‘We get to, not we have to’ the mindset in a year full of challenges, creativity and flexibility for Omaha Hockey

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

The way of travel for the Omaha hockey team has a new look this season due to the COVID-19 guidelines. It’s been a year full of adjustments for everyone around the program, but it’s a ‘we get to, not we have to’ mindset that has everyone grateful to be playing this season. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.The way of travel for the Omaha hockey team has a new look this season due to the COVID-19 guidelines. It’s been a year full of adjustments for everyone around the program, but it’s a ‘we get to, not we have to’ mindset that has everyone grateful to be playing this season. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

As Jake McKamey sat at his laptop throughout the summer months of 2020, there was a feeling of uncertainty. No hotels to book, no buses to reserve, no meetings to schedule, and no travel to plan for. At that point, McKamey wasn’t even sure if there would be a season to prepare for at all.

“I just remember there was still so much unknown,” he said. “When our guys returned in August, I didn’t know if our team was going to be playing this season at all. I think that was in the back of everyone’s mind, but nobody really wanted to actually say it. So we’re just very thankful that the NCAA and NCHC found a way for us to play.

“This year it is what it is, and that’s the mindset coach has instilled in everyone. It’s more we get to, not we have to, and at the end of the day, we’re very lucky to be in the position we are. We’ve known anything can happen, but we’re just lucky that it is happening and we are playing.”

The Director of Hockey Operations, McKamey oversees most of the day-to-day workings within the Omaha program. He’s in just his second season in the position and third year with the Mavericks overall. Flexibility and being able to adjust on the fly are two things he knew would come with the job, but they’ve been tested this year more than ever.

“It’s been at the forefront of my attitude,” McKamey said. “We knew things were going to happen and we’d face challenges this season, but what matters is how we respond. You have to be flexible as it is in my position because bad things are going to happen in a regular year. Flights are going to get canceled, buses are going to breakdown, but you can’t panic.

“There’s a lot of guys on the team, so it’s up to myself and the support staff to have a plan. The less that the coaching staff has to worry about travel or testing, the more they can focus on their job, which is coaching and getting our team better.”

Jake McKamey’s view from the Ralph Engelstad Arena press box. The Director of Hockey Operations, McKamey is in charge of the Mavericks travel on the road. During a game, he can be seen wearing the earpiece and in constant communication with the Omaha bench. McKamey and student assistant Nick Brasel handle video breakdown and monitor the play for potential challenges. Photo courtesy of Jake McKamey.

It’s a job that helps the team tick on a daily basis. In a normal year, McKamey says he’d start to put together plans and make decisions in May, June and July of what they want to do travel-wise in the upcoming season. Whether that means buying plane tickets, lining up buses, booking hotels, and everything in between.

This season, that simply hasn’t been the case. The short time frame has been both the biggest difference and the biggest challenge, especially with the different schedule. Last-minute changes and quick decisions have become the norm to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“I’m very fortunate to have Jake on the staff because he’s one of those guys that takes initiatives on things and thinks about potential problems and solutions before they even arise,” said head coach Mike Gabinet. “He really handles everything and consults me on certain preferences on things, but I think this year has just been a lot of strategic planning and executing a gameplay, and he’s done a great job with that this season.”

Strategic planning is an understatement considering everything that has been thrown his way since the Mavericks started preparing for games in late November. However, it’s not a one-man show, as McKamey gives a lot of credit to the support staff. Student assistant Nick Brasel, equipment manager Jason Smits, athletic trainer Josh Englebretson, and strength coach Mike Lewis.

That group was tested right out of the gate, as Omaha played host to the NCHC Pod throughout December. McKamey was tasked with most of the planning, which included spending more than three weeks in a hotel.

“My first thought was this is going to be awesome, but my second thought was how is this going to affect the support staff if it’s in Omaha,” McKamey said. “We wanted to make sure it was successful from our team’s standpoint, so that started with finding the best hotel for us to stay in. That way we could make sure we were rested, prepared and comfortable, but most of all safe.

“When the news got announced, coach (Gabinet) and I went and looked at three different hotels in Aksarben, looked at multiple rooms, and decided which one was going to be the best for us. We were excited because we were finally playing and had a start date on paper, but I knew there were going to be a lot of challenges that came with it.”

One of the two Omaha buses gets loaded up as the team prepares to hit the road. McKamey credits the support staff for all of their hard work this season. Even something as simple as calling Chipotle in Sioux City on the way to Grand Forks to see if they can put together a last-minute team to-go meal. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

For McKamey and the members of the staff, it was a little bit of a luxury having it in Omaha, but it didn’t necessarily feel like home. He and Brasel watched every game of the Pod and broke down film live so coaches could have it the next day. That included three games in a row some days, while organizing meals and team meetings on top of it.

“It became very long days with a lot of responsibilities, but you just hoped you could do your part to help the team have success,” McKamey said. “We had a previous relationship with the hotels and familiarity and comfort with the area obviously, so we could just worry about playing. At the end of the day we had a lot of success in the Pod, so we feel like it all paid off.”

Following a successful showing, that flexibility was tested yet again as a COVID outbreak swept through the team. The Mavericks first three series to open the second half were postponed in some form. Less than a month later, McKamey and company had to scramble as their series at Denver and against Colorado College were flipped.

