winner the first night and led a furious come-from-behind win the second night.

“Halfway through the third period we had nothing going on,” coach Dean Blais says of the comeback. “I said to Austin, ‘You’ve got to take this game over. You’re our scorer, you’re our so-called leader in that category, and we need you now.’ And he was like shot out of a cannon. Austin’s found his way to get those game-winning goals. Sometimes he might score the fourth goal [after] the other team has scored three, but he’s also scored game-winning goals in overtime and shoot-out type situations, so he’s a real sniper.”

Taking on the pressure to be the hero or goat “is a lot to handle,” Blais says, “To be a leader you gotta want to be a leader—you gotta want to do it every day in practice, and he’s been doing that.” Blais has seen it all from Ortega and expects even more at the next level. “Austin will be signing an NHL contract with whoever gives him a good opportunity, but to get that he’s got to really earn that this last stretch of games. He’s among three or four forwards in the United States everyone’s looking at. It’s hard to find scoring in the NHL. Austin has that ability.”

The accolades, achievements, expectations, and opportunities are more than his parents imagined when he discovered skating and hockey at age 5. Unfamiliar with hockey, they figured his interest would wane.

“We never anticipated he would be to where he is now with all the success he’s seen,” Tessie Ortega says.

She and her husband were awed when Austin’s hockey skills earned a college scholarship. Everything else, including multiple Player of the Month national honors and vying for a national title, has been a blur.

“Austin’s shown a lot of dedication and made sacrifices to the sport.  There’s a lot of stuff he’s missed—birthday parties, holiday gatherings,” Frank Ortega says. “It’s amazing how it’s all coming to an end. It happened so fast.”

The player is keenly aware this amazing college ride is nearly done.

“One thing I’ve learned now that I’m a senior is to enjoy every moment,” Ortega says. “I know a lot of guys try to rush the process and get a call to pursue professional hockey as fast as they can. A lot of guys don’t realize this is one of the best times of their life. I mean, with this new rink and the fans and everything, I just like to soak it in and try to slow it down as much as I can, because I know I’ll be out of here real soon.”

His parents realize Ortega is on the verge of a pro hockey career, but they’re cautiously watching the process play out, just as they did when he went from youth leagues to the USHL to college. The NHL’s the next logical step.

“For us, there’s a little hesitation to think that can happen until it does because you don’t want to assume anything,” Frank Ortega says. “But it’s exciting.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Craig Nigrelli

June 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Whether he’s giving the scoop, dishing the dirt, spilling the beans over the airwaves, or just delivering a friendly “hello” at his local supermarket, Craig Nigrelli is always on.

It might sound exhausting to some, but for the KMTV news anchor who has been serving Omaha his buffet-style brand of broadcast journalism for nearly the past seven years, it’s just another perk of the job.

“I think when you’re in the public eye, you always have to be aware that you’re on the air,” Nigrelli, 48, admits in a dynamic tone that makes everything he says sound newsworthy. “People are always watching you no matter where you are. It’s what I signed up for. It comes with the territory.”

Known as “Ron Burgundy” or “Newsboy” within the ranks of his hockey buddies, Nigrelli says he’s been tirelessly engaging his new home as his station’s “Steady Eddy.” But perhaps the Buffalo native’s most appropriate nickname derives not from his profession, but from his habitual nature, which he says has allowed him to consistently bring high energy to his news teams for over two decades.

“I’m a man of routine, and I get that from my father,” Nigrelli says. “My wife calls me ‘Mr. As Is.’”

Nigrelli’s as-isness, he says, manifests itself in taking the first half hour of a day in silence, pumping iron four times a week, playing hockey twice a week, and watching his wife, Omaha Magazine contributor Carol Crissey Nigrelli, play the cello at their church every Sunday.

“As soon as you step outside the house and as soon as you step into the subterfuge of the daily [routine],” Nigrelli explains, “you’re on. You’re in the spin cycle from 10:30 in the morning till when you get home at 11:30 at night.” Nigrelli’s dedication to an unwavering, controllable routine lends balance the often chaotic world of news reporting. “For better or for worse, the world never stops spinning.”

As a master storyteller, Nigrelli is resigned to the fact that he must often report on doom and gloom to the viewers he likes to consider his neighbors.

“People are curious—they want to know why there’re flashing lights. They want to know why a road was closed. We live in a curious world.”

As part of his professional regimen, the anchor says he writes almost all of the reporter introductions for all four of his daily newscasts. The humanizing aspect of Nigrelli’s style, which seems to break a fourth wall at times while making an emotional connection with audiences instead of just an informative one, is how he says he’s comfortable selling his station’s content.

