Saying Nate Knoepke has had a whirlwind of a week would be an understatement.
After having his season and college career come to an end last Saturday in Kalamazoo, Knoepke returned to Omaha on Sunday wondering what the next step in his hockey career would be. Knoepke went to Baxter Arena Monday morning for his exit meeting with the Omaha coaching staff and went back home as if it was a normal day.
While working on homework a few hours later, he received a call from his advisor telling him that a possible contract was in the works, but nothing was done yet. Knoepke put his phone down and went back to his assignment. However, his phone rang again no more than 30 minutes later.
“Get your bags packed. You might be flying out tonight, you might be flying out tomorrow,” Knoepke remembered of the call. “I just kind of dropped everything and tried to figure out what’s next.”
What’s next was a flight to Rochester, New York, on Tuesday afternoon. Officially announced on Wednesday, Knoepke signed an amateur tryout offer (ATO) with the Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. Knoepke will make his professional debut Friday night against the Cleveland Monsters.
After spending four years with the Mavericks, it’ll be quite the change of scenery for the 22-year-old defenseman. However, it won’t be the first time Knoepke has joined a team midseason.
Knoepke played two games at the University of Minnesota during the 2017-18 season before joining Sioux City (USHL). That decision to leave Minnesota led to Mike Gabinet and the Mavericks giving him a second chance at the collegiate level. He plans to make the most of this opportunity in Rochester too.
“I think I can learn a little bit from jumping from juniors to Minnesota, where things didn’t really go exactly how I hoped,” Knoepke said. “And I think I look back at that now and I know I’ve just got to have a lot more confidence in myself this time around.”
An assistant captain the last two years, Knoepke skated in 134 games as a Maverick. The Minnesota native said his favorite memory in Omaha will always be the Pod and the thing he’ll miss the most will simply be the day-to-day life around Baxter Arena with his teammates.
One of four fifth-year players on this season’s roster, Knoepke said the decision to return was an easy one. Partly because he needed to for school, but also because there was a sense of unfinished business after reaching the NCAA Tournament last March.
Nearly a year later, the Mavericks find themselves on the outside looking in. Although it was a disappointing season from that standpoint, Knoepke said he’s extremely thankful he returned for his final year. He’s also proud of the resiliency the group showed.
“It was a roller coaster,” Knoepke said of this season. “Obviously we came up short, but it’s kind of a testament to the group. We had those losses against bottom-30 teams that really hurt us in the PairWise, but we were still right there towards the end of the season.
“I know nobody in that locker room gave up at all after that weekend at Miami, and that’s one of the things I’m proudest of our group. That was kind of the realization where alright, if we want to make it, we need to dial it in and make a run here. I think everyone came to work and after that, we took a big step at the end. I thought we played well at Western (Michigan) too, but things didn’t go our way.”
The Mavericks returned home from Oxford and went on a 4-2 run, capped off by a 4-1 win over North Dakota on senior night. Knoepke said the final three weeks were some of the most fun he’s had playing hockey, especially with the crowds and energy inside Baxter Arena.
Fittingly enough, he netted his first and only goal of the season in that senior night win. Knoepke joked he saved the best for last.
However, the offensive numbers aren’t what Knoepke will be remembered for. He brought consistency on a nightly basis and provided the Mavericks a steady presence on the blue line.
“I just want to be remembered as a hard-working guy that didn’t really care about the spotlight or anything,” Knoepke said. “I just always wanted to try and do anything I could for the team and help us get a win.”
Although Knoepke now finds himself more than 1,000 miles away from Omaha, the newest old bull has a message for the next wave of Mavericks.
“Look back at how our class came in,” Knoepke said. “We didn’t have a bad team, we just suffered a tough year. We ended up with nine wins the whole year my first season, so we had a really tough year. But you just have to put your head down and just go to work.
“That’s kind of what the mentality we took the last three years and I know (Gabinet) has been trying to put that into the culture here where it’s a work before skill mentality. And things are going to be tough every year, so you have to just stick with it. We had a great team this year and things were tough, so you just kind of have to cancel the noise and keep working. But enjoy your time (in Omaha) because it goes by fast.”