My alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is not known for making waves in college athletics. The school competes at the Division II level in all its athletic programs, except one — ice hockey. UNO’s D-I hockey program is about 15 years young now and while it’s enjoyed a smattering of success it’s been a long way from being a championship threat. Perception and reality changed in 2009 with the hiring of Dean Blais as head coach. He’s a living legend in the game and his team has already done enough a little more than half way through his second year on the job to have fans and alums like me thinking this could be the start of something big that puts UNO on the map. I recently interviewed Blais for the New Horizons story that follows. While UNO may still be a year or two or more away from competing for a WCHA or national title, UNO hockey is increasingly in the conversation as a tough draw and potential contender. If UNO can keep Blais through the run of his contract in 2014-15, then my old school might finally have the breakthrough success in a major team spectator sport that it’s always dreamed of having. Yes, UNO has a powerhouse wrestling program, but it’s a D-II program and decidedly off the general public’s and national media’s radar. Hockey doesn’t have the broad appeal of football, basketball, or baseball, but when UNO can beat the best of the best in college hockey, as it’s already done this season in defeating Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, then you’ve done something.
UPDATE: After a mid-season slump the UNO hockey team has rebounded with a late season surge that’s included a second series split with North Dakota, this time in Grand Forks, where Dean Blais coached all those years, and more recently a sweep of Top Ten power Wisconsin in Omaha. Along the way Blais earned his 300th career college victory and UNO, which had risen to a Top Ten ranking early in the year before sliding down the polls, saw its stock boosted back to No. 12 in one poll and No. 13 in another. More and more observers are feeling this UNO team has what it takes to be a significant factor in the postseason.
Dean Blais Has UNO Hockey Dreaming Big
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in the New Horizons (http://www.enoa.org/)
When UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts named Dean Blais the school’s new hockey coach in 2009, it marked a rededicated commitment to a still young program with big dreams.
It was the kind of marquee hire one doesn’t expect from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. What makes Blais marquee material? As a coach, he’s achieved success at every level of the sport — from high school to college to the junior national ranks to the Olympics — all the way to the National Hockey League.
His longest D-I stint was at the University of North Dakota, an elite hockey school where he was an assistant for nine years and head coach for 10, twice leading the Fighting Sioux to national titles and twice winning national coach of the year honors.
To put it in perspective, his coming to UNO would be akin to Roy Williams taking over an upstart basketball program or Bobby Bowden being tabbed to lead the South Florida football program.
The move suddenly made UNO, whose program only dates back to 1997, something more than a potential contender on the hockey landscape. UNO must now be taken seriously, if for no other reason than it went out and got a coach who’s proven he can deliver the goods by recruiting and developing talent that produces all-conference, all-American performers and championship trophies. Dozens of his players have gone on to play professionally.
Even though UNO’s yet to even sniff a conference title, it’s not like Blais walked into a shambles. After a rough couple years, UNO acquitted itself well from 2000 to 2005 before plateauing in 2007 and 2008. There was grumbling the program had run out of steam even though attendance remained steady and the team managed being competitive most nights.
Still, an impending change was in the wind. Hockey revenue was down and UNO long ago fixed its financial wagon to its lone D-I program. As hockey goes, so does Maverick athletics. Alberts put it succinctly:
“Success in hockey in non-negotiable. Creating and sustaining profitability in hockey is a mandate we will hold ourselves accountable to.”
Not long after Alberts arrived as AD Mike Kemp, who founded the program and served as its only head coach for 12 years, stepped aside to be associate athletic director. He recommended as his successor Blais, an old friend then coaching the Fargo Force, a United States Hockey League team. Kemp and Blais knew each other as assistant coaches with the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Dakota, respectively.
“His ability, background and history made him an incredible fit for our program,” Kemp said. “He brings championship experience, attitude and focus that will help propel and direct our program to the next level.”
Because they go back a ways, there’s been no feeling-out process necessary.
“We know each other, we respect each other, and we’ll do whatever it takes to help each other work toward the same common goal,” said Kemp. “It’s one thing to get a program up and going, it’s another to make the next step to national prominence. I think every year we inch closer. My job is to help give Dean the resources he needs in order to be successful.”
News of the Blais hire reenergized UNO hockey fans.
“I truly believe the hiring of Dean Blais signaled a dramatic shift in our approach to excellence,” said Alberts. “With Dean Blais on board, I believe we sent a very strong message about our commitment to hockey…”
Blais’ first year on the job was UNO’s last in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The team finished in the upper division of a league with perennial powers like Michigan. Under Blais UNO recorded only the third 20-win season in program history at 20-16-6, finishing an impressive 8-3-1 down the stretch.
