OMAHA LANCERS AT MUSKEGON 6:15 p.m. Friday • L.C. Walker Arena
Being the player selected by his teammates to wear the captain's C on his Lancers sweater isn't an honor Nick Rivera takes lightly.
Whether on the ice or off, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound left winger from Pacific Palisades, California, appreciates the trust coaches and players have put in him to help lead one of junior hockey's most tradition-rich franchises in its 30th anniversary season.
"It was a very special moment when I found out," Rivera said. "The coaches brought me into their office and told me before letting everyone else know. This has been an honor I'll never forget."
Rivera said learning how to lead is a process that never stops. Family, friends, coaches and former captains from teams he's played for are all people Rivera says he leans on for advice.
"Starting out it was a little difficult," Rivera said. "I've always kept in contact with leaders from my life. It's more about taking it shift by shift and not focusing so much on a bigger picture."
One of those people is Jimmy Schuldt, the captain of the Lancers' 2014-15 squad who now skates for St. Cloud State.
"He just reminds me that leadership is a process, it's not something that happens overnight," Rivera said. "He tells me to always trust the coaches. There's a reason why they are the coaches, they know what they're doing."
After both wins and losses, Lancers coach Brian Kaufman has praised the leadership group led by Rivera for keeping the team focused, especially when things aren't going Omaha's way.
"We just have to keep taking things moment by moment and do what we can at that time to help the team win," Rivera said. "That's another thing Jimmy talks about. We have to listen to the coaches and enjoy being here because in a flash it's gone."
Winning is something the Lancers are doing plenty of again this season. Omaha is in third place in USHL's Western Conference with a 22-18-4 record and 48 standings points.
The top four teams in each conference qualify for postseason play, and Rivera knows there's still plenty of work to be done with 16 games remaining in the 60 game regular season.
"It's a lot different this year because we don't have that one superstar with a big total of goals," Rivera said. "When we win it's going to take all 23 guys, and that's a message I'm constantly telling the guys. It's more of a group thing to win this year."
Rivera said he's not a player who spends much time perusing stat sheets. If he does take a peek, Rivera would find his name right near the top of the Lancers' lists.
Only Josh French has scored more points for Omaha. Rivera has 33 points on 20 goals and 13 assists in 39 games. Last season, Rivera had 14 goals and 14 assists in 58 games.
Rivera, French and Michael Bigelbach all have committed to Minnesota State-Mankato. Mavericks coach Mike Hastings knows a thing or two about the Lancers tradition as the longest-tenured coach in franchise history.
"He knows what it's like here," Rivera said of Hastings. "He's just told me to focus on winning a championship here this season, then he will help me get ready for college."
Rivera also looks more the part of a leader as he approaches his 20th birthday in May with a beard that belies his age.
And he has no plans to lose it any time soon. Not while he's trying to win a facial hair competition with his brother and the Lancers continue to win.
"I think it was a good addition," Rivera said. "I do it to keep up with my brother who has a pretty mean beard himself. I compete with him, and the boys are rolling pretty good right now, so I think I'll keep it."