Work, learn and develop at Omaha. That message played a big part in getting several members of the Maverick’s roster to join the program.
The youngest member on the roster, defenseman Kirby Proctor, is one of 11 freshmen that made an impact during the 2019-2020 season. Now with one season of college hockey under his belt, there’s a lot to like, but he hopes it’s just the start of something special in Omaha.
“I think this year was a good sign of what we’re going to be able to do in the next couple years,” Proctor said. “I feel like a lot of places coming in you don’t get the opportunity to make as big of an impact as a freshman, and I think it’s only going to be beneficial for us in the future. With all of us coming up together and being such a close-knit group, we’re going to be able to do something special.”
A native of Okotoks, Alberta in Canada, the young defenseman finishes the season skating in 32 games, tied for a team-best 9 +/- rating and was a fixture on the Mavericks’ third pair for most of the season, alongside Jason Smallidge.
That pairing was especially noticeable late in the season, and Proctor was rewarded with his first career NCAA goal, the eventual game-winner over No. 2 North Dakota. More importantly, he kept getting better over the course of the season.
“His growth was just steady all year long,” said head coach Mike Gabinet. “Right from day one until the end of the season, he worked hard and kept improving. There wasn’t one game where I thought, ‘man he took a huge step tonight,’ but it was that constant growth all year long.
“I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and specifically coach Paul Jerrard working with the defensemen. Also, Mike Lewis [strength and performance coach] deserves a lot of credit for the work Kirby was able to do off the ice,” Gabinet added.
That work off the ice was an advantage for Proctor especially. Coming in at 6 foot 3 inches tall and184 pounds in the fall, Proctor put on just over 10 pounds of muscle this season, topping out at 196. He also maintained the same body fat all-season long. It’s something he says benefited him in adjusting to the college game.
“I think it made a big difference,” Proctor said. “Strength and conditioning is a huge part of today’s game, and we have one of the best lineups of trainers and staff out there. They make it easy, as long as you’re willing to show up and do the work, and that’s really what I focused on this year. When you show up with the right attitude and have a support staff and equipment like we do here, it makes it pretty easy.”
That strength and conditioning program under the guidance of coach Mike Lewis is something that makes a huge impact over the course of a long season. In a six-week summer training period before the start of the season, the freshmen class as a whole averaged a 40-pound increase on their back squat and 25 pounds on the bench press, the two main lifts they test from. It was evident early on this freshmen class was ready to get after it.
“We had the whole team report here in July,” Lewis said. “We had two different groups in the weight room, and they [the freshmen] were mixed in, so we threw them in right away and they got to either sink or swim. It was easy for me because all the guys wanted to be there, they all wanted to work hard and we hit the ground running, which I think really helped this season.
“He’s [Proctor] one of the guys that came in ready to work from the start and did everything we asked. If guys are willing to put in the work, the results will show and that was the case with him. He went up 45 pounds on his deadlift during the summer training block, and he’s over 100 pounds up on that now,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who jokes “he may not be able to teach guys how to stick handle, but he’ll help them get faster and stronger,” knows how big of an effect that time in the summer can have.
“We’re trying to play 40+ games, and on back-to-back nights we need their conditioning to be able to sustain that,” Lewis said. “You look at a sport like hockey, we’re in season for essentially seven months, so we have to get a lot of work done in that offseason time. We really want to maximize the time and potential of all our athletes here as a sports performance staff.”
In addition to the weights themselves, the Mavericks also benefit from the Catapult system, which tracks each player’s workload and signs of potential injury, along with the use of virtual reality headsets. It’s all part of the ever changing and growing use of technology in sports.
“Anything we can do to get an edge up on our opponent, we’re going to take advantage of. And we’re very fortunate to have the facilities and equipment we have here,” Lewis said.
Along with that technology and off-ice training, another thing that stood out this season was the coaching. It’s part of the reason Proctor said he chose Omaha to begin with, but a telling sign of the dedicated coaching is the time put in after practice.
“The coaches here don’t just put in time during practice and then say ‘okay, everyone off the ice, we’re done,’” Proctor said. “They’ll have something for each individual person almost every day that they need to work on, because obviously everyone is different.
“Coach Jerrard will get us a bunch of drills, Gabs will think up some drills and they just try to get us all a little bit better at certain things. That willingness to not necessarily go out of their way, but to make it so we have an opportunity to get better is something I’m super grateful for.”
Those extra 15-20 minutes a day add up, he said, but that practice can only do so much. Gabinet said for Kirby, specifically, the strides were noticeable where it matters – Friday and Saturday nights.
“As a coach, you really just want to get guys in the right situations for success,” Gabinet said. “You want to get them quality minutes, but hopefully it’s against the right opponents and right players. With Kirby being a young guy, it’s a big step up from the USHL to play in the NCHC, so you’re trying to be cognizant of that. We wanted him in a good position to succeed, and I think he really excelled in this environment.”
For a team that tied with a conference high two representatives on the NCHC all-rookie team (Joey Abate and Brandon Scalin), it’s a very promising sign of what’s to come. However, the two Mavericks were the only ones who were not NHL draft picks on the list. Although they’d certainly welcome the talent in the coming years, with this group it’s the work ethic that made them successful this season.
For someone like Proctor, that’ll be what helps him elevate his game in year two.
“This time of year is very important for someone like him,” Gabinet said. “I know we’re facing some adversity right now, but you still have to find a way to keep improving. With his work ethic and his focus, I don’t think that’ll be an issue, but he has to make sure he has a big summer in the weight room and continues to develop his on-ice skills.
“With Kirby though, he’s very coachable. He’s got a very realistic view of himself, and when players have that honest reality it’s very beneficial, because they know what they need to work on. He has a very good approach to what he needs to get better at, and I think that’s why he keeps getting better,” Gabinet said.
October may seem far away but opening night will be here before they know it. As much as Proctor’s game may have grown this season, the young blue liner knows there’s a lot to work to do these next few months. He’s ready to take another step in ‘20-21.
“I’d say getting stronger is the main thing,” Proctor said. “Yeah I put 10 pounds of muscle on, but I definitely still have room to grow and get bigger and stronger this summer. Also just shooting and learning the game a little more in the offensive zone so I can find ways to contribute.
“The first year went by super fast – the way it ended was pretty tragic – but now it’s about getting better and building toward next season. I’m hoping to step up and play against some other teams’ top lines next year, so I just want to bring up my entire game,” Proctor said.