“The biggest challenge has been trying to keep all of our guys healthy, but also finding the best way to get to a place,” he said. “We want to minimize travel every year and be safe, but especially this season with COVID. We’ve had to find a lot of ways to limit exposure, but when we’ve had guys get it, it’s been a different puzzle you have to work with.”

On the road itself, the travel has had a much different look this season. Masks are required everywhere, multiple buses are being used, and seating charts are in place. Those are designed to separate guys who have previously had or been exposed to COVID-19 and mitigate risks. The Mavericks have also flown just twice this season, but it was not the entire roster.

The Mavericks’ welcome sign at their hotel in Grand Forks, where they’ve made three trips in the past four weeks. Photo courtesy of Jake McKamey.

It’s also added another element from a financial standpoint, as budgeting has been especially critical across collegiate athletics this year. Double the bus, double the driver, and double the cost.

That’s just one of several factors that have gone into the thought process this season. A normal road trip would see the team depart on the Wednesday before a series or Thursday morning at the latest so they can practice in the opposing rink. This year, it’s been practice at Baxter Arena on Thursday and arrive at the destination the night before the first game.

Regarding the hotel situation, guys haven’t been with their normal hotel roommates this season either. They even had their own rooms in the Pod. In the second half, it’s similar to the bus situation as those who have previously had COVID are placed together to try and eliminate risks.

Isaiah Saville fills his plate during one of the Mavericks’ trips to North Dakota. State-by-state guidelines have impacted the different trips this season. The Mavericks weren’t able to serve themselves and had premade, pre-plated food at the hotels in Colorado. However, they have been able to eat as a team in Grand Forks. Photo courtesy of Jake McKamey.

In addition to the masks, the most noticeable change of course has been COVID testing. Players have been tested four times a week this season and are being tested each day at the NCHC playoffs in Grand Forks. It’s something they’re all used to at this point.

“The people in charge of keeping us safe and putting the travel plans together have done a great job,” said sophomore Nolan Sullivan. “We’ve been able to just show up and stay focused on our team and try to have success out on the ice.”

Sullivan is one of 15 Mavericks who has made every trip this season, as multiple members of the Omaha roster have been affected by COVID-19 this season. It’s still been business as usual.

“At first it was an adjustment and the way we travel has changed, but it hasn’t really been that different for us players,” said senior captain Kevin Conley, who has also played in every road game. “The trips we’ve had have been pretty seamless and Jake and the staff have done a great job of coordinating everything so we’re traveling safely.

“It makes it easy on us as we just get on the bus and go where we need to be, and we can just focus on playing.”

One of two buses the Mavericks took to Grand Forks for the NCHC playoffs. The team has implemented a seating chart this season to separate guys who have already been exposed to COVID to limit risks. Photo courtesy of Jake McKamey.

The team didn’t hit the road for the first time this season until Jan. 17. They’ve also only played the same three opponents since Christmas, which has been another change.

“It’s always nice getting those out of conference games and it’s fun seeing different teams and places, but we’ve only played three teams since Christmas,” Sullivan said. “It changes up the pre-scout and preparation a little bit with seeing the same guys, but at the same time, we’re just extremely grateful to be playing.”

That’s the message his head coach has been saying all season.

“At the end of the day it’s about playing hockey and giving our guys an opportunity to compete,” Gabinet said. “We’ve looked at this season as an opportunity that we get to play, rather than we have to, and I think our guys have done a good job of handling everything.”

Although the schedule has slowly started to get back to normal in the second half, all eight teams in the NCHC will be tasked with another challenge. They’ll all travel to Grand Forks to finish the season the way it started- in a Pod.

“I’ve been staring at the calendar for about a month now and just trying to think of every possible contingency plan we could have,” McKamey said. “With single-elimination in place, you could be in Grand Forks for three days, or you could be there for the entire week.

“That’s where you’ve got to plan ahead with hotel rooms, food, bus schedules and all of that stuff that comes with being on the road, but we’ll face it as it comes. It is a little bit tough, especially since we’re battling for a regional spot on top of it, so it becomes very difficult to plan ahead.”

Once again, it’s an opportunity to play.

“We’re excited for it,” said freshman forward Jimmy Glynn. “Playing in the Pod in Omaha was definitely different and it’s not exactly what I pictured my start to college hockey would be like. But looking back at it, it was a lot of fun. Living in the hotel with the guys was great and we got to bond a lot better, so we’re looking forward to this.”

The Omaha dressing room set before the final regular season game at North Dakota. The Mavericks will be back in Grand Forks this weekend, where they take on Denver Saturday afternoon in the NCHC Quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of Jason Smits.

For the guys who have gone through it, especially considering what all has happened over the past 12 months, it’s almost surreal to think back on this season.

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” said junior defenseman Jason Smallidge. “It’s crazy to think almost a year ago we were in Denver before the whole world got shut down, but a lot of important people made things happen and allowed us to have a season. We’re all extremely thankful that we ended up getting to play, but it’s been a great experience and one none of us will forget.”

For McKamey and the other members of the Omaha staff, there’s probably been a few sleepless nights along the way and several headaches to deal with this season. It’s not done yet, especially with a group that has NCAA tournament aspirations, but it’s been an experience he won’t forget any time soon.

“I’ll probably be looking back at this year for the rest of my life just because of how crazy it’s been and the things that were thrown at us,” McKamey said. “It’s really been a special year though and we’ve all grown a lot closer because of it. It’s been a year we won’t forget.”

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