Bulls in the Pros

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Former Omaha defenseman Joel Messner is one of several Mavericks who have been busy in the professional ranks recently. Messner is currently playing with the Jacksonville Icemen and will soon leave to join the Providence Bruins for the AHL season. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

Although members of the current Omaha roster haven’t played a game since Dec. 21, several former Mavericks have hit the ice in recent weeks. The ECHL is just over a month into their season, the NHL has just started, and the AHL will follow soon. On top of that, several others are carving out a career across Europe.

The Gateway recently caught up with former Omaha defensemen Joel Messner, who is currently playing with the ECHL’s Jacksonville Icemen. Messner, who played 135 games in an Omaha sweater and captained the Mavericks during the 2017-18 season, is grateful for the opportunity to be back playing the sport.

“It’s been good and I’m just happy to be back playing right now more than anything,” Messner said. “There’s a lot of guys without jobs that aren’t playing hockey, so I’m pretty fortunate for the opportunity, and obviously the Florida weather is great too.”

In three games with the Icemen, Messner has tallied two goals, his second coming Wednesday night on a wrister from just a step inside the blue line. He made his Jacksonville debut on Jan. 6.

Messner still follows his alma mater regularly and was watching during the Pod when he could. He said there’s a lot to like about this year’s Omaha group and he’s impressed with how they’ve played through the first 10 games.

After seeing an empty Baxter Arena in the Pod and the NHL starting with no fans in the stands, besides a couple exceptions, he says it has been a welcomed sight to see some fans in the building with Jacksonville. Although it will be in a limited capacity, 1,500 fans will be allowed back in Baxter Arena for the upcoming Omaha series against Denver.

“The max capacity is around 4,000, which is still quite a bit to think about with the buildings in the ECHL,” Messner said. “It’s nice to have some people in the stands, and obviously the fans are a big part of the games at Baxter too, so hopefully everyone stays safe and is smart about it.”

Jacksonville is 2-1 in the games Messner has played with the club. He signed a deal with the Icemen on Jan. 6 as a way to prepare for the AHL season with the Providence Bruins, who he signed with last April. Messner previously played in 32 games for the Bruins during the 2018-19 season.

He’ll play in three more games with Jacksonville before heading north to Providence next Tuesday. Messner said he’s excited and intrigued to see what the rest of this season will look like. The Bruins will play in a three-team division with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Hartford Wolf Pack in a shortened season which will only feature games against those two opponents.

“It’s going to be a little wild, especially in our case with only three teams in the division,” Messner said. “Nobody knows what to expect and I know it sounds cliche, but at the end of the day we’re thankful to just be getting back on the ice.”

The AHL season gets started on Feb. 5. Providence will have an abbreviated training camp towards the end of this month before getting games underway. This season will be an adjustment for everyone involved, but Messner is excited to join the Bruins once again. He’s one of several former Mavs who have been busy recently. 

Jake Guentzel

Arguably the most well-known player in program history, Guentzel has blossomed into one of the top young players in the NHL. After suffering a shoulder injury and missing most of the regular season, which also caused him to miss the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis, Guentzel returned for the NHL playoffs in Toronto in August. The Penguins were eliminated in the qualifying round by the Montreal Canadiens, and those are the only four games Guentzel had played in over the past calendar year.

Now fully healthy and ready to go, Guentzel and the Penguins opened up the season Wednesday night with a 6-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Guentzel recorded one shot on goal, but was held off the scoresheet. At Omaha, Guentzel scored 40 goals and had 79 assists for 119 points. He skated in 108 games across three seasons. This will be his third full season in the NHL.

Evan Weninger

Weninger returned to the Wichita Thunder on Dec. 20 for a second stint with the club after playing 12 games in a Thunder sweater last season. He finished with a 4-4-3 record. So far this season, Weninger is 2-0-1 in three games with a .931 save percentage and 2.27 GAA. He won two straight games against the Kansas City Mavericks last weekend with a 21-save and 37-save in the two respective games. Weninger owns the most saves in Omaha program history (3260) and the third-most wins (48).

Dean Stewart

The defenseman also recently signed a deal with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder, where he’ll join Weninger. A 2016 seventh-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, Stewart was not signed by the Coyotes this summer, making him a free agent. It’s the first professional contract for the Manitoba native. Stewart finished his time in Omaha with 45 points in 130 games and was voted the team’s MVP last season. He’s yet to appear in a game with Wichita.

Mason Morelli

Another former Omaha captain (2018-19 season), Morelli also currently finds himself playing in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. Through nine games this season, he’s picked up four goals and assists for a total of eight points. Morelli scored a goal and added an assist in the Stingrays last game, a 6-3 win over Wheeling. He’ll face Messner on Monday afternoon.

Similar to Messner, Morelli should be heading north soon to join the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals. Morelli signed a one-year deal with Hersey back on Sep. 14, 2020.

Anthony Stolarz

Although his time in Omaha was brief, the one-time former Maverick recently signed a two-year, one-way contract extension with the Anaheim Ducks that will keep him there through the 2022-23 season. Stolarz played in just eight games in Omaha during the 2012-13 season before departing for London (OHL). He finished the 2019-20 season at 21-12-8 with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls, which is where he’s likely ticketed to start this season. Stolarz is only 26 years old.

Austin Ortega

The player with the second-most goals in program history (70) and fourth-most points (139) has joined EC Red Bull Salzburg. Ortega was previously with TPS (Liiga) and had put up three goals and three assists through 16 games this season.

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