While a long road trip to begin the hockey season will be a new experience for the players, for Omaha Lancers coach Mike Aikens it's a blast from the past.
Aikens was an assistant coach for the Lancers from 1995-98 when the United States Hockey League team called Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum home.
“That's the way it used to be when we played in the days at Ak,” Aikens said. “It's nice to get a long road trip out of the way with nice weather. There are some positives in it. You're hoping the guys bond on trips like this.”
The Lancers open the season Friday at 6:15 p.m. CDT to the eastern-most team in the USHL — the Youngstown Phantoms. As they begin to work their way back west, the Lancers will stop in Indianapolis to play the Indiana Ice Saturday at 6:05 p.m.
Those other three roads trips before the Lancers can christen their new home — the Ralston Arena — on Oct. 26 against Tri-City don't require nearly as much bus time. There are three games in Iowa, one in Sioux Falls, S.D., and two in Kearney against the Storm.
Until the new digs are ready for tenants on Oct. 15, the Lancers have been practicing and keeping their equipment in lockers at their home for the past three seasons, Civic Auditorium.
“The people at Civic been gracious enough to let us stay,” Aikens said. “UNO has been great too because they're going to take over this space when we leave.”
With two sheets of ice at the Ralston complex, the Lancers should never have to practice anywhere else. This season Omaha will play 31 of its 32 home games in Ralston. The USHL owners decided to expand the regular season from 60 to 64 games and only take the top four finishers from the two conferences to advance to the Clark Cup playoffs beginning in April.
That 32nd home game will be played Feb. 9 at TD Ameritrade Park as part of the Battles on Ice outdoor doubleheader. The Lancers will host Lincoln at 12:35 p.m., followed by a game between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and North Dakota.
Omaha will open the season with 16 forwards and seven defenders along with goalies Alex Lyon and Cole Bruns, though Bruns will have to miss the first three games of the season because he was suspended by the league for his role in a line brawl during one of the Fall Classic games in Sioux City.
Jake Bischoff is one of Omaha's seven defensemen. His initial plan is to be with the Lancers before and after his final season of high school hockey in Grand Rapids, Minn.
“That would be a big blow to our lineup,” Aikens said. “Right now we consider him our number one defenseman. We'd love for him to change his mind and stay here. We hope he realizes the quality of play and his development will be greatly enhanced here as opposed to playing weaker competition in Minnesota high school hockey.”
Bischoff, who has committed to play college hockey at Minnesota, was chosen in the fifth round of the June NHL Entry Draft (185th overall) by the New York Islanders. He joined the Lancers in February after his high school team was eliminated from the playoffs last season.
Aikens likes the way Omaha's new crop of forwards has come together. He said the Lancers will be fun to watch as players battle for time on the top two lines.
“There's nobody that's made it easy on us,” Aikens said. “Everybody up front has proven they can be successful and play for us.”