By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
When North Dakota came to town in mid-November, UNO head coach Dean Blais was repeatedly asked about his previous 14 years coaching the Fighting Sioux. Blais would smile, commenting that he was thinking much more about his current team than he was about the school he used to coach just a few seasons ago.
At the time, it was probably much easier to do that.
It was the first matchup with North Dakota, his team was playing extremely well, and they were in a familiar place at home in the friendly confines of Qwest Center Omaha.
When the Mavs hit the road this weekend, Blais will find himself in another familiar, yet peculiar spot. Just feet away from where he will be coaching his team will be the home bench for the North Dakota fighting Sioux.
As head coach, Blais paced up and down that same bench leading his squad to two national championships and five WCHA regular season championships. This time, Blais will be the visitor trying to steal conference points away from the No. 2 team in the nation.
When UNO finally takes the ice, there will be constant reminders in the sights, sounds and smells of an earlier era. But just in case he forgot, the 11,400 patrons of Ralph Engelstad Arena will be glad to re-create for his team the same type of hostile atmosphere that Blais enjoyed as the coach of the Sioux.
“When I was with the World Junior Team it was a good reception,” Blais said. “But right now I’m the enemy and that’s the way most of their fans will look at it. They won’t forget what I accomplished there in those years, but it’s different now.”
In all, Blais spent 19 years as part of the program in Grand Forks. He spent nine as assistant from 1980 to 1989 and 10 as head coach from 1994 to 2004. Not only did his teams win championships, they averaged a lofty 26 wins a year.
Nine of Blais’ former players have seen significant time in the National Hockey League. The most notable is Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils who scored a late goal for the U.S. in last year’s Olympic gold medal game that forced overtime.
So, with myriad talented players, a system that breeds winning and a fan base that sells out every game, why ever leave?
“I felt after 10 years at North Dakota as head coach, nine as assistant coach – 19 years at one school was enough. “I wanted to try the NHL. After three years of being there I thought, ‘eh, not for me.’ I wanted to coach this age group.”
Blais, after leaving, started the Fargo Force in Fargo, N.D., a USHL affiliated franchise. Soon after, UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts and his former Mavs hockey coach Mike Kemp came calling, and Blais took the job with UNO.
In his first year as the Mavericks head coach, Blais returned to Engelstad Arena this time as an opposing coach. However, Blais was coaching the U.S. Junior Team in an exhibition game prior to leaving for the World Junior Hockey Tournament.
Now the stakes are much higher. Since their first match-up in Omaha, the two teams have gone in opposite directions.
Since UNO junior forward Alex Hudson’s goal (with .3 seconds remaining) defeated North Dakota, the Mavs are just 3-8-1. The Fighting Sioux, on the other hand, have been playing their best hockey of the season, setting a 9-1-1 mark since the last second loss in Omaha.
Add to that the type of atmosphere UNO will be going into, and the Mavs will certainly have to earn everything they get.
“They’ll see when they get there,” Blais said about his team’s first trip to North Dakota. “They’ll see that it’s the finest facility in the world, nothing is even close. Not even in the NHL can they duplicate what that Engelstad Arena is.”
Although he is no longer affiliated with the program, Blais did note a disheartening change that was in the works while he was still in Grand Forks. In the fall of 2011, when a new athletic season begins, North Dakota will drop the Fighting Sioux nickname and the Indian head logo from all their teams. In an effort to resolve an ongoing debate about how offensive, or nonoffensive, the name and logo may be, the state board of education decided to make the change in May 2009. The school has yet to find a replacement and may go several years without a mascot or nickname.
“It’ll be a little different this time seeing what might be the last year of that Indian head on the jersey and the Fighting Sioux name,” Blais said. “It’ll be a little bit different to think back to all the years that the Indian head meant so much to the recruiting and the program. Now it’s gonna be gone.”
Regardless, Blais is focusing on getting the Mavs back on the right track for the upcoming series. Despite the current slide, UNO remains within striking distance, just four points behind the league-leading Sioux.
“We’ll respect North Dakota, but we’ll try to beat North Dakota,” Blais said. “We know what they are but our guys aren’t gonna be intimidated.”