Omaha, Neb., is known more for football and being home to the College Baseball World Series than hockey, so one wouldn’t expect the city to count hockey players amongst its top exports. But similar to what the Dallas Stars have done for their community, the Omaha Lancers of the United States (Junior “A”) Hockey League have done for the corn-filled plain lands.
The team’s influence has given rise to the Omaha Metropolitan Amateur Hockey Association (O.M.A.H.A.), which is now the largest youth league in the Tri-States (Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas) area with more than 1,200 participants. The most notable graduate of the program is Predators forward Jed Ortmeyer – the first-ever NHL player from the “Cornhusker State.”
|Ortmeyer has played in four entirely different hockey markets in his short career |
Ortmeyer is currently in his fourth NHL season (and first with the Predators), but just 10 years ago, he was still back home, honing his game in his hometown. The now 6-0, 197-pound winger went from a youngster running around the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum watching the Lancers in the early 90s, to fulfilling a childhood dream by taking the ice for them in 1997. That was just the beginning.
“The Lancers were the team I grew up watching, so playing for them was a dream come true,” Ortmeyer said. “My coach there, Mike Hastings, was great as far as developing players and he helped me a lot.”
Hastings, the 13-year coach of Omaha’s USHL squad, has made a habit of developing talent, producing 192 Division I scholarship players at U.S. colleges and 40 NHL draft picks. Under his tutelage, Ortmeyer racked up 107 points (46g-61a) in 106 games to earn a full ride of his own at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“I got the opportunity to go to Michigan, and in addition to getting my degree, I learned from a great mentor in coach Red Berenson,” Ortmeyer said. “He taught me how to be a man and helped propel me to the professional level.”
|While at Michigan, Ortmeyer went to two Frozen Fours, one as team captain. |
Hockey in Ann Arbor, and at U of M especially, has a storied tradition. Michigan has won nine national championships dating back to the very first one played for in 1948. Because of its past success, the Wolverines recruit some of the nation’s finest talent – Ortmeyer played along side future NHLers Mike Comrie, Mike Cammalleri, Andy Hilbert, Mike Komisarek and Jeff Tambellini while with the Wolverines.
“The hockey tradition – being so good for so long, makes you have a certain confidence in your game when you put on that jersey,” Ortmeyer said. “You know every night you are going to get the other team’s best so you have to prepare that way.”
In the fall of 2003, after a successful four-year collegiate career which included two NCAA Frozen Four appearances, Ortmeyer traded in the college town-feel for the bright lights of Broadway as a member of the New York Rangers. As a free-agent signee, he began the season with the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack, but was recalled to the Rangers on Nov. 13. He stuck with the team, playing 58 games before injuries forced him out of the final eight games of 2003-04.
“I was in New York for three years, and it was quite a change,” Ortmeyer said. “New York City was fun to live in; it was exciting to live in the city and experience all that it had to offer from the hockey to the night life to the shows.”
|The first NHLer ever from Nebraska spent his first three pro seasons on Broadway with the Rangers. |
Some players have a hard time adjusting to life in the United States’ largest city, but Ortmeyer was able to focus on the task at hand.
“It wasn’t too bad, but the ability to focus on hockey, what is important, and why you are there is sometimes tough,” he said. “There is always something going on in New York or always somebody in town wanting to visit and go out so it takes some focus to remember why you are there and to take advantage of the hockey opportunity.”
By the summer of 2007 though, it was time for a change, and that just happened to be when Nashville came calling for his services – he signed with the Predators on July 2. Though his time in the Music City is just beginning, Ortmeyer has provided the Preds with versatility on the ice – playing on a number of different lines, in addition to leading all forwards in shorthanded ice time. He has also made a seamless transition to the city, comparing it to his hometown.
“To get the opportunity to come to Nashville was great, it was almost like coming home,” Ortmeyer said. “It is a little more laid back as far as the people around town. So far, it has been a good fit and I am enjoying myself here.”
Regardless of where he goes, whether it be home to America’s heartland, to the bright lights of the big city, or even into the south, the Omaha native has been able to relate well with just about anyone he comes into contact with.
“I think hockey fans at heart are more of a blue collar, hard-working type that really appreciate the game,” Ortmeyer said. “Everywhere I have played, the fans have identified me with that style, and that has helped.”