It may not have the spotlight and glamour of being out on the ice and putting the puck in the net, but it’s his job the makes the hockey program tick on a daily basis. Meet Jason Smits, the head equipment manager for Maverick hockey.
Known as “Smitty” around the rink, his day starts long before the puck drops at 7:07 and “It’s Maverick hockey time in Omaha!” booms across the Baxter Arena PA system. Behind the scenes, it’s a nonstop effort to get the Mavericks ready for the night, as Smits often arrives to work as early as 8:00 a.m.
“There are some days where I don’t even open my computer to go through emails until 3:00 in the afternoon,” Smits said. “You’re always constantly moving and there’s always something to do. I’ve told myself from day one–if you’re sitting down, there’s something that’s not getting done.”
From morning skate to the final whistle, it’s a long day at the office for Smits, and most fans don’t realize how much work is done before the team even steps on the ice: 27 pairs of skates sharpened; a pair of socks and a jersey hanging in each stall; stick racks organized; laundry done and towels folded; Stick and sock tape on the bench; and the list keeps going, all the way down to making sure the bathroom counters are fully stocked with toiletry items.
Smits is even responsible for the officials’ locker room, carefully placing a pink towel on their chairs and setting out a bucket of bubblegum, along with a tub full of extra laces and tools, which sits on a table by the door. The job keeps him busy, but Smits says he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Working in sports is definitely not as romantic as a lot of people think it is, but at the same time, it is awesome. Most of the time it doesn’t even feel like work,” Smits said. “Next year I’ll unofficially be around 500 games, and I’ve watched all of them from the bench. There’s not a better seat in the house, right?”
While his duties may seem mundane to some, Smits is it in for the people.
“One of the best things about hockey, if not the best, are the players and the people I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve been fortunate all throughout my career to be on great staffs, and I love our coaches and support staff here,” Smits said. “I see these guys more than I see my wife and kids during the season, so I love having that tight-knit group.”
Take a step inside room 180 on the lower level of Baxter Arena and you can probably find every tool imaginable. From the skate sharpeners and extra blades, to the washer and dryer, a surplus of cleaning supplies and even some of the old Mavericks’ trophies, his office has it all covered.
Look at the walls and you can find a puck from nearly every Division I hockey program. At his desk, scarves line the wall and other momentos represent both his previous stops and the soccer fanatic he is.
Across the hall, you’ll see racks of brand new sticks, hundreds of jerseys lined up and tubs of extra equipment. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s all part of the day-to-day responsibilities that come with the gig.
“The biggest thing is making sure these guys are taken care of. The players, the coaches–my job is to make their job easier, whether that be by doing something as simple as laundry, sharpening skates or even getting practice ready,” Smits said. “I’ve done it all.”
Now in his third season at Omaha, Smits’ hockey background and, specifically, experience as an equipment manager goes back over a decade, but it all started in the midwest. A native of Moline, Illinois, Smits got his start right across the river with the Quad City Mallards. He says it started out by simply helping their equipment manager, Drew Kitts. After a few weeks, he was taking Wednesdays off from his paid job in order to go help set up the locker room, which led to a volunteer position with the Mallards for the 2009-10 season.
From then on, Smits wanted to pursue a career as a hockey equipment manager, which took him to Muskegon, Michigan- home of the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. That eventually led him into the college ranks.
“I started off in hockey around 10 years ago when I got the job with Muskegon and worked there for six seasons. I broke into Division I hockey four years ago with Clarkson, and after one year there, the Omaha job came open,” Smits said. “It’s closer to where my wife is from and where I’m from, so I decided to give it a shot, ended up getting the job and this is now my third year here.”
Looking back, Smits said when he started he didn’t realize he’d be jumping head first off the diving board into the job.
“My first visit here was actually my first day when I got the job,” Smits said, laughing. “Because Clarkson was so far away, when I got the job here I didn’t have a lot of time, and I came sight unseen. I had to google map how to get to the arena, had no idea what door to come in, no idea where I was going and I remember walking in having no idea who anyone was. I didn’t have keys yet, I couldn’t get into the room, just typical first day stuff anybody encounters.”
“The thing I remember most though was walking in and seeing the building for the first time. Even today, three to four years later, it’s still unbelievable to walk out of the tunnel for a game and see it,” Smits said. “To see all of the people when the stands are full, and the video board hanging over center ice–-it’s beautiful, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Before Smits ever called his Baxter Arena office home, however, he admitted he didn’t know a ton about the Omaha hockey program. At the same time, he recalled being in a similar position just a few years earlier in Muskegon, and he was intrigued right away.