“Because if I’m bored, the viewer is bored,” Nigrelli says. “If I’m engaged and I’m energetic and I’m driving the content and I’m excited about it and I’m taking viewers on my shoulder for a ride like it’s a roller coaster…then they’ll probably enjoy it.”

CraigNigrelli

The Mavboni Guy

February 6, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The schtick never gets old.

It happens every time the University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s hockey team scores its first goal at a home game: Greg McVey comes rolling onto the ice driving what appears to be a miniature Zamboni, executes a wheelie or two, scoops up a frozen fish that’s been tossed onto the ice (as the opposing team’s goalie “fishes” the puck from the back of the net), then steers the quirky contraption back through an opening in the boards and disappears. The crowd at the CenturyLink Center Omaha roars its approval of the sideshow—and the UNO goal.

“Once the fish is thrown,” explains McVey, “I’ve got to get in and out of there fast, driving around four refs and 10 players, so I don’t hold up the game. Complicating matters, he adds that “I never know if the dang thing is going to steer right.”

The “dang thing,” designed and built by McVey, made its on-ice debut in January 2003 when the Mavs hosted Ohio State at the old Civic Auditorium under then-head coach Mike Kemp. Dubbed the “Mavboni” by McVey’s fellow Red Army hockey boosters, the nifty fish-retrieval vehicle quickly became part of the whole hockey experience.

Well, usually, that is.

“Four times in 236 home games the first goal never came,” says McVey, who lives in Lincoln. “They were shut out. Only four times. Impressive.”

The Mavboni demonstrates McVey’s evolution as a tinkerer. The Norfolk, Neb. native spent 14 years assembling and racing go-karts. He chased national and world championships all over the country, running on dirt tracks at 105 miles per hour. Later on, an episode of “Monster Garage” inspired McVey to build a motorized bar stool. “Just what everyone needs,” he deadpans, though he sold quite a few in two years. With motors, steel tracks, and tires filling his basement, the life-long hockey fan thought building a shrunken ice-resurfacing machine would bring a laugh at tailgate parties.

While McVey is a fan of all things “silly and meaningless,” Coach Kemp looked for gimmicks to lure fans to his young hockey program. In fact, it was Kemp who came up with the fish throw soon after the Mavs played their first game in 1997. He got the idea after he was hit in the head by a flying salmon during a hockey game in Anchorage, Alaska, while an assistant coach at Wisconsin.

Is there any doubt the two men would eventually team up?

“I was going to my weekly radio show at DJ’s Dugout in Miracle Hills around 2002 when I saw this really neat Zamboni thing racing around the parking lot,” recalls Kemp, now UNO’s associate athletic director. “I said to somebody, ‘we’ve got to get that out on the ice.’”

When UNO hockey moves to its new arena in Aksarben in October, the Mavboni will also make the move. “Even after all these years, every time I see it I smile,” says Kemp.

Thanks to Greg McVey, thousands of hockey fans can say the same thing.

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Mark Hasebroock

August 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Despite Mark Hasebroock’s success as an entrepreneur—he was a co-founder of prosperous e-commerce businesses Hayneedle and GiftCertificates.com, in addition to having experience as a small business owner and working in investment and commercial banking—he says he still wishes he’d had less time-consuming, back-and-forth discussion and more expedient, hands-on guidance when he was on the launching pad.

“We got strung along so many times by different investors who just took forever to get to a conclusion. Having been on the other side of the desk starting companies of my own, it was frustrating looking first for the capital, and second: ‘Can anybody help me? How can I get from here to here? Where is this resource? If you were in my shoes, what would you do?’ type of stuff,” Hasebroock says. “At some point I thought, ‘There’s just got to be a better way to do it, and I want to someday start a fund of my own—and do it my way, and do it right.’”

In 2011, Hasebroock did just that, kicking off Dundee Venture Capital (DVC) with an objective to be responsive to, decisive with, and supportive of entrepreneurs, he explains. “When we get an inquiry, we should review it and either we get back to you and say it’s a fit, or we say, ‘It’s not a fit and here’s who you should talk to.’ And let’s do that in a 24- to 48-hour period. The standard is two to four weeks.”

With his team of Michael Wetta, Nick Engelbart, and Andrea Sandel, plus two interns (“They’re all rock stars; I’m notoriously bad at giving direction, so they have to be self-starters.”), DVC operates out of offices in the Mastercraft Building on North 13th Street on the edge of downtown. The Dundee in the company’s name, and in the logo based on a pre-1915 annexation postal stamp, reflects the company’s first offices, as well as Hasebroock’s home neighborhood.

