Omaha Maverick senior Austin Ortega, aka “California Hot Sauce,” is ending his collegiate ice hockey journey knowing he’s defied stereotypes.
Though he excelled at the sport as a youth in his native California, making it in the elite amateur ranks was another matter. As a Latino from a hot weather state, he didn’t fit the big-time hockey mold.
But he’s actually part of a west coast hockey surge.
“I have a couple friends from San Diego playing college hockey and you see younger kids coming up who are going to be just as good. The game is growing a lot there, which is really exciting. Those NHL teams (Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles that have won the Stanley Cup is helping even more,” Ortega said.
He was recently named the top contributor to Division I hockey from California by Hockey America.
Though undersized at 5’8, 175 pounds, he uses quickness, skating ability, stick work and instincts around the net to be a scoring threat. He shares the NCAA record for most career game-winning goals (23). His 67 goals and 131 points (through Feb. 23) rank among the school’s all-time best.
In 2015 he helped Omaha make it’s only Frozen Four appearance, earning National Player of the Month honors along the way. Since then he’s been on the radar for college hockey’s top individual award – the Hobey Baker.
Now, only months from embarking on a pro tryout, he’ll likely contend with doubters again but head coach Dean Blais is certain he has what it takes.
“He’s among three or four forwards in the United States everyone’s looking at. It’s hard to find scoring in the NHL and Austin has that ability. He’s a real sniper. After we get through with our season, Austin will be signing an NHL contract with whoever gives him a good opportunity.”
Ortega seeks to follow ex-Mav linemate Jake Guentzel in The Show. “I want to make it to the NHL – that’s my ultimate goal. I think there’s a chance. Obviously, it depends on my work ethic and if I continue to keep playing well. It’s up to meonwhatIdotodomakeit.Ineedtojustkeep bettering my game all-around.”
If he has anything going for him, he said, “it’s my drive.”
He’s wired to work hard for what he wants.
Ortega said he appreciates Blais for “allowing me to get better every day and teaching me the right things that will help me do better at the next level.”
Ironically, he might never have played hockey if not catching a glimpse of it at a rink.
“I was in awe when I saw it. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew I wanted to play. It just really caught my attention. I didn’t start with hockey right away. My parents wanted me to learn to skate before they threw me into hockey. My parents later told me when I was asking to play they said to each other, ‘Oh, he’ll forget about it and move on to something else,’ but actually I kept bugging them and eventually they just gave in.
“Then it came down to a point it was either hockey or a different sport. I was juggling hockey, soccer and baseball all together. I had to pick because it was getting to be too much of a time commitment and I ended up picking hockey because it was my favorite sport. I was the best at it.”
Besides, he said, “My hockey coaches thought I could really make it and that’s why they wanted me to play on a select travel team.” He’s never looked back.
“The most fun I ever have is when I’m playing hockey. It’s a physical, contact sport played on ice, and that’s so cool. Just all-around, it’s an awesome game.”
That decision to specialize and pursue playing Division I took him as a teen to Colorado, North Dakota and Iowa before winding up at Omaha. His parents Frank and Tessie Ortega supported his dream.
Once here, he had to prove himself all over again.
“It’s older guys, it’s college hockey, it’s that hard to get here in the first place. You don’t know what you can do but I wanted to continue to play the role I played before I came here – scoring goals, being an offensive threat.”
Ortega’s filled that scoring role and taken his overall play to another level. Doing it for a rising program with major fan support is nice.
“Especially playing in this environment, in front of big crowds, in front of your family and friends, it’s just really cool, really emotional.”
His first two years Omaha played home games at the CenturyLink and the last two at Baxter Arena.
“An awesome place to play.”
He’s savoring what’s left of his college career.
“A lot of guys try to rush the process and pursue professional hockey as fast as they can. They don’t realize this is one of the best times of their life. I just like to soak it in and try to slow it down as much I can because I know I’ll be out of here real soon.”
Ortega’s Mavs close the regular season schedule at home March 3-4 versus Denver. After missing the post-season in 2016, they’re eyeing an NCAA berth.