The first-ever run to the national North Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament has changed a lot of things about the University of Nebraska men's hockey club -- née, Husker Hockey.
For one, longtime coach Larry Taylor enjoys giving interviews and loves talking about the team, as he calls it "the best-kept secret in Lincoln."
For two, now getting to the national tourney is expected.
Husker hockey is alive and well and, well, very well, thank you.
"I didn't want to talk about it much because we were doing our thing, having fun, playing hockey and we were pretty good, but nobody but us seemed to care," said Taylor, 54. "Now, I'm happy, the boys are happy. We have a great place to play (Breslow Ice Hockey Center) and we're having a lot of fun."
The fun factor grew this year when the Huskers finished 30-11 and advanced to the Pacific Regional championships of the ACHA (American College Hockey Association).
Taylor was named co-coach of the year. Players Jordan Hank and Evan Johnson were named all-region, all-American. Goalie Luke Thompson was named to the third team all-region.
"For a few of us, this will be the 'expected' and not the surprise in the future," said Hank, who was named to the first team all-region after his 34 goals and 56 assists.
"I think the vibes, the style of play and the team make this the best situation we could hope for," Johnson added.
Hank is one of five players from Lincoln. The roster is spotted with players from Omaha, Minnesota and Illinois.
Most had plenty of experience in junior hockey. Hank played in Alaska and California before returning to Lincoln to attend Nebraska and play hockey. Johnson also played some hockey in California before returning to Lincoln.
"We give a chance to those kids who want school first and hockey second, but still take hockey very seriously," said Taylor, who works for a local vending company when not running the program propelled by his will and helped by the University of Nebraska campus recreation program.
After a career in working at the Nevada Test Site, Taylor eventually moved to Lincoln.
"I was always a hockey guy, and when I saw what the Lincoln Stars were doing, I thought we should get the program going at the university," he said. "We had a kind of feeder system with Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney (Tri Cities) playing junior hockey right here."
While a select few of those players in the USHL move on to NCAA Division I programs, many are left searching for hockey, but on a less demanding level. Unlike NCAA hockey, club hockey offers little or no scholarships, and the player costs are covered by the players.
"For those of us from Nebraska, we pay in-state tuition and cover the costs for equipment," said Hank.
Hank, for instance, is a finance major with all the requirements for academic progress, and carries a part-time job with "Nothing But Cakes," frosting and baking when not skating or studying. Johnson, a former Lincoln Southwest student, is a business management major and works at the Breslow Ice Center, as MOD (manager of the day), running the Zamboni and the day-to-day operations.
The big break for the program came in the winter of 2015-16, when the university and city completed the building of the Breslow Ice Hockey Center.
Prior to that construction, NU hockey practices were held at midnight and later at the Ice Box or in the Fremont ice center. Games were played in Fremont.
"So you go to classes, study, hop in the car, drive an hour to Fremont, play or practice, drive an hour back and study some more, and it got pretty late for the guys," Taylor said.
"This is so great to have the ice rink here," said Johnson. "We can get on the ice when it's open and we can play in front of our fans in the seats (for just over 1,000).
"Now, when somebody says, 'There's hockey at Nebraska?,' we can tell them 'yes,' and we can tell them to just get over to the area between Haymarket Park and the Pinnacle Bank Arena," said Johnson, who scored 38 goals and contributed 42 assists last season. Hank, Johnson's roommate, added, "And this is the best ice we play on during the season."
Of course, the topic of NCAA Division I hockey pops up for Taylor and his players all the time.
"I get asked about that, and then I hear that there was an agreement between Nebraska and UNO, when they dropped football, NU agreed to stay out of hockey, or that we can't do that move because of Title IX," Taylor said. "I honestly don't know, but we're getting along win the ACHA and having fun, and we're getting better every year."
Without much of a recruiting budget, Taylor travels the Midwest and does what he can. "We're always looking for more players," he said. "We have 21 or so players right now, and we're talking the program up. If we get 40 or so, we might even add another club team. But right now, we're playing with what I'd call two and half lines and facing teams with four lines."
For instance, four of the 11 losses this year were to Midland University, which has a fully-funded, scholarship hockey program for men and women.
"We make sure the students are students first," Taylor said. He learned the hard way, a decade or so ago, when 11 of his 13 freshmen did not meet the 2.0 grade point average requirement during the semester. "So we keep track, we provide tutors and we try to help where we can."
As for the demands on time, it comes down to the individual.
"I learned how to balance study, travel, practice and games when I was playing junior hockey," said Hank. Husker hockey averages three academic all-Americans a season.
Taylor joked, "We're on the ice five days a week and working out one other day during the season, so I always announce, 'Enjoy Thursday,' because that's about the only break these guys get."
Taylor doesn't get many breaks. He has a staff of coaches and assistants, and the university supplies trainers these days.
"The one thing I didn't expect was the role of coach-guidance counselor-mental therapist," he said. "Some parents see me as the guy their sons trust, and I get asked to check on things I thought I'd never have to. But it comes with the job as coach."
So he's scheduler, planner, team leader, and now team spokesman.
"I didn't give interviews much, but I like talking about this now, and once in a while, when I'm on a streamed talk show, I hear back, 'Hey, that sounds like fun. Sounds like you know what you're talking about.'
"I guess maybe I've learned some things along the way."