High drama hit the Omaha Lancers hockey organization Thursday.
Multiple coaches resigned and players unanimously voted to boycott three weekend games in protest to management’s treatment of coach Chadd Cassidy and budget constraints that do not seem to conform to United States Hockey League standards.
The Lancers, silent for hours Thursday after a World-Herald request for comment, then announced its second interim head coach in two days, and a separate Hockey Advisory Board designed to “provide strategic hockey advice to senior management from a detached and diversified perspective for a broad range of matters.”
It may not be enough to bring players back to the rink, suggested former Lancers assistant Tate Maris. Maris, the goaltending coach, resigned Thursday morning as he heard the tail end of an argument between the first interim head coach, Sean Walsh, and Lancers president David DeLuca.
Maris said the Lancers organization won’t be right until DeLuca and potentially an ownership group led by Anthony DiCesare are out. DiCesare brought in DeLuca, a former Las Vegas fire captain, to run the business office in 2017. DeLuca became team president in 2018. Neither DeLuca nor DiCesare responded to requests for comment from The World-Herald.
“This leadership group isn’t giving top players the resources they need to succeed,” Maris said.
The USHL, the nation’s top junior ice hockey league, typically has players from between 16 and 21 years old, many of whom are already committed to colleges. Some players are still in high school, while others have their eyes on professional leagues after the USHL, which announced on Thursday it was looking into allegations that management was cutting corners with player treatment.
The USHL released the following statement:
"We are aware of the reports about the Omaha Lancers and are actively working to resolve this matter. We have standards we take seriously in order to provide the best possible experience for all players who participate in the USHL."
Maris said Cassidy — who led the team to an 8-4-2 record in his first 14 games as head coach — did the best he could to work through budget constraints set down by management.
The budget for buying hockey sticks was cut in half, Maris said. Team meals were inadequate. To cut costs, the team tried hiring a Lancer player host parent — known as a “billet” — to serve as equipment manager without getting paid. When that arrangement failed, Maris said the Lancers’ athletic trainer — who also resigned Thursday — had to take on the equipment role.
Multiple sources said these challenges wore on Cassidy as he tried to engage management on multiple matters, including a decision to not renew a contract to use video scouting software. Cassidy did not return a World-Herald request for comment.
Cassidy was told he was out on Nov. 9 during a meeting with DeLuca, Maris and two sources said.
But then the Lancers didn’t have enough coaches, so Cassidy returned to the bench last weekend and guided the Lancers to a sweep.
This week Cassidy met again with management. After a rambling conversation about an NFL game, according to a source, Cassidy pressed the issue of whether he's coaching this weekend.
That source said Cassidy was not given a definitive answer beyond being told not to return to the rink.
In a Wednesday email sent to billets, DeLuca said Cassidy “stepped down” as head coach. Two sources said Cassidy neither quit nor officially got fired.
“We are moving forward and looking out the front window and not the rear-view window,” DeLuca wrote.
DeLuca named Walsh the interim head coach while the team made an “internal decision over the coming week” on who would be permanent head coach.
A source said the Lancers offered the job to “four or five candidates." Gary Graham, of the Indiana Jr. Fuel U18 team, accepted the job Thursday on an interim basis. In a statement, DeLuca said Graham’s “vast experience” is “well suited” for the USHL.
“We were searching for the right fit and believe Gary is the ideal person to move us forward,” DeLuca said. “At the same time we wish Chadd Cassidy the very best and appreciate his overall efforts with our organization.”
The Lancers’ announcement again asserted Cassidy stepped down.
That followed the at-the-rink resignation of several assistants and players' unanimous decision to boycott this weekend’s games. Maris, frustrated over the past two years by several management decisions, said he then heard DeLuca and Walsh engaged in an argument.
“It was the final straw, and I had to take a stand,” Maris said. “I told the team, ‘It’s the difference between going down with the ship, or stopping the ship from going down.’”
Players voted to boycott, Maris said. Walsh resigned. The trainer/equipment manager did, too.
Maris said the team originally planned to “press forward” with Walsh in the interim role; the Lancers were scheduled to play Friday at Waterloo, Saturday at Lincoln and Sunday at home against Des Moines, but the USHL announced those games were postponed — declared no contests — and that representatives will visit Omaha on Friday to meet with the team.
Now, what will happen with the players?
One source said agents and college coaches may look to get their players out of Omaha, or ask the USHL or USA Hockey to get involved. A source said players at the tier-one level of the USHL are not expected to pay for billets — which Lancer players are not — or equipment. That's how USHL tier-one teams compete for players against top Canadian junior hockey leagues.
Two sources said Walsh’s potential assistant coach for this weekend was going to be 20-year-old Nick Perna, a recently injured Lancer player.
Cassidy took the Lancers job in mid-July and moved from Lake Placid, New York. He took over for David Wilkie, who stepped down as head coach this summer due to health reasons.
Cassidy had spent the previous five years as an accomplished head coach at the private Northwood School in Lake Placid. Prior to that, he had stints in the American Hockey League and the United States National Development Team. Two sources said Cassidy was universally liked in the sport and did not have a confrontational style with players or management.
It’s possible the Lancers’ new advisory board helps calm rough waters. Pat Dapuzzo, an NHL official for 25 years, will chair that board. Other members are Steve Hagwell, Lou Vairo, Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox and Dan Marshall. Their goal, according to the Lancers, is to “provide experienced counsel to Omaha Lancers players, coaches and staff as they progress along their path in hockey.”