Tag Archives: Omaha Lancers

Hip Czech Not Too Cool for School

February 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.

Lukas Buchta in UNO hockey gear

“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.

Buchta in hockey gear, no helmet

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.