Rolling around Blade N’ Skate roller rink in the outskirts of Chicago, a young Ryan Jones said he never would’ve imagined he’d have much of a future in hockey ahead of him, especially as an NHL draft pick playing at the Division I level. In March 2020, that same kid in rollerblades just finished his senior season of hockey in Omaha.
With an abrupt ending cutting his final season short, it’s been an emotional past few weeks for the Crown Point, Indiana native. But Jones will be forever thankful for his four years in Omaha, he said.
“I just don’t want it to end,” Jones said. “Walking off that ice for the last time, I had to stop for a second and take a look around – it’s just sad to think about. This is one of the best places to play in college hockey, so not being able to do that again, it definitely hits home. At the same time, I’m just thankful I’ve been able to call this place home for the last four years.”
With senior night and all the lead up now in the past, it still hasn’t completely set in yet that his time as a Maverick has come to a close, he said. He finished his career with 141 games, his final 106 of those being consecutive, but it’s the strides off of the ice he’s the proudest of.
“We’ve come so far,” Jones said. “It’s honestly incredible. I think the thing I’m proudest about this place is just watching these guys grow, not only as players, but off the ice too. I remember how shy everyone was when we first got to the dorms our freshmen year, and now we’re best friends.”
However, compared to his fellow seniors and most players at this level, he’s come even further from a hockey aspect. While some of his teammates were on the ice as 2-year-old kids, for Jones this wasn’t the case. Rather, his start in hockey came in a different form – four wheels instead of a blade.
“My mom was the manager of a roller rink back home, so I spent a lot of time at the rink as a kid,” Jones said. “When my brothers were playing [roller hockey], I’d always go to their games, cheer them on and then I eventually started playing. It just all worked itself out with her being the manager.
“I played roller hockey for a couple years, and I loved the sport. Then when I was about eight or nine, I really got interested in ice hockey, but I was terrible when I first started. I honestly had no idea how to skate, and it was a lot different at first, but luckily it came pretty quick.”
In addition to spending those first years in rollerblades, there’s been another change for Jones over the years. Although holding the blueline and defending a 2-on-1 may be second nature to him now, Jones says moving to defense was something that came as a surprise.
After spending his first few years of youth hockey playing forward, it all changed his second year with the Chicago Fury. One day his coach approached the then 13-year-old and asked him if he would be willing to try defense.
A few years later, that defenseman would go on to play for the Indiana Jr. Ice, the Lincoln Stars and eventually up the road in Omaha. The decision to become a Maverick was an easy one, he said.
“It just felt like home,” Jones said. “It reminded me a lot of back home, too. I’m from the outskirts of Chicago, so I wanted the city feel and Omaha has that. I really liked the coaches, there was a new rink being built, it was a hockey focused school and the team was making a run to the tournament—there was so much momentum.
“I also wanted to be part of something bigger and help build a program, and that’s something we’ve been big on as a senior class. We wanted to leave the program better than how it was when we came in, and I think we’ve done that.”
Before the start of his senior season, Jones was named an assistant captain – another sign of his personal growth over the four years. As a leadership group, it’s something he and his fellow seniors wouldn’t have seen happening their freshman year, but it’s given them a chance to further leave their mark on the program.
“I don’t think a lot of people outside of the Midwest realize how special of a program this is,” Jones said. “You don’t have to go out east or go to those big name, Big Ten schools to live out your dream and be successful. Yeah, it’s nice, but you look at somewhere like Omaha, we’ve taken down North Dakota and multiple other big schools over the years.
“This is a program that is continuing to rise upward, and I think that’s truly something special. As a group of seniors, having such a big freshmen class, we wanted to show them what we hope they show other players in a few years down the road. Work hard, and help pave the future of Maverick hockey.”
Before joining Omaha came a moment that potentially set up the future of Jones’ hockey career. The Pittsburgh Penguins had selected him with their fourth-round pick (121st overall) in the 2016 NHL draft. To make it even better, it was his childhood favorite team that came calling.
“It was surreal,” Jones said. “I didn’t go to the draft – I was actually on the way to a cruise with my family when I found out I got drafted – so I missed the first year of development camp because of it. But, especially getting drafted by one of my favorite teams as a kid too, it was very special for me.
“When I was growing up, watching [Sidney] Crosby, that was my team, so that would definitely be crazy if one day down the road I could skate on the same ice as him. It’s definitely part one of my childhood dream coming true and I’ve been working so hard for that next step, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do to make that happen. I’m definitely excited about what the future holds.”
With four seasons of college hockey now behind him, and the current state of sports across the country in limbo, there’s still a lot of unknown for when he’ll be able to step back on the ice. Whenever that time does come, Jones said he’s as excited and motivated as ever to embark on the next step in his hockey career.
A lot has changed for that young kid rolling around the hardwood at Blade N’ Skate. It’s been a “crazy ride,” and one that a young Jones wouldn’t have seen happening, but one he hopes to keep adding to going forward, he said.
Roller hockey standout, figure skating national champion, NHL draft pick and now 4-year division one college hockey player. Omaha, Nebraska may have just been another step along the way, but it’s been one of the best steps in his hockey journey, Jones said.
“Just from the first game, to the first win and singing in the lobby with the fans for the first time, you see how passionate these people are here in Omaha,” Jones said. “These people here have been so friendly and so supportive here to all of us, and it really made the transition into college hockey a little bit easier.
“I don’t even have words to describe how special this place is to me, because for four years the people have shown not only me, but all the seniors nothing but love and it truly is sad that it’s coming to an end. It’s become my second home.”