OMAHA, Neb. - For first-year Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet -- the youngest head coach in men's college hockey -- age is just another statistic. A quantifiable number, but just that: a figure that doesn’t show the full picture.
After a year of coaching under the legendary Dean Blais, the 36-year-old Gabinet, a grandson of 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Clare Drake, was handed the reigns to the Maverick program as the third head coach in program history this spring. And he was the first program alumnus to be named head coach -- much to the excitement of his players.
While some may feel pressured to succeed as the descendant of a hockey icon, let alone as the successor to a coach who led the program through two conference changes and to its first Frozen Four, while amassing over 400 wins, three Frozen Four appearances and two national championships during his coaching career, Gabinet ostensibly feels no such pressure.
He’s far less focused on trying to match the accomplishments of his mentors, and more intent on incorporating the lessons they taught him into his own philosophy.
In short, Gabinet is going his own way.
“I think it’s always good to be who you are,” Gabinet said. “You’re not trying to emulate someone else, but it’s also important to make sure that you’re learning from all the coaches you work with or play for.”
The son of a football coach and high school principal, and the grandson of Drake, Gabinet was destined to become a third generation coach from a young age. As a sports-crazed kid growing up in Edmonton, he spent much of his childhood on the football field with his father. If not there, he was at Clare Drake Arena, the University of Alberta's arena dedicated to his grandfather upon his retirement from a coaching career that spanned 28 years, six Canadian championships (including a national title in football in 1967) and a national-record 697 wins.
“We’re really close. I was really fortunate to grow up in a really tight-knit family, and I spent a lot of time with gramps growing up,” Gabinet said. “All throughout my youth and playing career and coaching career, I’ve been really fortunate to get to spend so much time with him.”
Being so close to a coach who laid the groundwork for the National Coaching Certification and Coach Mentorship Program and traveled the world teaching and learning about the game for 40 years has some additional benefits as well -- namely that Gabinet has been able to pick the brains of many peers who Drake mentored.
Like with many elements of modern hockey systems and drills, Clare Drake’s fingerprints can be found in Omaha, and certainly to a larger degree with other teams. In his office at Baxter Ice Arena, Gabinet has binders full of hockey notes and drills from his grandfather, some of which were written even before he was born. Gabinet and his coaching staff have cultivated this creative mindset in an effort to challenge everything they do, making sure everything they do has a purpose.
“He was so far ahead of his time, so it’s so neat to see some of those concepts still in place and the drills and teaching habits,” Gabinet said of his grandfather. “Our coaching staff has long meetings about why we’re doing certain things and trying to challenge the status quo on certain things and look for new ideas, because that’s what he did back in the day, and that’s the philosophy that I believe in.”
In his first year behind the Omaha bench, Gabinet is focused on establishing the right culture within the program, a mindset of helping players reach their fullest potential through daily diligence, a team-first attitude and personal responsibility, to create not only successful hockey players but successful human beings.
“He’s really adamant about doing the right things every time,” said senior captain Joel Messner. “Whether it’s from how we are doing drills in practice, to how we are eating and if we’re getting the right amount of sleep, he really believes and emphasizes that, that everything has a purpose and everything has a reason.”
It’s not an entirely novel concept, but one that his grandfather also used throughout his coaching career, which was reflected in the fact that the people who lobbied for his acceptance into the Hockey Hall of Fame came from all walks of life.
“That’s something that I really take to heart, that a lot of this culture and daily habits we're trying to create for these guys is not only for hockey, that’s how you have success in life as well,” Gabinet said.
“I think (my grandfather) did a really good job of creating that environment of the culture that they need to reach their potential, and then helping them find their potential by these habits and teaching these guys to take personal responsibility for themselves.”
Messner believes that their focus on daily improvement and building their culture is sure to pay dividends throughout the season, as National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) teams turn from beating up on non-conference opponents to beating up on each other with conference play beginning.
“We play in the best conference in college hockey and every NCHC weekend is a tough one,” Messner said. “Times will be tough sometimes, but if we just believe in what we’re doing, in the long run we are going to be rewarded.”
The Mavericks are just three years removed from their first Frozen Four appearance, and even while the first year of a head coach’s tenure is often seen as a rebuilding year -- especially after Omaha missed the previous two NCAA Tournaments -- the seniors believe that if the team sticks to its culture, they’ve got a legitimate shot at one last tournament run. That’s just one of the reasons why this culture doesn’t take weeks off, even as their NCAA schedule does with a bye this weekend.
“With no games, teams tend to be lackadaisical, but if anything, I think the tempo has gone up in our practices," senior forward David Pope said of their off week.
With the Times
Even as Gabinet has the support and insight from coaches with dozens of years of coaching experience, he’s still only 13 years older than his oldest players, and 30 years younger than his predecessor. While it doesn’t change how Gabinet goes about his job and how his players view him, it does change how he can relate to them.
“I don’t really view him as a young coach, I don’t think anyone on our team really views him that way, (but) systematics and stuff aside, he understands recovery and some of the aspects outside the game that other coaches maybe overlook,” Pope said.
He’s even open to music being played in the locker room, something that wasn’t allowed in years past.
“We have this thing going on Thursdays, where (Gabinet) always comes in and says let’s get a good tune playing going into the weekend, so he gets it,” Pope said.
The songs, carefully chosen by fellow senior Jake Randolph, can range from classic rock to electronic, but always set an upbeat tone before the Mavericks hit the ice for practice.
If he’s taking suggestions, the 1976 hit from Fleetwood Mac "Go Your Own Way" fits the requirements and exemplifies the new, upward-trending direction that Gabinet’s Mavericks appear to be headed. Although having been released five years before he was even born, the song is a bit before his time.
Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet
Mike Gabinet served as an assistant coach under Dean Blais for the Mavericks last season.