Jake Guentzel was not contemplating any sort of homecoming when he committed to playing hockey at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Guentzel was born in Omaha while his father, Mike, was head coach of the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League, but Jake was just a few months old when his family moved to Minnesota. But after returning to the state amid its first modest hockey boom, the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie is inadvertently becoming hockey's face in the Cornhusker State.
Mike Guentzel uprooted his family to take a job coaching at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Jake, the youngest of three brothers, grew up playing in the State of Hockey before returning to Omaha to play collegiately, a decision that had nothing to with any lingering affinity for the state where he was born.
"[It was because of the] coaching there, Dean Blais, to get to play for him. He's put a lot of guys in the NHL. I loved it there," Guentzel said. "The fans there are great. It was the time of my life. A special time."
Even after three seasons at Omaha, Guentzel still considers himself a Minnesotan first and foremost, but the little time he spent in Nebraska made him a prominent piece of the state's burgeoning hockey culture. Now an important piece of a Penguins team three wins shy of hoisting the Stanley Cup for a second straight year, Guentzel might have unintentionally become a Nebraska hockey icon.
He can build further on that legend Wednesday night (8 ET) at PPG Paints Arena when the Penguins host Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Nashville Predators.
"All of us Penguin fans in Nebraska claim him being from here," said Shawn Spencer, president of the Midwest Amateur Hockey Association, the official USA Hockey affiliate overseeing the game in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa.
"It's fun. My youngest grandson, as soon as we saw Guentzel in the playoffs when he scored, he had his dad go buy an autographed Guentzel stick."
For a state looking to expand its hockey culture, Guentzel, 22, has become a beacon. The Penguins rookie scored the winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals and leads the playoffs with 10 goals. That total leaves him four short of the rookie record for a single postseason, which was set by Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. Guentzel's four winning goals in the playoffs are tied for the rookie record, which he shares with Chris Drury and Claude Lemieux.
Hockey fans in Nebraska first got to know Guentzel during his time in Omaha. The highlight of his collegiate career was the at-large bid the Mavericks earned to the 2015 NCAA tournament. Led by Guentzel, Omaha advanced to the Frozen Four in Boston before losing to eventual champion Providence.
"It was awesome. We sold out almost every game for our school," said Guentzel. "The fans were outstanding, and when we made the Frozen Four, a lot of them drove to Boston. We've got some great fans there."
That unlikely run for Guentzel and the Mavericks conveniently came just as the state of Nebraska was enjoying the start of its first hockey golden age. In 2014, the state hosted the USA Hockey high school national championship tournament. That same year saw the opening of the John Breslow Ice Hockey Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. The sprawling facility was the first of its kind in Lincoln and was built for the express purpose of growing the sport in the state.
Larry Taylor, who has coached the club team at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln since 2005, said Breslow donated about $7 million for the rink. "His dream was to have a local kid go through the youth organization and go all the way through the ranks and make it into the NHL," Taylor said.
Taylor predicts it will be a few years before Breslow's dream becomes a reality. In the meantime, Nebraska's growing hockey community is happy to latch onto Guentzel's success. Guentzel is reminded of that by the countless messages he's received from the state as he's enjoyed his breakout rookie season.
"You hear a lot from them. It's special to know that they're watching," Guentzel said. "I was over there three years and they were awesome to me."
At roughly 1,800 players, according to Spencer, Nebraska's grass-roots hockey movement remains small. But it's grown by leaps and bounds considering the sport's modest early days in the state.
"We used to struggle; we used to only have three indoor rinks in Omaha, and one of them was temporary," said Spencer. "One of them had concrete boards."
In recent years, the state has seen new rinks pop up in a variety of spots. In Omaha, one group converted an old nut factory into a rink that supports skating, hockey and even curling. But the biggest boost for the sport could come from building the program in Lincoln. Since the Big Ten hockey conference was established in 2013, there has been speculation that the University of Nebraska could eventually get a Division I program. Taylor's club team has drawn up to 1,000 spectators for games since moving into Breslow Ice Center, but it's clear that the school must overcome certain hurdles before the state gets its second Division I program.
"I've talked to a bunch of coaches and I know they're pushing for the Big Ten," said Taylor.
For now, Nebraska's hockey community is thrilled to watch Guentzel inch closer to hoisting the Stanley Cup. With every goal he scores, he further builds his legend in the state, even if that was never his intention.
"There's quite a buzz because he played at the university and people knew him," Spencer said. "There are the old-timers who remember his dad coaching the Lancers. We didn't know he was going to develop into this player. Now even those that may not have recognized it, they're recognizing it now."