In the off-season UNO joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, D-I’s premier league and one Blais both played and coached in. UNO’s baptism of fire in the WCHA this season saw its young squad, including a highly touted freshmen class, become the talk of college hockey by sweeping an early road series against heavyweight Minnesota and then taking one of two games at Michigan.
Getting that first WCHA victory at his alma mater, Minnesota, Blais said, was “pretty special,” adding, “It was huge to go in there and win.”
He liked that UNO made an impression on Gopher followers.
“They said our team plays like a bunch of piranhas, can you imagine that? Hungry, fast, tenacious, ferocious. We were proud of them.”
It’s his brand of hockey alright.
“We do everything at top speed, but to do the shooting and the passing and the stick handling at top speed takes a long time to get good at. That’s my thing. Anyone can play hockey at a slow down pace. To play at our level of speed takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of conditioning.”
Then he said something that revealed how he expects, no, demands his team play the fast and furious style he coaches:
“When they don’t play that well then I can get a little nasty.”
He said the relentless, fluid approach is a reflection of how he played the game.
“My feeling is the less restrictions you have the more they improve. The best discipline is self discipline. But I want to give them freedom to improve, and the only way you can improve at times is with your decision making. Do I go in and forecheck or do I just play my position? You can have rules and say you can’t go beyond certain spots on the rink, and that’s coaching, but the more freedom you give the more accountable they are.
“It’s totally against some coaches’ philosophies. Some guys will tell you you’ve got to be this, this and this, like in football. We don’t have that much structure in hockey. We have it during practice. Once they play in games we (coaches) could be drinking coffee and eating popcorn on the bench at times because there’s not a lot we can do. Now, if a player isn’t playing you’ve got to recognize that and warn ‘em or sit ‘em.”
Don’t assume his practices are loose. He and his staff put in many hours preparing and organizing to ensure the team gets the most out of the high energy sessions. From the opening puck drop in November, the Mavs have flown around the ice. An 8-1-1 start this season landed UNO in the Top 5, its highest ranking ever.
‘The guys came in this summer, worked hard, they went to school and they got some of their classes out of the way. They bonded quicker than I thought,” he said.
While the team slowed after that torrid first month, going 4-7-1 in its next 12 games, UNO enters the last third of the season well up in the conference standings and positioned to qualify for the postseason.
The success has only confirmed Blais was no ordinary hire. Indeed, he’s a legend in amateur hockey circles. His pedigree, almost unmatched. From an early age he knew he was destined to play, teach and coach the game he loved.
He grew up with the proverbial stick in his hand in hockey crazy International Falls, Minn. He and his wife frequent a lake cabin there in the summer. He played for top youth coaches and for the iconic Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota, where Blais was a standout. His seasoning continued in the professional ranks with the Chicago Blackhawks developmental team in Dallas, Texas.
Then came his assorted coaching stops and championships. His latest title actually came during his first year at UNO, when as U.S. Junior National coach he took a mid-season break from his Maverick duties to lead the American team to a gold medal-winning upset over host Team Canada in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
That victory was so monumental and Blais is so respected in those hockey-obsessed northern reaches that, he said, “every kid in Canada watched that game when we beat ‘em for only the second gold medal in 35 years for the U.S., and when I walked through the Saskatoon airport at 7 in the morning there were a hundred Canadians there that shook my hand.”
That’s right, Blais is a rock star among hockey coaches, When announced as UNO’s coach some wondered why a man pushing 60 who’s been to the game’s pinnacle would want to try and get a mediocre program to that same mountaintop.
“I believe Dean is a man that enjoys challenges and is willing to invest the time and energy to bring our dream to fruition,” said Alberts. “Dean’s legacy in college hockey is secure, I’ve challenged him to create a new legacy of building a championship caliber program on the national level that is sustainable.”
“Trev (Alberts) was a big reason I came here,” Blais said from behind his desk in the UNO athletic offices. “I think he’s just done an outstanding job. He’s given us all the resources we need to be successful. He gives us a lot of support daily. He makes it fun to come to work every day.
“He’s a big time guy. I just hope they can hold him as long as I’m here.”
Even though UNO’s never come close to the Frozen Four (college hockey’s equivalent of basketball’s Final Four), Blais saw a program with essential pieces already in place: a charismatic and supportive boss in Alberts; strong university backing; a rabid fan base; and the presence of Mike Kemp, who provides institutional history and a rich hockey background in addition to having established a solid foundation for Blais to build on.
