By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
In the last two years, the UNO hockey program has made a lot of changes. With the addition of head coach Dean Blais and the move to the WCHA, you could argue that the Mavs have finally stepped up to big boy hockey.
Yet, as a new era begins, one question remains: how long does UNO expect to play its home games at the Qwest Center? For the Mavs to become a true powerhouse program and consistently make the NCAA tournament to compete for conference and national championships, a change is needed.
This isn’t to say UNO doesn’t enjoy a home ice advantage at the Qwest. At least once or twice a year the Mavs put together an effort to sell out the stadium, put 11,000-13,000 fans in the stands and get one of the nation’s largest crowds of the year.
More than 11,000 fans attended the Friday contest against North Dakota and the game looked, felt and sounded like big-time hockey. Unfortunately, it was still football season, and a Husker game the next night dropped Saturday’s figures by about 3,000.
Fluctuations like that are bound to happen the first half of the season while college football is still running. UNO hockey will always be fighting an uphill battle for Saturday fans whether the Huskers are playing or not.
Though the 7,000 plus who were there the next night were die-hards who cheered loudly, the home ice advantage wasn’t quite the same as it was the previous night.
And let’s be honest, the Mavs are a young program and still a bit of an unknown quantity in this market.
Building an 11,000-seat arena would combat many of the problems that come in the first half of the year. Then, when the rest of Omaha realizes what a special thing UNO hockey is, it could sell out almost every night.
Second, if the Mavs were to build their own arena, they could construct it specifically for their fans, their students and their teams. There could be a place to put the band at each game, a spot for cheerleaders that’s not hidden away and a complex that could house more than just hockey.
Right now, recruits who come to Omaha to see the different parts of the hockey program just don’t get the same feel of college hockey as they do at other WCHA programs. Student sections that lead well-known cheers and bands that play during stoppages in play are traditions that’ll never take hold at the Qwest Center.
Third, and most important, is something I mentioned earlier: recruits. To achieve the goals that Trev Alberts and the athletic department have for the program, the Mavs have to be able to compete for the same kids North Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan get.
Granted, those universities have a step up on the Mavs because of tradition, but if now isn’t a good time to create tradition, then when is?
Like any other college sport, hiring a winning coach can always get your name in the conversation and elevate your program into the upper echelon. However, the teams that consistently win championships, more than anything else, have really good, NHL-caliber players.
With practice alternating between the Civic and the Qwest, home games normally filled to 50 percent capacity and games that lack the look and feel that other programs have, UNO will always be at a disadvantage playing at the Qwest Center.
As long as Blais is the head coach, the program will continue to attract top-tier recruits based on his name alone. However, Blais is in the final decade of his career, and if your team doesn’t have established name recognition, where do you go to next?
The university now owns land around St. Mary’s and what once was Chili Greens, but asking around the offices at Sapp Fieldhouse gets you little in the way of what might be developed on that property. Most speak of the arena idea in a hopeful manner.
But they also speak of it as “when we get our own arena” or “our new arena.” Inquiring further on those comments about when an announcement will be forthcoming or if there’s something already in the works gets little response.
If there’s something planned, everyone has done a very good job of playing it close to the vest. I think there’s no alternative. If the people in charge are serious about UNO hockey as more than just a moneymaker, the program has to have its own arena.