Bulls in the Pros

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Ryan Jones played in 141 games over his four years in Omaha. Now he’s getting ready to begin his professional career with the AHL’s Rochester Americans. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

As the AHL season inches closer, former Omaha defensemen Ryan Jones is getting ready to begin his first season at the professional level. A 2016 fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jones became a free agent and signed a deal with the AHL’s Rochester Americans this past August. The Americans are the top affiliate for the Buffalo Sabres.

In 141 games in an Omaha sweater, Jones scored four goals and 38 assists. He had a career-high two goals as a senior in 2019-20 and saw some of the most minutes on the Omaha blueline. He was also an assistant captain last season.

The Americans are one of seven teams in the AHL’s North Division this season, however, Rochester’s schedule will only be made up of games against Utica, Syracuse and Cleveland. Rochester opens their season on Feb. 5 against Utica.

The Gateway recently caught up with Jones for a Q&A to talk about his transition into the professional game.

Q: When the playoff series at Denver was cancelled in March, would you ever have imagined what the next 10 months would be like?

A: Absolutely not. At that time we were all new to it and we didn’t know exactly how serious it was at that time, but I would never have imagined how everything unfolded. Especially being a senior and getting playoffs cut short, it was definitely a tough pill to swallow since we didn’t get that last chance to prove what possibly could have been done. I’m not just saying this to say it, but I had a really good feeling going into Denver and think we could’ve pulled an upset there, so that was really tough. Still looking back at it though I can’t believe it’s almost been a year.

Q: With the pandemic on top of it, did that make it any more difficult to transition into the professional game?

A: A little bit with the prolonged offseason. You had to find ways to change up your normal routine and offseason habits. Usually, at the beginning of the offseason, I’d go heavier and try to build my strength back. So I’d say the trickiest thing was kind of coming up with a plan to not overdo it, which I think is very easy to do. Throughout the summer there were rumors the season could potentially start in November or December, then that became January and now it’s February, so just trying to stay in game-shape was probably the biggest challenge because at the time we didn’t know. Now that we know when we’re playing and we’re here, things have been really good, especially up here in Rochester. Everyone including the coaches and players has been really nice and helpful with the transition from college into the pro setting.

Q: How much has your normal routine at the rink changed?

A: It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but in some ways, it’s the new normal. Guys have been good about wearing masks and being smart about everything because you don’t want to be the guy that brings it to the rink and shuts everything down. We have arrows on the floor to mark where you enter and exit the locker room because they’re trying to maintain social distance. Masks are required everywhere besides when you’re on the ice, but if we work out or do a team warmup masks have to be on. Everyone is kind of used to by now, and like I said guys are doing a good job with everything.

Q: Now being over one week into training camp, how nice has it been to be able to get back on the ice?

A: It’s been really nice to get back into the team setting and a somewhat normal routine, which is something I missed. Obviously summer hockey is a lot different than a normal season, so just being in a team setting and practicing again it’s been fun. You kind of get that battle-level and the intensity up, and for most of us it’s been our first taste of that competition for over 10 months now.

Q: Have you gotten a chance to follow the Mavs much this season?

A: I’ve been able to watch games a few times, but I definitely follow along on Twitter and social media. Honestly, I couldn’t be anything but happy for those guys though. I’m still close with most of the guys and I even got to know the freshman when I was still there working out over the summer, and it’s a good group. I know how much work that coaching staff puts in on a daily basis, so it doesn’t surprise me the success that they’re having. They look good this year and I’m very happy for all of them.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Pod concept?

A: I was actually talking to one of my teammates this season that played at Western Michigan (Mattias Samuelsson) about it and we both agreed that it would’ve been something we would’ve wanted to experience. Definitely a cool concept and everything worked. They were able to complete every game that was scheduled and I think in the long run it was a huge success.

Q: What do you miss the most about Omaha?

A: It might be repetitive from other people and sound cliche, but just going to the rink every day and seeing the guys. We had a really close group every year and in my opinion we got closer as a whole team every year. From the first time I came for my visit I just knew that was where I wanted to go. So definitely going to the rink and battling with my brothers every single day because they brought so much joy to the rink. Honestly, it was the most fun I’ve ever really had in my hockey career and I miss it, but the one good thing about Omaha is I’m going to be back every summer. It became my second home and from everyone from the players to the coaching staff, they make you want to come back.

Jones is one of several former Mavs who have been busy recently.

Jake Guentzel

Guentzel netted his 100th career NHL goal in a 3-2 win against the New York Rangers on Jan. 24. Guentzel has already appeared in the third-most NHL games and has the most goals scored by a former Maverick. He became the 10th-fastest player in Penguins franchise history to the century mark. The former Omaha standout has scored two goals in eight games this season. He’s also 2-for-2 on shootout attempts, his latest being a sweet backhand goal in a Jan. 22 win over the Rangers: https://twitter.com/heresyourreplay/status/1352808718350610432?s=21

Zach Jordan

ZJ joins the Cleveland Monsters for the AHL season after playing 17 games in Europe with DVTK Jegesmedvek (Slovakia). He put up five goals and seven assists in those 17 games. Jordan and Jones will potentially face each other six times during the regular season. It’s a matchup Jones said he’s looking forward to.

Luke Nogard

Nogard is one of several former Mavericks to appear in the ECHL this season as ‘Nogie’ is currently playing with the Florida Everblades. He has appeared in four games and has two points along with a 3 +/- rating. He scored his first goal with the club on Jan. 16. The Everblades have 11 games coming up in February.

Evan Weninger

Weninger continued his strong start to the season with the Wichita Thunder. He’s now 3-1-1 with a 2.17 GAA, which is the fourth-best in the ECHL, and .935 save percentage, which is the third-highest in the league. The former Omaha netminder had a highlight-reel save last week that landed the top spot in the ECHL’s Plays of the Week: https://twitter.com/echl/status/1354504446999289860?s=21

Fredrik Olofsson and Brian Cooper

The two former Mavericks are playing together for IK Oskarshamn in the SHL. The former Omaha captain has scored twice and put up 12 points through 35 games this season. He’s also racked up 82 penalty minutes.

As for Olofsson, he ranks second on the team in scoring with 22 points. Seven of those have been goals. Olofsson found the back of the net 35 times in his 137 games with Omaha.

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