Blais said he’s benefiting from the hockey culture Kemp put in place.
“Everything was done the right way with Mike. I didn’t have to change the culture. It was a pretty well run machine when we got here. He’s got a good hockey mind and a good common sense mind.”
Having an athletic administrator in Kemp who’s a hockey guy makes Blais sleep better.
“He’s looking out for hockey. All the detail stuff at the Qwest, the politics of some of that, Mike deals with, all the behind the scenes stuff with scheduling that takes time and effort, Mike takes care of, so he’s meant a lot to me in the transition. I haven’t had to slug it out with all of that. This is the kind of stuff I hate right here,” Blais said, slapping his palm down on a desk full of paperwork.
In assistants Mike Guentzel and Mike Hastings he has experienced help with strong Omaha ties. Guentzel coached the Omaha Lancers to back to back Clark Cup titles and later worked as an assistant at Minnesota. Hastings succeeded Guentzel with the Lancers and became the winningest coach in USHL history.
UNO hockey seemingly has everything in place to be a force to be reckoned with. Except a decided home ice advantage. It’s no secret UNO, whose home matches are at Qwest Center Omaha, is beating the bushes to elicit support for construction of a South Campus arena designed specifically for hockey.
“That’s the only thing we need here — we need an arena on campus,” said Blais.
While he concedes UNO draws exceedingly well — “fourth in the country in attendance tells me we have the hockey fans in Omaha” — the Qwest is a multi-purpose facility shared with Creighton and other users. That means scheduling conflicts sometimes compel UNO to practice at the Civic Auditorium or the Motto McLean Ice Arena. UNO must also share revenues with the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority (MECA), which operates the Qwest.
“You talk about an arena on campus you own and all the marketing and concessions and everything else — people tell you it’s $3 or $4 million a year in revenue. Down at the Qwest we don’t get all that revenue, so it’s hard to treat hockey as number one.”
As nice as the Qwest is, it’s too large for the fan base. Even when the Mavs draw their average turnout of 7,500 or 8,000 the cavernous venue is only half full, thus negating the edge a jam-packed intimate space affords. The goal is to make UNO hockey a hard ticket to get.
Then there’s the fact it’s a 10-15 minute drive from UNO, which requires players travel back and forth.
Blais doesn’t want to come off like sour grapes. He actually appreciates having the Qwest — for the time being anyway.
“Now the Qwest is working, our recruiting is working,” he said.
It’s just that he’s been spoiled by the ultimate hockey palace — the Ralph Engelstad Ice Arena at North Dakota, a luxurious $100 million hockey-only facility. A modest version of it is his dream for UNO.
He feels UNO hockey deserves “its due.” He knows it will always play second or third fiddle to Nebraska football and Creighton hoops. He doesn’t begrudge them their support. But he also sees NU can find donors for a planned $50 million Memorial Stadium expansion without batting an eye. He hopes just as Husker boosters are committed to returning NU to elite football status Mav supporters are prepared to put their resources behind making UNO hockey an elite program.
“If we’re going to have the best hockey program in the country we need the best commitment out of this community of Omaha and the whole university. Now, we don’t have to be the king here. I know Lincoln’s football program is the king, but UNO has to be committed as other WCHA schools, and part of it is an arena.”
So how sure does Blais feel UNO will secure the dollars for its own arena?
“I think it’s going to be pretty much a done deal,” he said. “Timeline, I have no clue, and funding, no clue. When money seems to be no object out of the other bench, they’ve got to find a way, and Trev Alberts will deliver and (UNO chancellor) John Christensen will deliver. But it’s not this year. By the time I leave here hopefully there’s a new arena here on campus.”
Last year Blais signed a contract extension to coach UNO through 2014-15.
Some observers speculate Blais is not long for UNO — that it will be hard-pressed keeping him if a Minnesota or another big-time hockey school offers the moon.
“I certainly hope that Dean concludes his coaching career here in Omaha,” said Alberts. “It’s my job to live up to the promises that I made to him and create and maintain an environment that is comfortable.”
For his part Blais betrays no hint he’s itching to leave. Rather he sounds like a man wanting to take UNO to the summit and feeling he has the goods to get there.
“We’ve got I think the most outstanding recruiting class in NCAA hockey this year,” he said.
He’s confident UNO can compete with Michigan and Minnesota for the best talent.
“We’re getting our kids. Are we there yet? Not yet, but I would say the freshmen this year feel they have a better chance of getting into the NHL right here than anywhere else.”
