Hockey has taken Lukas Buchta a long way from home. The Czech Republic native is wrapping up his final season as a Mavericks defenseman.
Buchta, 24, takes seriously his student-athlete status. The University of Nebraska-Omaha senior is studying business with a concentration in financing, banking, and portfolio management. The honors student works hard in the classroom and at the rink. He came to America because it afforded an opportunity his home country did not in terms of playing hockey and seeking higher education.
“In my country, you can’t play hockey and go to school at the same time,” he says. “You are either a pro athlete or you go to university.”
With his mother’s career in teaching, education was always a priority. But Buchta suspects he would have discontinued studies back home in order to develop in hockey. Here, he pursued both passions.
“I would make some good money playing hockey, but I wouldn’t find what I’m doing now,” he says. “It’s really fun. I mean, obviously, it’s really tough studying in a second language—everything takes me more time to learn. But I like studying. I like the business program here. I’ve met many great students from all over the world and I have many great professors.”
Aware of how short an athlete’s career can be, he sees enormous value in the degree he will earn in May.
“I know how education is so important nowadays, especially if you’re an athlete and you get injured,” he says. “You never know what can happen. But if you have a degree, it opens so many opportunities. The hockey sector is just so tiny compared to the business sector.”
When not studying, he is busy with hockey. That is a learning experience as well. He enjoys being on a team with players from the U.S., Canada, Finland, Sweden, and Slovakia. “It’s great learning about different cultures. Everyone sees the world differently,” Buchta says.
A long line of players from outside the U.S. have played in Omaha. While Canada is a perennial feeder for junior and college teams, Europe offers a rich pipeline as well.
When Buchta got good enough in his homeland to consider a future in hockey, he was advised by the father of former UNO player Andrej Sustr (a fellow Czech Republic native). Living with a host American family while going to school and playing top-level junior hockey that might net a full-ride scholarship sounded appealing.
After a 2012-2013 stint with the Omaha Lancers, Buchta played for the Sioux Falls Stampede in 2014-2015.
“I feel like it made me stronger because I was living on my own,” he says. “I was forced to communicate in English on a daily basis. The biggest adjustment was the weather. It was totally different in South Dakota than what I was used to.”
The Stampede enjoyed a special season that got him noticed. “From a hockey perspective, it was awesome,” says Buchta, who helped the team to the Clark Cup championship of the United States Hockey League.
“We had such a good team. A couple of the guys have already made the NHL. It was a good experience,” he says.
UNO came calling during the season.
“I was talking to many schools because I was actually doing really well. I didn’t know UNO was watching me,” he says. “I remember after a game my coach told me, ‘UNO was here and they liked you,’ and within a week they offered.”
As a freshman, he was part of the team that ushered in UNO’s Baxter Arena. Buchta fondly recalls the home-opener against Air Force. “It was so much fun,” he says. “When I got to the rink, there were 5,000 fans already there…two-and-a-half hours before game time. I will never forget that moment. It was pretty special.”
“When you don’t play the sport for money but only for a spot, the competition is so strong,” he says. “My freshman year, it was such a highly competitive environment from a D-man’s perspective.”
Buchta played his first two seasons at UNO under then-head coach Dean Blais. Mavericks defensive coach Mike Gabinet stepped into the leadership role after Blais retired. Buchta says it was a smooth transition, and he credits Gabinet for helping him become a better player. In turn, Gabinet praises Buchta’s mature work ethic as an example to other players.
“I feel I’m way stronger than when I got here,” Buchta says. “I feel like my skating got a lot better. I’m a person that likes to be pushed. It doesn’t matter if it’s hockey or school—I want to just somehow get better in order to separate myself from my video game-playing generation. I try to do everything at 100 percent. When I’m 40 or 50 years old and I look back, I’m not going to be disappointed because I’ll know I did everything I could to be successful.”
He has no regrets coming to America and describes his years abroad as “probably the best decision of my life.” But Buchta is also very close to his parents.
They have traveled to see him play in the U.S. Devoted Maverick fans may have noticed the player’s father with a Czech flag wrapped around his shoulders during games at Baxter Arena.
Buchta went home to see his family over the holidays. Whatever professional hockey or business prospects arise for him in the U.S., he expects to return to the Czech Republic at some point.
“I’m three hours from one of the nicest places in the world, the Swiss Alps,” he says of his family’s home. “The nature is unbelievable, the people are friendly, the economy’s extremely strong. As a business major, I just see so many opportunities over there.”
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This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.