By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
When Dean Blais was hired as UNO’s head hockey coach two summers ago there was an immediate shift in expectations. In the 12-year history of the program, UNO had been to the NCAA tournament just once and finished with 20 or more wins only three times.
Yet, for a program still in its infancy, the success surrounding the career of Dean Blais gave the Mavs a reason to dream. In 10 years as head coach at the University of North Dakota, Blais won two national championships, five regular season WCHA titles and two WCHA playoff championships.
Fast-forward to March 2011 and some of those dreams are already starting to become reality. In just two years Blais has achieved back-to-back 20 win seasons, put his team in position to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament and successfully navigated the Mavs through their first year in the ultra-competitive WCHA.
While it might be sooner than expected, Assistant Athletic Director, and former Mav head coach, Mike Kemp says he knew all along what Blais could bring to Omaha.
“That’s what we hired him for, to be honest, Kemp said. We brought him here with the idea that he’d be that type of leader. While we may think that some of this is unexpected, I don’t think as an administration we underestimated what he could do. We felt he was capable of doing this with the talent level that we had.”
Regardless of what happens in the WCHA tournament, this season’s third place finish in the WCHA regular season standings is the highest in program history. After 20 wins in the 2009-10 campaign, it’s also only the second time that UNO has had back-to-back 20-win seasons.
But understanding how far this team has come since October requires some perspective. When training camp opened up, the Mavs were welcoming in 10 freshmen to a returning squad with 15 returners.
Any way you draw it, those kind of numbers meant the freshmen would need to see significant playing time. Add the fact that UNO was embarking upon its first season in a conference that has produced 36 national championships and upwards of 90 current NHL players, and a mountain was seemingly placed in front of Blais and his squad.
“They didn’t play like freshmen from the time they got here,” Blais said. “We have a grueling, grueling test at the start of the season with the running and all that.There’s some of the tests that players will never get. And right away the players that made it were some of the freshmen. (Bryce) Aneloski right away, Matt White right away; Johnnie Searfoss led all testing.”
Questions were answered during early season road tests at ranked opponents Minnesota and Michigan. UNO captured three of the four wins and the freshmen accounted for six of the 14 goals and 13 points overall.
There’s a common theme among Blais-coached hockey clubs: success. No matter where he goes the arrival of Blais has meant victory.
At North Dakota, Blais gave the school its first conference and national championships in 10 years. He coached 60 NHL draft picks, 28 All-Americans, three WCHA players of the year and won the Division I Coach of the Year award twice.
After working in player development with the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL, Blais returned to North Dakota to help form a United States Hockey League franchise in Fargo. In the team’s first season of competition, the Force advanced to the Clark Cup Finals and Blais was named the USHL coach of the year.
In his first season with the Mavs, Blais spent two weeks away in late December and early January to coach the U.S. World Junior team. When the tournament was over, team USA had captured only its second gold medal in the World Juniors and never lost a game.
So with all those triumphs, where does this year rank in the annals of Blais?
“The most surprising, most successful team I’ve coached,” Blais said. “We knew going into North Dakota, winning 30, 35 games a year those four years when we had Lee Goren, Jason Blake, the Hoogsteens. We had guys that stepped from right here to the NHL, no minor leagues. Stepped right in and played 20 years. We knew we had the talent to win.”
A brief look up and down the current UNO roster may not give the same initial indication of success. However, in just the two seasons that Blais has been with the Mavs he has produced 11 players that had career seasons in 2010, and will have seven more left over from that group that will do it again in 2011.
“I give them freedom in the offensive zone to make decisions,” he said. “I don’t tell them you have to pass or you have to shoot, they do it out of instinct. I let them be creative and use their hockey sense and hockey imagination and try not to get too over-systemized because you recruit good hockey players you don’t make them.”
Yet there are still things that even a player’s coach such as Blais won’t make any concessions on.
“Defensive coverage. There are assignments, there’s no two ways to play it,” he said. “You gotta play certain ways in your defensive zone. [There are] certain things you gotta do on the offensive side of the puck too. But once they get over that red line their job is to give and go, create and use their hockey sense of imagination for scoring.”
Playing under and coaching with the likes of legends Herb Brooks and Badger Bob Johnson gave Blais a lot of insight into how he says he developed his own leadership style. Regardless of talent or expectations, Blais said it’s often more about the feelings they can inspire than it is the style they use.
“It’s not systems that win you tournaments, it’s character; who wants it,” he said. “Obviously when you get this many guys out here who are freshmen you got a lot of want in their game.”
As conference awards start to get handed out, Blais’ name is one that is likely to come up frequently for WCHA conference coach of the year. When asked if he ever thinks about this year’s success in terms of earning such an individual ward, Blais simply said “no.”
For Dean Blais, his reward has always been the time spent teaching and coaching his boys. Even though he had hoped for a longer career in the NHL, Blais’ first love was always teaching.
“I knew what I wanted [to do] after playing – teach,” he said. “I had people in my lives where that’s all we did was basically play games. We taught each other as we played. I had more fun when I was in Roseau (Minn.) with the elementary kids. I could have been happy just teaching there if I didn’t have the passion for hockey.”