Early morning practices and road trips seemingly every weekend–it’s something almost all young hockey players experience in some form or fashion. For Omaha senior forward Zach Jordan, he’s no different, and like many other players, none of it would’ve been possible without the support of his family, he says.
Now with four years of games at Baxter Arena behind him, it’s a chance for the Collinsville, Illinois native to look back and reflect. It’s been a long journey, but one he’s been happy to spend alongside his biggest supporter, his father Dan.
“He’s always been there for me,” Jordan said. “Especially with this weekend [the end of the season] hitting, it’s been a little emotional for all of us. I’ve been pretty good about it, but it really set in for me last night when I stepped off the ice for the last time.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how tough it is on the parents, though. They want the best for all of us and when things are going rough, or coming to an end, they know how hard it is on us, and it’s just as hard on them. They’ve been there for me through everything, and they know if I’m hurting, they’re going to hurt too. He’s just always been a huge part of it for me.”
With this past Saturday being senior night for the Omaha hockey program, it’s crazy to think how fast these four years have flown by. At the same time, it’s also the realization of a goal that goes back much further, one his dad is happy to see him complete.
“When you have kids, you just want to see them fulfill their dreams and do the things that they want to do,” Dan Jordan said during a father-son sitdown following the North Dakota series. “To be able to see Zach accomplish his goal of playing college hockey these last four years has been pretty awesome.”
However, the road to Omaha hasn’t exactly been an easy one for Jordan. Growing up in a southern Illinois suburb of St. Louis, he’s had to work for and earn everything to get to where he is today, he said.
“Growing up we had the AAA Blues and that was about it for the top level of travel hockey,” Jordan said. “The ‘96 birth year back home was full of good players too. They were number one in the country for a couple years, so obviously they had lots of top talent, and I never made it. So I played AA growing up, and for someone like myself, I knew I was going to have to work even harder for any opportunity I wanted to get.”
Fast forward to the late summer of 2013, and Jordan was getting ready to start his junior year of high school. Just a little under a month before, he says he had signed a tender with a tier-3 club. But then came a weekend that would set up the next seven years of his hockey career.
Initially the idea of the man who coached him at a young age and got him interested in the sport, Zach said his dad told him to just go for “some extra ice time.” Things would change quickly.
“My dad got me setup with a camp for the Minnesota Wilderness, an NAHL team in Cloquet,” Jordan said. “They were brand new at the time, but they had a pre-draft camp not far from me. So I ended up doing really well, and they offered me a tender.
“At that moment it was like, ‘wow, I can actually do something serious with hockey’ and it all took off from there. It all happened within a weekend.”
Once that offer came from the Wilderness, the next day would be a whirlwind of emotions. Jordan said his family had only just under 24 hours to decide to venture away from home for the first time, as he had to be signed by noon the next day.
“They took a chance on me, and I’ll always be grateful for that,” Jordan said. “My mom drove me up there, 13 hours in a Toyota 4Runner, and next thing I know I was living 13 hours away from home in Cloquet, Minnesota.”
It’s those sacrifices that are so important for every hockey player. It goes beyond just that drive though, and his mom, Cari, has played just as big of a role in his hockey journey, he said.
“She was a huge part of it too,” Jordan said. “I was born in November, and with the amount of talent in the 1996 birth year group I always joke with my mom, ‘you couldn’t have held me in a little bit longer so I would’ve been a ’97?’ But I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything. I’ve definitely had my ups and down, it’s been a roller coaster a little bit, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. I feel like I’m better off after having to deal with some controversy too.
“Some kids get the silver platter where you can go right through and go wherever they want. If you’re gifted with that much talent, good for you, but sometimes it just takes a little bit of luck and a couple different turns along the way. If you keep working at it you’ll get to where you want to be, and luckily, that’s been the case for me.”
Now with 128 career collegiate games under his belt, it’s safe to say attending that weekend in 2013 was a decision that’s paid off in the long run. But once again, with so much unknown at the time, it wouldn’t be possible without the support of his parents along the way.
“He had worked hard to get to that point,” Dan Jordan said. “So in my opinion, we couldn’t tell him no and not at least let him try.
“When some kids are 12,13 or 14, they and their parents think they’re the best kid in town and everybody assumes they’re going to go play in the NHL, but he wasn’t that kid. He just kept working away and opportunity knocked, and he took advantage of it.”
For Zach, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. As tough as it was for him to make that decision, he knows it was even tougher on his parents to send him away.
“I think it took everything in my mom to drive me up there and let me stay,” Jordan said. “They knew it had to be done, I knew it had to be done, but it was definitely different. They were always just a phone call away, and that made it a lot easier.”