“We started in Warren Buffett’s grandfather’s grocery store—that’s where Dundee Bank is today—and I was an investor in Dundee Bank, so it all kind of tied in together with some of the history with where capitalism sort of started in Omaha and the heart of Dundee,” Hasebroock explains.

“…when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back.”

He also likes both the Omaha and Nebraska associations with the Dundee name. Hasebroock grew up in Omaha (he was once a Peony Park lifeguard), graduating from Westside High School, and earning his undergraduate degree at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his MBA from Creighton University. He and his wife, Jane, who met in their youth and married in 1984, chose to raise their four sons and four daughters in their shared hometown. “No twins and, yes, the same spouse,” Hasebroock likes to say, adding that the family calls the older four the “Varsity” team and the younger half, the “JV.” The collective teammates are now ages 11 to 27 and have kept the family involved in numerous school and community-related sports, clubs, and activities for years. And Hasebroock himself plays hockey with a local adult league, the BPHL (Beer-and-Pretzel Hockey League) on Team Gold, stressing their three-time defending champion status.

“I haven’t really strayed too far,” he says. And his ties to the Heartland continue through his investments. With a preference for Midwest-based endeavors, DVC invests anywhere from $50,000 to a half-million dollars in growth companies that focus on e-commerce and web services.

“The next criteria is super-passionate, driven founders, so when somebody comes in with ‘here’s my business, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the problem, here’s my solution, and here’s why my team’s going to win’…we usually know within the first five minutes if this is someone we’re going to back,” Hasebroock says.

DVC is already seeing its investees take off and even soar under the guidance of Hasebroock and his team. Hasebroock says it was through mentor Mike McCarthy (founding partner of McCarthy Capital) that he saw firsthand how the simple principle of “treat people like you want to be treated” breeds success, and he emulates that culture of respect at DVC. Plus, there’s a multigenerational—and even simpler—principle Hasebroock follows: “Like my grandfather used to say, there’s four secrets to success: W. O. R. K.”

“It’s empathetic because we understand. And yet there are demands on the capital. We certainly want it back. We’d like more than we put in.  But we also know that these founders are being pulled in two hundred different directions. And to the degree that we can help keep them on the rails a little bit and not just chase that next great shiny penny idea; that’s what we want to do.”

Hasebroock, who’s also now involved with a new Omaha-based accelerator for technology startups called Straight Shot, sees nothing but growth ahead for DVC.

“I think the next step is another fund that invests in startups. I don’t think the supply is going to slow down,” he says. “We’re continually seeing really creative ideas out of a lot of markets.”

It’s Hockey Time in Omaha!

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Jeff Beiermann

Omaha may not appear to be a hockey town to the casual observer, but you don’t have to peel back the layers too far to find evidence of such.

The University of Nebraska-Omaha and Omaha Lancers, who carry the hockey banner in Omaha, have consistently played quality hockey with the Mavericks making two trips to the NCAA Tournament in their 15 years of competition, while the Lancers have accumulated more United States Hockey League Championships (13) than any other USHL teams since they joined the league in 1986.

And fan support has and continues to be second to none.

UNO Mavericks

The University of Nebraska-Omaha Maverick hockey team.

“Omaha is a good hockey town,” UNO Mavericks head coach Dean Blais says. “We’re near the top of the country in terms of attendance on a yearly basis. The support from the fans is huge and their commitment is extremely important to our program.”

Mike Aiken, Lancers head coach and general manager, adds, “Omaha has always had a strong hockey following, and it’s only getting better. There’s great development within the youth league and with the new arenas providing additional ice time that will only increase.”

This winter Omaha hockey will get another boost as an unique event will be held at TD Ameritrade Park. The Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice February 9 will feature a doubleheader as both Omaha squads entertain two of their fiercest rivals. The Mavericks take on the North Dakota Fighting Sioux while the Lancers face the Lincoln Stars.

“This area turns out some good kids with the strong youth hockey program, and I think that development will grow with the addition of hockey facilities in the city.” – Dean Blais, head coach of UNO Mavericks hockey team

“The concept came from the Omaha Lancers and the doubleheader gave us the best chance of having a successful event such as this,” comments Harold Cliff, the President of the Omaha Sports Commission. “We wanted meaningful games and to provide something different at another one of the great Omaha venues. Omaha is a great sports community. These teams have competed well in the past and this is another opportunity to display their talents. With the doubleheader we’ll also be able to provide two different types of hockey and expect strong attendance. It may not be something we can do annually, but we’ll measure the response and this could grow. A lot depends on support. Sponsors also play a large part, and Mutual of Omaha stepped up in a big way for this year. Local hockey interest remains strong, and we are confident this will be a successful event.”