“I knew in 2015 they had that run to the Frozen Four, and just from being a hockey fan in general, they had been a solid program for 20 years. They played in a great conference, so I knew it would be a ‘no nights off’ type of deal, which was big for me,” Smits said. “No matter who you were playing or where you were going, it was always going to be a good hard game going up against the best opponents in hockey.”
Smits enjoys growing alongside the Omaha hockey program, as well.
“Believe it or not though, Omaha is still a young program. It’s less than 25 years, so it’s actually one of the newer ones in college hockey, which I enjoy,” Smits said. “It’s like when I was in Muskegon. We were an expansion franchise, so it isn’t that extreme here, but we still get a chance to grow a young program here. We’re going to keep working to grow it, and if we’re not happy with where we’re at, we’re going to do whatever it takes to get to that level.”
That time in Muskegon formed one of the most impactful relationships in Smits life, somebody who still works close to him today–Maverick assistant coach Dave Noel-Bernier.
“When I first came to Muskegon, it is not a stretch to say I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing,” Smits said. “Dave was nice enough to take me under his wing and explain this is what you have to do and what is part of the job. There were some things that I didn’t know I needed to do. I still remember my first road trip, getting the gear from off the bus, throwing it in the room and leaving. I didn’t know I was supposed to stay and set up the room. I didn’t know I had to sharpen skates before the game. My first home, I showed up at 6:00 p.m. because the game was at 7:00 p.m. I was like, ‘oh, I’ll get there a little early today’ an hour before the game.”
Smits has learned his lesson.
“Now for home games, I get here at 8:00 in the morning. It’s just hilarious to look back and shake my head at those types of things,” Smits said. “He [Noel-Bernier] and Kevin Patrick (who’s now coaching at Vermont), without their patience and understanding, I wouldn’t be here today. I don’t think I’m wrong when I say I owe my career to Dave. He’s not only been a great person to work with, but a great friend throughout the years.”
Smits sang the praises of the mentors who led him to his position in Omaha.
“When somebody does all of that for you, you don’t want to let them down or do a bad job. With him [Noel-Bernier] being here, it’s always pushing me to make sure I’m doing things properly, doing things on time and I’m going above and beyond. Because that’s what he did for me, and I don’t want to let him down,” Smits said. “I’m just very thankful for everything he’s done.”
Along with reuniting with Noel-Bernier in Omaha, Smits has now fully immersed himself in the Maverick hockey tradition. Personally, he says his favorite part of the gig is getting to open the doors for the team to go out and sing after a home win. However, the part he enjoys the most is the family atmosphere and the strong alumni base.
“The amount of alums here in Omaha–-it’s special. A lot of them when they get done playing here stay here, or when they’re done playing professionally, they come back. There is always somebody here,” Smits said. “They always stop down to say hi, shake your hand and ask how things are going, and they don’t have to do that. Most of them didn’t even know me to begin with, but it’s really cool to have these guys stop by and I’ve met a lot of them now. It just goes to show how good the people are around here, which I love.”
With that, he’s excited to finally have that stability and form some of those bonds and relationships of his own.
“One of the negatives of jumping from the USHL and being at Clarkson for the one year, you miss out on those relationships. This is my third year with the older guys here, and I didn’t get a chance to work my way up with the guys in the previous spots,” Smits said. “I look around now, I’ve been with Jonesy (Ryan Jones), Stewy (Dean Stewart), ZJ (Zach Jordan), Kecker (Tristan Keck) and all of these seniors for three years, and we’ve gotten to know so much about each other. It’s nice, where I feel like there’s a relationship there, and I missed that in other places. One of the things I’m most excited about looking into the future, though, is I’m going to be with this group of freshmen for all four years.”
Smits finds his dedication in the community he builds as a special member of the team.
“By the time they’re all seniors, it’ll be awesome, just like the seniors we have now. Granted I’ve only been with them for three years, but to have that continuity and trust, it builds a great relationship,” Smits said. “With this group being so young, I’ll remember them from the first day they were here, all the way until their senior day. Just seeing that growth over all four years, it’ll be something great to have a front row seat for.”
Smits said no day is the same, and with a young energetic group this season, that’s what makes the job fun.
“I’m getting older, but these guys keep me young and keep me on my toes. Game days are great. I enjoy the travel, I enjoy setting the rooms up and there are some long days involved. You get used to the lack of sleep, but when I have a hard day, I just look around and realize this is what I’m doing. I’m not stuck at a cubicle, I don’t have to wear a suit to work everyday,” Smits said. “There’s a lot of things that are great about this job, and I love coming to the rink every day.”