There has been a national trend of colleges that traditionally had state universities attached to the title to shorten that up to the name of the city when publicizing athletic teams.
Among those adopting that strategy has been the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is now the Omaha Mavericks in most literature — including that being distributed for next week’s Frozen Four in Boston.
The Mavericks were picked to finish sixth by the coaches before the second season of the eight-team National Collegiate Hockey Conference. This didn’t give them much credit for the man behind the bench, Dean Blais, a tremendous player for the Gophers of yore, and a coaching legend for a decade (1994-2004) at North Dakota.
“I’m sure the reason we were expected to finish down there was the outstanding players we had lost and the young guys we would be playing,” Blais said. “I wasn’t sure myself, until we went on the road to Western Michigan and Cornell early in the season, and came back with three wins and a tie.”
The Mavericks finished third in the first season of NCHC in 2013-14 but missed the 16-team NCAA field. Then, junior All-America winger Josh Archibald signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins and outstanding junior defenseman Jaycob Megna signed with the Anaheim Ducks. Late in the summer, defenseman Nick Seeler announced he was transferring to the Gophers.
“We had no clue Nick was considering that,” Blais said. “We were left with two very big holes in our defense.”
Omaha opened this season by splitting a pair of home games vs. Minnesota State Mankato, the team that would wind up as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Then we went to Kalamazoo [Mich.] and Ithaca, New York, in back-to-back weekends, with nine freshmen and seven sophomores in the lineup,” Blais said. “We were that young, and not real big, but our players stood up to two physical teams to go 3-0-1.
“I watched those kids come together in those two series and thought, ‘We might have something here.’ ”
Omaha started Division I hockey as an independent in 1997. Mike Kemp was the coach for 10 seasons in the CCHA and the Mavericks made it to the NCAA tournament in 2006. Kemp was fired after the 2008-09 season, and athletic director Trev Alberts persuaded Blais to return to college hockey after a five-year absence.
Hiring Blais wasn’t Alberts’ No. 1 move in demonstrating the importance that would be placed on hockey. In the spring of 2011, Alberts revealed Omaha would drop football and wrestling, as a financial reality of moving to Division I in all sports.
Blais had taken Omaha to the NCAA tournament that March. The Mavericks also had moved to the WCHA that season. Clearly, hockey was ahead of the curve and the sport most likely to shine a Division I spotlight on the Omaha Mavericks.
It has taken four more years, and with the breakup of western hockey after the Big Ten’s move to a six-team league, but now Omaha has a genuine fever for the Mavericks.
“Everyone was excited when we beat Harvard last week for Omaha’s first-ever NCAA win,” Blais said. “Then, we played very well to beat RIT, after it had upset Mankato, in the regional final and that’s when interest exploded.
“We got back from our 7½-hour bus ride from the regional in South Bend [Ind.] and we had three or four television crews waiting for us. Now, we have this whole week with people in Omaha talking about the Frozen Four … we haven’t experienced anything like this when it comes to full-scale interest in our hockey team.”
The Omaha roster has eight players from Minnesota, including some grand names: Jake Guentzel, the son of Gophers assistant Mike; Jake Randolph, the son of Duluth East coach Mike; Luc Snuggerud, the nephew of former Gophers great Dave Snuggerud; and Avery Peterson, Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in 2014 with Grand Rapids.
There’s even Matt Youso, a defenseman who gets some playing time and is the grandson of Frank Youso, a former NFLer and a legend of International Falls athletics.
The Mavericks head for Boston on Tuesday. They get Providence in the semifinals on Thursday. The dream scenario would be a matchup with North Dakota, the program that Blais led for a decade and coached to national titles in 1997 and 2000.
“When it comes to arena, facilities, investment in the program and fans wearing that green and following their team anywhere, there’s no doubt North Dakota is at the top of the list as the No. 1 hotbed for college hockey in the nation,” Blais said.
“We have an outstanding Providence team to worry about, and North Dakota has a great Boston University team, so there’s no sense talking about it now … but, yeah, it would be something to play ’em for a title.”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org