When asked why he got into hockey, Chris Wilkie smiles and offers a short laugh. “Well, my dad actually played in the National Hockey League, so that’s obviously where I started playing hockey,” he says, referring to his father, David Wilkie, who played for the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers in parts of six NHL seasons. “My mom was from Omaha, so that’s where we would be in the summers, and then we just ended up moving back to Omaha, and we’ve been there for most of my life.”
David, who’s NHL career ended in 2001, played for the Omaha Lancers during the 1990-91 season before choosing to join the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL in lieu of pursuing college hockey (he was born in Ellensburg, WA). A first round pick in 1992, he spent 61 games with the Canadiens during the 1996-97 seasons, tallying a career-high 15 points and played 46 games with the Lightning in the 1998-99, but otherwise spent most of his career in the minor leagues.
Like his father, who was born outside of a traditional American hockey powerhouse, Wilkie is looking to break into the NHL as an Omaha native.
“When I started it, when I was younger, it wasn’t really anywhere close to where it is now,” Wilkie says of the competition in Omaha and greater Nebraska. “We had to travel so far to play decent teams, and even our team wasn’t that good. But now it’s incredible to see the growth in the Midwest, and in Omaha, and just it’s really cool to see all the players that have come out of there and that now play in junior and college hockey, and hopefully professionally.”
The Lancers were founded in 1986 and are one of three USHL teams in Nebraska. Located on the border of Iowa and Nebraska, the Lancers are the first USHL team established in the Cornhusker state, followed by the Lincoln Stars in 1996 and the Tri-City Storm relocated from the Twin Cities in 2000. Iowa has five teams located in Sioux City, Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, meaning that there are eight teams located in the heart of the Midwest. But unlike neighboring Minnesota, which doesn’t have any teams, or Michigan, which has two (if you count the U.S. National Team Development Program), Nebraska and Iowa are hardly hockey hotbeds.
Only three NHL players have come out of the two states, combined. Current New Jersey Devils backup Scott Clemmensen, who entered the league in 2001, was born in Des Moines. Johnny Matz, who played 30 games with Montreal in the 1924-25 season is said to have been born in Omaha on June 1, 1981, but the Society for International Hockey Research claims that he was actually born in Casper, Wyoming. Either way, he was raised and developed his game in Alberta, not Nebraska or Wyoming.
The final player’s name rolls right off of Wilkie’s tongue: “Jed Ortmeyer,” he says without missing a beat. “I actually train with him in the summer.”
Ortmeyer spent two seasons with the Lancers from 1998-99 and signed with the Rangers as an undrafted free agent in 2003 after four years at the University of Michigan. He played with the Rangers, Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild from 2003-12, and spent the 2013-14 season, his last in professional hockey, with the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL. Although he was undrafted and never had more points than penalties minutes, he played 78 games with the Rangers in 2005-06 and 76 games with the Sharks in 2009-10.
While Ortmeyer may have opened doors for Nebraska-born players in professional hockey, Wilkie has a chance of becoming a trendsetter in his own right. He is currently the first Nebraska born-and-raised player to skate for the Tri-City Storm, which is based in Kearney — both the smallest and western-most city in the USHL, and about a two-and-a-half hour drive down I-80 from Omaha.
“People give me a hard time for being from there, but I really think it’s a good city,” he says of Omaha. “It’s big and there’s a lot to do, and I think it’s just a calm, peaceful town and there’s a lot of nice people there, and I was just lucky enough to grow up there.”
Wilkie, who was born in 1996, is draft-eligible in 2015 after being passed over last season and is currently ranked No. 122 among North American skaters according to NHL Central Scouting. If he is selected, he would be the first Nebraskan chosen in the NHL Draft, and he is making a case for himself with his play this season. Through 35 games, Wilkie has the third-most goals in the USHL, 22, and leads his team with 31 points.
“This year I really don’t worry about it (the draft) at all,” he said when asked about going undrafted last season. “It happened last year, and obviously it was disappointing, but that just fueled me throughout the summer, and I really haven’t thought about it this year, to be honest: I’m just having fun coming to the rink every day and playing for the Storm.”
Wilkie won’t be playing his college hockey in Nebraska either, despite the recent success of the University of Nebraska-Omaha program, as he is committed to play at the University of North Dakota next season. He says he was tempted to play in front of friends and family in his hometown, “but when I really thought about it, I kind of wanted to get that experience of going to school away from home,” he says. “After taking my visit to the University of North Dakota, I had my mind set right then.”
It was Ralph Engelstad Arena that sold him. “Right when I walked into that building,” he says, “I told my parents that this is where I want to play.”
More curious than his decision to play at North Dakota was his decision to play college hockey altogether. After all, his father had played in the USHL, but then chosen to join Seattle of the WHL and play four years of major-junior hockey in that league.
“I think for me, personally, it’s a lot better for my game,” says Wilkie, who is listed at 6’0” and 194 pounds and is described as a fleet-footed player who is shifty and can get to top speed in a hurry. “I’m not the biggest guy, so playing in college will help me get bigger physically and develop my game every day. And the college hockey atmosphere is a ton of fun, so I’m excited.”
Regardless of whether or not he is drafted, the USHL has to be happy that players are beginning to play the game at a high level in the heart of the Midwest. Both Ortmeyer and Clemmensen played in the USHL (Clemmensen for Dubuque and Des Moines), and Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen, who was recently named USA Hockey’s Goaltender of the Year, played for his hometown Waterloo Black Hawks while in junior.
There is a question of whether players born on the West Coast or Pacific Northwest will choose the WHL, like Wilkie’s father, as opposed to college hockey going forward due to the proximity of those teams. But at the very least, the teams in the American heartland appear to be retaining their own.
Where Wilkie ends up has yet to be seen, but he has his heart set on showing that a kid from Omaha can compete with the best of the best.
“I definitely want to prove myself and show people what they missed out on,” he says so. “At the same time it would obviously have been a relief to get drafted this summer, but if it doesn’t happen, then so be it and I’ll just keep on working harder.”
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