He likes the character of his kids too, saying that flight attendants, bus drivers, waitresses and event staff remark how well his players conduct themselves.
“Everything is please and thank you. Their average grade point average is over 3.0. These student-athletes are going on to be big-time something. It’s about more than wins and losses. Now believe me, they’ll compete, and we’ll train ‘em to win, but they’re being trained for the future.”
More than half his freshmen were captains last year on their high school teams.
“Leadership is huge. Leadership starts at the top. As coaches, we’ve got to conduct ourselves right. You wont hear us swearing.”
Speaking of leadership, there is a bit of every coach he’s worked under in him. He’s grateful to have been influenced by some of the game’s greats.
“Well, I’ve been blessed,” he said.
His first mentor was legendary International Falls High School coach Larry Ross. Then Blais came under the wing of Glenn Sonmor and Herb Brooks at Minnesota. He said Sonmor “taught me to have fun every day coming to the rink.”
Brooks, the enigmatic coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle On Ice team was hard to know but he produced unquestioned results.
“He’d love you to death when you moved on, but to play for him he was tough. Herbie did not have any friends in hockey. But as far as a coach there’s none better.”
Blais played for college and pro coaching guru Bob Johnson on the U.S. national team and for the respected Bobby Kromm, a one-time NHL coach of the year.
Then there was UND’s Gino Gasparini, whom he said “taught me how to coach up at North Dakota,” where he was Gasparini’s assistant before succeeding him.
All these coaches are inducted in various halls of fame. Blais is right there with them. Only he’s still coaching. At 60, his players are young enough to be his grandchildren. Does he have trouble relating to this generation?
“They probably think I’m nuts anyway,” he quipped. “I don’t treat my players any different now than I did 20 years ago. The bottom line for them is they want to win. They’ll do anything within reason to win, just like kids 20 years ago. I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”
Blais appears satisfied. But things can change. They did at North Dakota. He seemed content there but when the program’s biggest booster, Ralph Engelstad, passed, “things weren’t the same there,” said Blais. Rather than be unhappy, he moved on.
He left to pursue a long-held dream — the NHL, serving as associate head coach and director of player development with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s glad he tried it, but it didn’t fulfill him the way working with high school and college kids does. It’s why he returned to the junior ranks before UNO came calling. It’s why he feels at home at UNO.
“Here practices are for preparing kids to get better and get to the next level. In these kids you can see dramatic improvement, you can see their skills develop. That’s what I like. I like going on the ice every day. They know they’re going to develop. It’s a given.”
When UNO broke out of the gate with its dynamic start this season fans and media wondered if this was the year the program would truly break out and claim its place among the juggernauts. Not so fast, said Blais, who better than anyone else knows just how steep a climb it is to college hockey nirvana. He’s been there and back, but with programs much older and steeped in tradition than UNO. It takes time to build a championship club and UNO is still in the growing pains stage.
Jumping to conclusions that this UNO team is Frozen Four worthy right now, he warns, is premature. He sounds every bit the wizened hockey sage when he lays out just how daunting the task is:
“Well, to say we’re competing for a national title, we’re absolutely not, get real.
Michigan Tech hasn’t won a WCHA or national title in 30 years. St. Cloud’s never won the WCHA. Duluth has never won a national title. Colorado College, it’s been 40-50 years. Alaska has never won a WCHA title. Mankato’s never won the WCHA.
“Right away there’s six teams that have never won a WCHA title. Could Omaha? Yep. Is it this year? We’ll see.”
As far as being an elite program, he said, “we’re not there yet. The other thing is, we’ve got to be patient — we’ve only had hockey for 14 years.”
Then again, he saw something in that great start that told him UNO’s ahead of schedule. He knows people are watching now to see if they’re just a one-month wonder or a team to be reckoned with.
Assistant Mike Guentzel echoes Blais by saying the program is moving in the right direction. They remind observers UNO is competing in the toughest conference in the country and more than holding its own.
Dean Blais won’t accept anything less.
- Former Husker All-American Trev Alberts Tries Making UNO Athletics’ Slogan, ‘Omaha’s Team,’ a Reality (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- DU hockey freshman Zucker more than lives up to billing (denverpost.com)
- Cox: Mediocre won’t cut it for Team Canada against U.S. (thestar.com)
- NU regents OK UNO’s move to NCAA Division I (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Big 10 ADs propose men’s hockey for 2013-14 season (sfgate.com)
- National Collegiate Hockey Conference is new home for DU, Colorado College (denverpost.com)