Omaha Lancers practice at Ralston Arena.

Omaha Lancers practice at Ralston Arena.

Blais and Aiken echo Cliff’s excitement for this upcoming event and believe it’s a great opportunity to showcase their teams.

“It will be an awesome event,” Aiken says. “With us playing Lincoln, which is one of the best rivalries in the league, it should be a great experience for the players and fans alike.”

It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for hockey in Omaha as this season the Lancers began play in the brand-new Ralston Arena.

“We’ve moved into an unbelievable building, and we feel fortunate to have such a facility,” says Aiken. “Our facilities are second to none and give us the opportunity to recruit the best players out there. We’re more than hockey, it’s an entertainment package. A fan friendly atmosphere with great hockey, which people can really enjoy. We get involved with the community quite a bit, and we plan to continue to promote our organization through the good people who are a part of it.”

UNO will also be changing home ice in the future after announcing plans in late 2012 to build an on-campus arena to host indoor Maverick athletics including hockey.

UNO Mavericks play Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in November.

UNO Mavericks play Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in November 2012.

“This area turns out some good kids with the strong youth hockey program, and I think that development will grow with the addition of hockey facilities in the city,” Blais explains. “More kids will be able to get ice time, which will be great for the future. Our future goals include winning a national championship. As we move into a very good conference (WCHA), it will help with recruiting. We like the state of our program and what we think we’ll be able to accomplish in the future.”

That future looks bright, for all those involved and interested in Omaha hockey, thanks to the commitment from the organizations, community, and fans alike.

The Ralston Arena

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While Ralston’s new $36 million arena is impressive, drawing big crowds and solid reviews, it isn’t getting too big for its britches.

“We’re not going to target the U2s or the Bruce Springsteens,” said Lynn Higgenbotham, marketing director for the arena. “But it’s a good size, a good fit.”

Modesty becomes it. The state-of-the-art arena can host 3,500 guests and easily accommodated the crowd for its October 19 opening concert with country singer Rodney Atkins.

Upcoming events include rodeos, UFC (Ultimate Fighting) matches, high school games, and trade shows. The arena will also host the USHL Lancers (attracted by not one, but two sheets of ice), the UNO men’s basketball team, the IFL Omaha Beef Football, the Omaha Roller Girls, and the LFL (Lingerie Football League) Omaha Heart. “They draw about 16,000 in other venues,” Higginbotham said of Omaha’s own LFL team.

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The arena sits at 73rd & Q streets in Ralston.

So the arena, at a quarter of that size, is hoping for a sell-out?

“That’s the goal, of course,” she said. While no event is too small for the arena, Higgenbotham said that its main purpose is to host major events. Direct competition with larger local facilities such as the Mid-America Center is, of course, out of the question. Such venues are able to seat twice as large a crowd. “The larger places can adapt themselves to a smaller theater setting,” she explained, but Ralston Arena is poised to set itself apart. “We want more diverse entertainment and sports events,” Higgenbotham said. “The Ralston residents really took ownership of this venue.”

That could be because, previously, there were no other event facilities in Ralston, according to Curtis Webb, general manager of Ralston Arena. “People would drive into Omaha for entertainment,” he said.

The arena, which broke ground June 29, 2011, on what used to be Lakeview Golf Course, is Ralston’s answer to a need for taxable income. Since 2008, Mayor Don Groesser had been attempting to attract a retailer onto the space with little luck. “We started talking with the Lancers about an arena,” Groesser said. Due to the scarcity of ice time in Omaha, the hockey team was excited about the idea of an arena with a few thousand seats.

“We want more diverse entertainment and sports events.” – Lynn Higgenbotham, marketing director for Ralston Arena

“Now that it’s here,” Webb said, “the venue should drive sales tax in the form of tickets, food, and beverage.” To pay down the debt of building the arena, LB 779 (or the Ralston Bill as it was known by the time it passed in 2010) puts 70 percent of the state’s portion of sales tax from any retailer within 600 yards of the arena toward the arena’s bill. As Groesser put it, “That’s basically how we’re going to pay for the building.”

As a result of this legislation, Groesser and Webb are encouraging more businesses to build within that 600-yard range of the arena. “We just got Menards to build on 72nd and L,” Groesser said. He also plans to introduce a new four-story hotel next to the facility, the first floor of which will be shops along the lines of salons, clothing, and convenience. “So another 10,000 square feet of retail,” he said. Add that on to the 4,600 square feet leased by The Dugout (clothing store) inside the arena, itself.

“We need all the new retail we can possibly get,” Groesser explained. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve tried to make sure of that.”

For more information about Ralston Arena, visit ralstonarena.com.