Tenacious warrior; competitive leader; these are traits you want in any athlete. Luckily for Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet, he’s got all of those traits wrapped up in one player – freshman center Nolan Sullivan.
“He’s just a competitor,” said Gabinet. “At this level – as much as skill is a great thing to have – really it doesn’t mean anything unless you’re willing to compete.”
Through 18 games, Sullivan has put up 11 points (four goals, seven assists), he’s been one of the Mavericks’ most dependable centers at both ends of the ice and he leads the team in the faceoff dot, with a 0.612 winning percentage.
Lately, Sullivan has seen his name penciled in at center on one of the top two lines, but to start the year he clawed his way into a role on the so-called fourth line. He was even scratched in three games early this season. No matter what, though, the work ethic that’s gotten him to this point has been there from a young age, and it all goes back to where it started in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
“It’s home,” said Sullivan. “It’s just a strong community that’s very passionate about hockey and sports as a whole. Everyone is supportive here, and there’s a lot of pride and passion behind it.”
In a state that five Division I hockey programs call home, with Wisconsin and North Dakota neighboring to the east and west respectively, why head south to the cornfields and plains of Nebraska? For Sullivan, the decision was easy.
“Omaha was definitely my best choice for hockey. I wanted to play in the NCHC, and I had a great connection with coach Noel-Bernier right off the start,” Sullivan said. “I had actually talked to the previous coaching staff as well, but I think getting here, seeing the facilities and meeting the coaching staff was a huge selling point for me.”
Although it’s still early, it looks like he’s found a role so far with the crimson and black. The coaching staff and the early ice time has been a big reason for that.
“I love it here so far. I think Coach Gabinet is very fair, as far as you get what you earn and you’re only as good as what you put into it,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get a shot here early at the top of the lineup, but we roll four lines pretty evenly, so as long as you’re in the lineup, you’re playing.”
Sullivan continued with his praise.
“It’s been a blast playing for Coach Gabinet. Between him and the other coaches, there’s a lot of wisdom and a lot of experience. I’m just trying to be a sponge, especially as a freshman … not only learning from them, but also the older guys, and just getting better on a daily basis,” he said.
However, it all goes back to those home roots that have helped make him both the player and the person he is today.
“He was just a tremendous individual both on and off the ice,” said Eden Prairie high school head coach Lee Smith. “Wonderful player, wonderful leader, winner–just anything you would hope for in a player was Nolan Sullivan.”
The player-coach relationship can be love-hate in any sport and at any level, but for Sullivan the ties run deep with his high school coach. It’s still a relationship he cherishes today.
“Coach Smith is just such a great guy,” Sullivan said. “I’ve had great coaches my whole life growing up in Eden Prairie, and Coach Smith is right up there at the top. He’s still great about texting me now and checking in. Whether it’s shooting me a text after I score, or have a good game or if I take some type of penalty, you know he’s watching and still wants to help in any way he can.”
Smith saw Sullivan for the first time at a young age and said it was no surprise he’s turned into the player he has.
“My first real opportunity to coach him was between his freshman and sophomore years. When I was working with him that summer, I knew he was different right away. He had the ability, the work ethic and passion to be a special player,” Smith said. “That led into his sophomore season, where he made the team and had a really good year, and then he became a captain as a junior and senior.”
In addition to being the player he is on the ice, it’s the actions away from the rink that stood out more to Smith.
“He was just first class,” Smith said. “He would be the first person to volunteer at a school, or go cheer on the basketball team–he was just first class in every aspect. He was a tremendous supporter of Eden Prairie and the student body, so he was just somebody everyone looked up to.”
Along with the hockey itself, another thing that made growing up in Eden Prairie so special were those bonds and friendships that were formed at a young age.
“It’s definitely something you take for granted growing up,” said Sullivan. “But you realize after the fact how special it was to stay together as a group. Especially in juniors, there are guys in and out as trades happen and cuts are made, which is why I was honestly really excited just to get to Omaha and have that stability again.”
Sullivan said: “Those were the guys I grew up with all of my life, and it’s the reason why I love the game. We grew up playing in the backyard against each other, and that’s the reason we developed those skills, but there’s just something special about playing high school hockey in Minnesota. Our dream was to win the state tournament, and unfortunately we fell short, but we got to make it [to the state tournament] three different times. Those are memories I’ll never take back for anything. I think in some places guys think they have to leave right away to go play juniors, but Eden Prairie is a big enough city where you can stick around and get some great competition on a daily basis,” Sullivan said. “I love all of those boys, and I can’t thank them enough for pushing me to become who I am today.”
On top of playing hockey, Sullivan was also a multi-sport athlete. Whether it was on the baseball diamond, football field or on the ice, he said they all helped him become a better athlete.
“I think it was huge,” Sullivan said. “I think I’m one of the stronger guys because of it. I might lack some of the skills at times, which might be because I come from playing football in high school, as opposed to guys who played year-round hockey, but it was definitely something I wanted to do. I knew there honestly weren’t a whole lot of people in more corner in high school saying to keep playing football, and I played baseball too up until my freshman year of high school.”
