Myers: Lot of familiar signs, names as Dean Blais returns with Omaha
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's easy to forget what a mess North Dakota's hockey program was 20 years ago, before Dean Blais came to town.
Then still known as the Fighting Sioux, NoDak had been the team of the decade in the 1980s, winning three NCAA titles and assembling perhaps the finest team in college hockey history in 1987, cruising to the WCHA and NCAA titles with a ridiculous 40-8-0 record.
But hard times had come to Grand Forks by 1994 or so, when Gino Gasparini was not so gently urged to resign and one of his long-time assistant coaches, Blais, was summoned from the high school ranks to run a college program for the first time.
Blais had been one of NoDak's chief recruiters during the magical runs of the '80s, then had coached Roseau High School to a state title in 1990 before returning to his hometown of International Falls for a stint as the Broncos' prep coach.
Back at North Dakota, it took him just three seasons to bring the Sioux from the depths of the WCHA to the top of the mountain again. On a sunny, windy weekend in Milwaukee in 1997, Blais' third North Dakota team dispatched a Don Lucia-coached Colorado College squad in the Frozen Four semifinals, then overcame an early deficit to beat Boston University 6-4 in the title game.
North Dakota was the best team in the WCHA and perhaps all of college hockey the next two seasons, but was upset in the NCAA playoffs both times, before returning to the Frozen Four in Providence in 2000.
There, in one of the more memorable title games, there was a small sliver of Sioux fans inside the rink that was otherwise filled with a noisy Boston College throng eager to see the Eagles win their first title since the 1940s. Trailing by a goal in the third period, North Dakota scored the game's last three goals for a sudden, stunning, 4-2 win and Blais added a second national championship to his collection.
He almost willed a third one a year later, in Albany, in a rematch with the Eagles. Trailing 2-0 late in the title game, Blais threw caution to the wind and summoned his goalie to the bench with more than four minutes on the clock.
The Sioux again stunned a national TV audience, scoring twice with an extra attacker to send the game to overtime. But the magic finally ran out that night, as Krys Kolanos (who would later skate in 21 unremarkable games for the Minnesota Wild) got an extra-session goal over the Sioux goal line and finally brought a title to Chestnut Hill.
Blais christened Ralph Engelstad Arena, the nation's most opulent hockey rink, a few months later in Grand Forks and led the Sioux to the brink of the Frozen Four again in 2004 with a high-scoring sophomore named Zach Parise on the roster, only to suffer another NCAA tournament upset.
That would be Blais' final season in Grand Forks, as he headed to the NHL for a challenging two-year stint as an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets. By 2007, he was back in the Red River Valley, coaching junior hockey in Fargo and strongly hinting at a return to the college game.
Blais skated for the Gophers as a collegian, and cut his coaching chops with the Sioux, meaning that anytime North Dakota or Minnesota suffered a three-game losing streak, message boards would light up with fans clamoring for him to become the next head coach at Mariucci Arena or to make a return to Grand Forks and try to hang another banner among the brass, marble and etched glass at the Ralph.
Instead, Blais headed south on I-29 a few summers ago and found himself behind the bench at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which is working hard to rebrand itself as, simply, "Omaha." His first WCHA series with the Mavericks, two years ago, was at Mariucci Arena, where Omaha scored 5-4 and 4-2 wins over the Gophers and added fuel to the whines of every disgruntled "U" fan convinced that the Gophers had the wrong guy behind the home bench.
Blais' team made the NCAA tourney that first season he was in Omaha but slipped below .500 a season ago amid a mess of injuries and inconsistencies. After a quiet 2-3-1 start to this campaign, the Mavs have won six in a row and return to Mariucci amid a rapid climb up the national rankings.
For those who watched the North Dakota teams Blais assembled and directed to conference and national titles on numerous occasions, the Mavericks will look familiar, style-wise. There have smaller, speedy forwards, gigantic defensemen and sometimes uncertainty in goal, allowing Blais to exercise his legendarily quick hook with the goalies if they struggle.
And if you watched North Dakota in the '80s, the names will look familiar as well. Then, Blais played a role in recruiting future NHLers Rick Zombo, Jim Archibald and Ed Belfour. Today, their sons Dominic, Josh and Dayn all skate for Blais with the Mavericks.
"With Dean's teams, I know how they're going to play," Lucia said this week. "I don't have to watch video to know that they're going to play a quick transition, north-south. They're going to come at you and they're not going to let up from the drop of the puck until the game ends."
The Mavs defensemen may remind sports fans in Nebraska of players more suited to play defensive end for the Cornhuskers. Blais' teams have often operated on the defensive theory that you can't beat the goalie if you can't get to the goalie.
To that end, a quartet of the Mavs' blueliners are 6-3 or taller, including star sophomore Jaycob Megna at 6-6, and junior Andrej Sustr, who looks down even on Nick Bjugstad at 6-8.
"They've got big-sized defensemen, so we'll have to play physical and use our speed," Bjugstad said. "They'll use their reach on us so we'll have to match that."
The Mavs play in relatively big city (picture St. Paul without Minneapolis next to it) and a sneaky-good hockey market, where USHL teams in Omaha and nearby in Lincoln, Sioux City and Kearney stir the growing passions for the game and introduce fans to many future college stars before they get their first syllabus.
After a decade in a cavernous downtown arena that they share with Creighton basketball and every touring musical act that comes through the Midwest, the Mavs will be breaking ground on their own on-campus rink soon and will be a key part of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (with North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and others) next season when college hockey undergoes its radical realignment.
In the future, games between the Gophers and the club from the town best known for steaks and college baseball will likely be rare, meaning fewer chances for still-disgruntled "U" fans to stare longingly at the David Letterman look-alike barking out orders on the Omaha bench.
But for now, they count and signal a rapid jump up in the abilities of Gophers' opponents, with games versus Colorado College, Boston College, Air Force and Notre Dame looming in the next six weeks.
"We haven't played the meat of our schedule yet, but now it counts," Lucia said. "Now it's for real."
As he's proven over the last 15 years or so, in a few different places, when Dean Blais brings his team to Mariucci, it's always for real.