'Culture Trumps Everything'
Gabinet Takes the Reins at Omaha
The weather forecast for Wednesday morning in Omaha called for crisp, clear conditions — an ideal getaway day as the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks arrived at the airport, en route to Notre Dame for a two-game series that begins Thursday night.
And with six of their first eight games on the road, traveling is quickly becoming the norm for UNO in the early stages of the 2017-18 campaign, racking up frequent flyer miles to eastern Massachusetts, northern Indiana, and southern Colorado — just to name a few.
On these trips, Mike Gabinet — after serving as associate head coach last season — is beginning his first year as head coach for his alma mater, beginning to make his own mark at a program that has missed the last two NCAA tournaments following a Frozen Four appearance in 2015.
"I'm a really big believer in culture," Gabinet said. "I think culture trumps everything. I'm really big on creating an environment that will allow our players to reach a potential that maybe they didn't know they could reach. That's the first step in the process, to create that environment — a high expectation environment, but also an environment that supports our players and gives them the tools necessary to get to their potential."
Gabinet, 36, is now the youngest head coach coach in Division I men's college hockey, after being named the third head coach in UNO history on April 5 after legendary head coach Dean Blais retired. Blais coached UNO through multiple transitions — from the CCHA to the WCHA, then to the NCHC, and during that time helped shepherd the Mavericks into a new home arena.
Certainly, trying to replace a two-time national champion isn't easy, but as Gabinet says, he isn't really trying to do that, anyway.
"Something that's really important is to always be who you are," said Gabinet moments after going through the airport's security line on Wednesday. "I think it's always good to be who you are as a person. If you get caught trying to be different than you are or trying to emulate somebody else, then I think you get into trouble. For me, I always try to be who I am and do what I believe in. I have my own way to do things, and I'm just trying to grow what's previously been established here."
Gabinet's 'own way' is, no doubt, forged from his past experiences — in his case, important lessons passed through a successful family tree.
"Coaching is something I've always wanted to do," said Gabinet, a native of Edmonton, Alberta. "I'm fortunate that I come from a family of coaches. My dad was a football coach, and my grandfather was a hockey coach."
Gabinet is understating it, though. His grandfather was Clare James Drake, the most successful coach in Canadian college hockey history — winning six University Cup championships in 28 years with the University of Alberta, and eventually coaching Team Canada at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, as well as the Edmonton Oilers during their 1975-76 season.
Drake was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.
"When you grow up in that environment, with coaching always a part of you, I've always enjoyed that part of the game," said Gabinet, who played defense for UNO from 2000-04 and was an alternate captain as a senior. "I've always been a cerebral player and enjoyed working with people. So it was sort of a natural transition after I stopped playing hockey, to get into coaching."
Gabinet was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and went on to play professional hockey in the American Hockey League, ECHL, and Europe. His prior head coaching experience is most notable for leading the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to an undefeated 36-0 record in 2015-16 — the first time a rookie head coach had ever led a team to an undefeated season in Canadian college hockey history.
Now, Gabinet brings a history of success — in his family, as a player, as a head coach in Canada — to Omaha. Last year, Gabinet was in charge of a successful power play, too — coaching his man-advantage unit to the sixth best conversion percentage (23 percent) in the country. This year, UNO is off to a good start in that regard as well, converting 6 of 18 chances in the early going.
"It's nice to have some of the guys back that were on it the previous year," said Gabinet, who also credited new assistant coach Dave Noel-Bernier, who served as an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings for the past three seasons. "Nowadays, with special teams being such a key factor, it's nice to have some early success with that."
Ready to board their plane from Omaha, the Mavericks now look to build upon that early season success — of course, on the road, where Gabinet's environment and culture can develop away from the distractions of home.
"One benefit of being on the road is that you get to spend a little bit of time with the guys, which is nice," Gabinet said. "But for us, we're just focused on one day at a time. It's been a nice start. We've seen a little bit of everything so far this year — we've experienced some success, some areas of growth. So that's going to be nice to draw on as the season continues."
Gabinet has already led UNO to a quick 2-1-1 start — a split at Mass.-Lowell two weeks ago, followed by a win and tie against Arizona State last week. That's just the beginning, though — of the new season, yes, but also of a new direction and new growth under their young but driven head coach.
As for his Mavericks? Kicking off a new era in Nebraska, they appear to be cleared for takeoff.