An A to a C: it’s a letter change most college students don’t want to see. But for Omaha senior forward Kevin Conley, it’s a sign of more responsibility, but also a badge of honor and a chance to lead the way.
“It’s a huge honor and privilege to represent the UNO program in that way,” Conley said. “I’m looking forward to being able to wear that letter this year.”
An assistant captain in 2019-20, Conley comes into this season as one of the most experienced skaters on the Omaha roster. However, this will be a role he’s not entirely used to. He says this season will be the first time he’s ever been “the guy” and taken on such a leadership role, even dating back to his days of playing youth hockey.
Asked what type of leader he wants to be, it comes from the mindset he takes into any game or practice. Actions speak louder than words.
“I’m more of a lead by example first and I really try to gain the trust of my teammates,” Conley said. “Whether that’s on or off the ice, I want to let my actions speak for themselves rather than just be a vocal guy. I also know that when the time is needed for me to be vocal I can do that though.”
The Wausau, WI native is entering his third season with the Mavericks, which comes after playing 28 games at Denver his freshman season. During his two years in Omaha, he’s tallied 18 goals, 22 assists, and 40 points in 71 games. He’s skated in 99 games at the collegiate level.
Throughout his time with the Mavericks, work ethic has been a big focus, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. For two of his fellow assistant captains for this season, they see it daily, and the captaincy is something the senior has earned.
“Kevin came in as a sophomore when I was a freshman, and ever since I met him he’s always been a leader, whether he’s had a C on his jersey or not,” said Junior forward Taylor Ward. “I think that he’s going to do a fantastic job and I’m very happy for him.
“He might not be the loudest guy, but he leads by example, and he brings something to the table a lot of guys might not have. As we like to call him, he’s a driver. He drives our team and he drives our work ethic every day at the rink.”
It didn’t take long for that ‘driver’ mentality to stand out last season to several of the young guys on the roster. It’s a big part of the reason he was voted captain by his teammates and coaches.
“He kind of sets the tone for how we’re going to play and practice,” said sophomore center Nolan Sullivan. “He’s got a lot of energy and he never really runs out. He’s the type of guy that when you feel like you’re running out, he’s got the energy to keep you going, and you need a guy like that.
“I would honestly say that he’s not an overly stand-out vocal guy, but he’s also not afraid to tell you something 1-on-1 that’s going to make you better too. He’s a voice in the locker room we all respect and that’s why he’s wearing the C.”
With Ward, Sullivan, and defenseman Nate Knoepke as his assistants, they all bring their own skills and style to the locker room. However, having that leadership group will be very beneficial. Conley said all three will offer valuable insight on their strategy.
“Having these guys and a good leadership group behind makes it a lot easier,” Conley said. “They’re all great people, they all work hard, and they all want the best for everybody. I think each guy brings something different to the table to lead in their own way. So when we put that together it’ll make it that much more comfortable going into our locker room and helping me be the best leader I can be.”
For Conley, his goals may sound cliche, but they’re those of any captain. Build trust, push teammates to get the most out of them, hold guys accountable and help when and where needed. At the end of the day, the main goal is to see it translated into success on the ice.
Although this might be his first time having the ‘C’ stitched to the front of his sweater, the responsibilities that come with it won’t be something he’s completely unfamiliar with. Gaining experience as an assistant last season and understanding what is expected of him as a leader on this team will help make the transition that much easier.
“Learning from Coach Gabinet and what he expected last year, I think it will help a lot,” Conley said. “Being in those meetings to talk about what we want to accomplish as a team and things of that nature, that all helps. So to have first-hand experience and know how to be a leader in certain situations will be something I can use this season.”
Another big help comes from the previous two guys before him- Mason Morelli and Dean Stewart. Conley said he’s learned from and will try to model himself after both of them.
“They each led in different ways, and I think there are benefits to each,” Conley said. “Mason is a guy that would be a little more vocal and go out of his way to do anything for anybody and help anyone with any problem. Stew was more of the guy that wanted to lead by example and brought his hard work ethic every day no matter how he was feeling.
“I think being able to learn from and watch how they approached different situations, but also taking different things from each of those guys the past couple years is going to help me a lot. I want to be able to lay the groundwork and influence on our younger guys like they did for me.”
In the long run, Conley hopes to have an impact on the future of the program. However, as time winds down on Dec. 1, the focus is all on the present.
The recently-named captain knows the role will come with some added hurdles along the way this season, especially since nobody knows what to expect. It’ll be anything but normal starting off the season in empty arenas and playing in the pod format.
Captain Conley and his team are ready to face the challenges.
“Yeah, I’m sure there’s going to be some adversity and challenges along the way, but to be able to be the guy to lead us through such a strange time is something I’m honestly looking forward to,” Conley said.
“I’m just very grateful for the opportunity to represent a program like this and I’m excited to see what all we can do this season.”