“It was more of a personal decision that I had with myself and my family, but from a strength standpoint and the skills you get from other sports, I definitely think you can apply them to hockey, and I’m definitely a big believer in being a multi-sport athlete,” Sullivan said. “It was hard at times at Eden Prairie just because of our numbers, and a lot of kids just focus on one main sports, but I wouldn’t take back any of those memories.”
Sullivan found his niche in athletics as a whole, developing friendships in many areas.
“I’ve obviously met some of my best friends playing hockey, but the same could be said about football. There’s one of them that it is supposed to go in the first round in the NFL draft this year (Carter Coughlin) that I get to say I played linebacker with, so there’s a bunch of solid relationships I’ve made over the years. They’re always checking in, hoping hockey is going well, and I do the same with them. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” he said.
Smith said it only helped Sullivan as an athlete, and he wishes more kids were that way today.
“If I could have my way, I would want every player to be that way. The skills you can take from being a lacrosse player, or a baseball player or the toughness from football, it can only help,” Smith said. “Even something as simple as the team concept and being unselfish, there’s a lot of that in hockey, and it only makes these athletes better.”
After Sullivan’s time came to an end at Eden Prairie, the center made the jump to Muskegon of the United States Hockey League. Sullivan skated in 119 games for the Lumberjacks over the course of the past two seasons.
In his second season, Sullivan put up 35 points between the regular and postseason, and was a +12 on the year. However, most kids don’t get the opportunity to play at home for as long as he did, which is something he’ll forever be grateful for.
“There are a lot of guys that have to get out and travel at a young age,” Sullivan said. “So it’s really nice to stay with our families and go through that normal high school experience that most people get. Coach Smith is as good as you’ll find and has been at Eden Prairie for a long time, so he definitely knows what he’s doing, but between that and playing against guys who I know are going to be at the next level, it was just an opportunity to take that next step at home. I think all of that prepares you to take that next step or jump to get to the next level, and to be a part of such a supportive community was huge for my development.”
Smith said he feels those extra years at home will only benefit Sullivan down the road.
“It’s like steps on a ladder,” said Smith. “You’ve got to move one level at a time, and as a hockey player, we believe the foundation and base we can give our players here is going to make them capable of going anywhere and being successful beyond high school. With that, it’s very important we give them a challenging schedule and put them in a position to grow as a player and challenge them, so when they leave here they can be successful.”
“With him, seeing him get to the state tournament for the first time was very exciting and those are the type of moments you love as a coach,” Smith said. “His brother was part of that, too, so seeing the two accomplish that and go to the state tournament together was very exciting.”
The first run to the state tournament Smith mentioned was not only special for Sullivan, but for his entire family. The 2014-2015 Eden Prairie roster featured both Sullivan and his older brother, Marc.
That’s just one of several great memories as an Eagle, and as Sullivan looked back over the years and rattled off some of his favorite moments, he couldn’t help but smile as he said the 2014-2015 season was full of them.
“My sophomore year, we went into overtime for our section final game. We actually had three players suspended due to a fight in our previous game, and a couple key players out of the line up, but we ended up going into overtime with Minnetonka,” Sullivan said. “I think we were playing three lines, so most guys were tired out, but I got the puck in the corner and sent a pass to Casey (Middlestadt), and he scored for the game-winner. That was the first time we had punched our ticket to the state tournament at the X (Xcel Energy Center), and to do it with my brother by my side, it was an amazing experience.”
“All three of my appearances at the state tournament were special, and we got to the championship game my junior year in front of a sold out crowd,” Sullivan said. “It’s always crazy to see all the people there. My senior year we also got to be a part of Hockey Day Minnesota in Stillwater, right by the Hudson River, which was a very special experience, as well.”
As one of the people who knows him best and has seen him play the most, there’s still the coach in Smith. No matter what, he wants to see all of his kids be successful at the next level. Smith said, specifically for Sullivan, it’s the intangibles off the ice that will carry him in the future.
“Keep working hard, keep shooting the puck and keep your feet moving. We use to call him ‘the baby bull,’ and I think he loved that nickname,” Smith said. “He even texted me after his first goal that he did the baby bull shuffle, so I think he needs to just continue to work hard and have that passion for the game, and he’ll be fine.”
Smith said the “baby bull” would make a great impact for the Mavericks.
“Any team will be better that he skates on, because he’s such a great leader and such a team-first guy. His hockey stuff will take care of itself, but just maintaining the ability to be the great locker room guy will take him even farther,” Smith said. “That’s the one thing that he brought that you can’t always coach. It comes from within, and he has that.”
It’s been a fun ride to get to Omaha, but this is just a chapter in another long journey. Every hockey player has a story, but for Nolan Sullivan, none of it would have been possible without Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
“It was just such a great family culture, and a loving environment. That brotherhood has always been huge for me, and we had a great class there at Eden Prairie,” Sullivan said. “I’m happy to call it home.”