Twenty games with the Wilderness during the 2013-14 season led to the jump to the USHL, one of the premier development leagues in North America. Where would that take him? Omaha, Nebraska. Over six years later, it’s a place he’s happy to call his second home.
“When I first came to Omaha, I had already committed to Michigan Tech,” Jordan said. “I jumped at the first big offer and committed really young, and like I said, everything changed so quickly. We really didn’t know what to do, but we realized after that it probably wasn’t going to be the best fit.”
“There was nothing against or wrong with the program [Michigan Tech], but it was just so far away from home, so once I got to Omaha it kind of changed things. I actually took my visit before any of this [Aksarben] was a thing and Baxter wasn’t done yet. Once I kind of knew what it was going to be like here though, it was awesome when they called and said we’ve got a spot for you. I knew I had to jump at it.”
After skating in 25 games with the Lancers during the second half of the 2014-15 season, Jordan started the following season in Omaha, playing 16 games before a mid-season trade to Des Moines. He would go on to spend the rest of 2015 and the entire 2015-2016 season with the Buccaneers, where he posted 38 goals and 56 points in 93 games.
That second season in Des Moines, Jordan says he made the “best decision of his life.” On Feb. 2, 2016, he announced he’d be coming back to Omaha, this time as a Maverick.
However, he’d struggle to find his way early on. Jordan only put up two points over 23 games as a freshman. The following season, a coaching change and new level of confidence gave him an opportunity to succeed. He’s been a mainstay in the Omaha lineup ever since.
“My freshman year I was in and out of the lineup,” Jordan said. “It was tough to find any rhythm, and I didn’t really have a chance to contribute much. When Gabinet took over though, I think it was good for my growth and development, and we got an even better experience. Yeah we went through some changes, but Gabs gave me a chance, and that’s all I needed.”
In that sophomore season, he scored 16 goals and finished third on the team in scoring with 28 points. Before the start of his senior year, he was named an assistant captain, a sign of the growth from his freshman season.
“The amount of growth we’ve gone through as people, it’s just unreal,” Jordan said. “To be able to experience this together [the five seniors] and do it here, it’s truly unbelievable how far we’ve come. And to see ourselves being the leaders, we didn’t think about that even being a potential as freshmen. Now that it’s almost over, we’re just trying to do what’s best for this program.”
A lot has happened since the opening puck drop this past October, but they’ve all just felt like another game on the schedule. An overtime winner at St. Cloud State, road wins over Ohio State and No. 1 North Dakota, and memories off the ice which will last a lifetime.
But after a thrilling 4-1 win over No. 2 North Dakota on Friday, it all slowly started to sink in. The next game would be his last on home ice.
The final home morning skate, final drive to the arena, final warmup and a senior night tribute, which featured all five seniors starting on a line together … when 0:00 showed on the clock over center ice came the hardest part of it all, Jordan’s final walk back to the Omaha locker room.
“For me, that’s when it kind of hit me,” Jordan said. “It was sad with the lead up and when everything started setting in you try not to let it affect the game at all, and it’s just another game. Once the game was over it’s like, ‘wow, this is really the last time I’ll be on this ice in front of these fans.’ I’m just glad I got to be part of this program.”
Although his parents may normally be seven hours away, sitting inside Baxter Arena Saturday was a bittersweet night for them. At the same time, they’re very fortunate his time as a Maverick has worked out the way it has, they said.
“I’m just really thankful for the opportunity he’s been given here,” Dan Jordan said. The things he’s learned – from the facilities, to the coaches, trainers, fans, everything – it’s all top-notch. I’m really gonna miss it.”
Now some 20 years later, it’s crazy to think back to how it all started, but it’s those moments that helped pave the way for what was to come. Some of his favorite memories were formed on those 30 plus minute drives at 6 in the morning, and without them, Jordan’s not sure he’d be where he’s at, he said.
“He had me in roller blades when I was about two or three, then he got me on the ice shortly after,” Jordan said. “I kind of started off slow, but I really took to it and I loved it, that’s why I’m still playing now. One of our big things once I started growing up and really getting into it was every Friday, my dad would pick me and Clayton Keller [who now plays for the Arizona Coyotes] up, and we’d go to stick and puck.
“We always loved it, we always had a blast, and it was just a good way for my dad and I to not only get better at my craft, but also spend some time together. He’s been my biggest supporter along the way.”
For Dan, the same can be said. As emotional of a weekend as it was for him, it’s also been a chance to realize how far his son has come. It’s the hard work and early mornings over the years that have given his son a chance to even put on the Maverick jersey, he said.
“It’s been a long journey for him, but to see that number 27 jersey out on ice with a letter on his chest, it’s incredible,” Dan Jordan said with a tear in his eye.
An “adventurous” journey it’s been, but one Zach Jordan wouldn’t want any other way.