This article is part one of an ongoing series offering a robust look into the history and passion behind UNO’s hockey program: “An Omaha tradition like no other.”
To read other installments of this series, click here to be redirected to our sports section.
Located underneath section 118 in the bowels of Baxter Arena sits a small white freezer. Tucked behind a rack of jerseys, boxes and tubs in a storage area, this freezer is home to stacks of pucks, but also an Omaha tradition that dates back to the early years of the program: a frozen carp.
Thrown after the Mavericks score their first goal at each home game, a fish has been flying through the air and into the opposing end of the ice since it’s debut in the spring of 2001. Whether it be that fish, milk jugs, cowbells or even an army of bearded men standing behind a line of drums, there’s so much more than just the product on the ice at a UNO hockey game.
From the outside, these may just seem like objects with no meaning behind them. But, once inside the doors of the seemingly brand new 4-year old arena, it’s hard not to be hooked from the start. It’s the symbolism behind these traditions that holds such a strong place in the hearts of many within the Omaha community, and it’s brought fans young and old together for over two decades––a tradition 23 years in the making.
“Tradition is really important to any program,” said former 12-year head coach Mike Kemp. “Back in 1996, that was one of our biggest concerns. I came from a program that was tradition ladend at Wisconsin. When the band started playing with the first note of whatever they were going to play, everyone in the crowd knew what it was, and everybody clapped or sang along. That program had a lot of tradition and the support was unbelievable.
“We didn’t have any of that here, and that was always a concern for me. How do we get tradition? How do we build it? How can we make Omaha a unique program? A lot of those things that started in the early stages of this program are still here to this day, and I’m very happy to see that. It’s part of who we are as a program.”
Kemp, who is heavily involved in every step of the program as senior associate athletic director, still gets a front row seat to Maverick hockey to this day. It’s something the current Omaha bench boss is thankful for.
“He genuinely cares how the program does, and he’s still passionate about Maverick hockey to this day,” said head coach Mike Gabinet. “He wants us to have success and tries to help in whatever ways he can, and we’re very fortunate for that. It’s one thing to say you support a program, but it’s another thing to live it and do it, which he does. Without Mike Kemp, I’m not here.”
When Kemp first accepted the position in late June of 1996, it was starting from the ground up in every aspect – a little bit different than the current situation at Baxter Arena.
“When I started as head coach I literally had an office in the basement of Sapp Fieldhouse with a phone and a desk, nothing else,” said Kemp. “We had 15 months to get a team put together and we had no coaching staff, no equipment, no players, no schedule – you name it, we were without it. However, what we did have was support. At that time we had commitments for over 6,000 season tickets, and to me that was something we could sell.”
How far things have come. As one of the people who know Maverick hockey best, Kemp said he’s not surprised to see that this program has blossomed into what it is today. It’s what initially attracted him to the position.
“To be honest, this is exactly what I had envisioned it to be,” said Kemp. “I think when we started the program – frankly, I came from a program at Wisconsin that was a national power, and I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t believe we could do something special here in Omaha.”
Luckily for the head coach, his vision has come to fruition. However, none of it would’ve been possible without the support of the Omaha community. Enter a man by the name of Jon Martin, who is still a fixture at Baxter Arena today.
“On day one, we didn’t have anything to rally behind,” said Martin. “It was a bunch of us old adults and everybody was kind of timid to clap or get into a game, unless there was a goal. You look now – we have our own building, the students are invested and everybody gets behind the team and supports them.”
“And we needed something,” interjected his wife of 26 years, Lori. “We had nothing at the beginning, and we needed our own identity. When Coach Kemp first planted the seed to Jon, I knew as soon as he did, he was going to go out and buy a fish to throw. Sure enough, he did.”
Martin started throwing a fish at game one of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs versus Ohio State on March, 9, 2001. Ever since, it’s taken on a life of its own, and it’s even become a topic of conversation with other schools and coaches around college hockey. One of it’s best tales came after a Northern Michigan player hit the fish across the ice at the Qwest Center, and the fish eventually ended up being thrown on the Wildcats bus.
However, there’s one specific night that stands out to Martin, and he’s still got a permanent reminder to show for it.
“Usually we throw a carp,” said Martin. “However, one day we had trouble finding one around town, so I went and got a catfish. We were playing Merrimack at the Civic [Thanksgiving weekend, 2002] and when we scored the first goal, I ran down there to throw the fish. Normally, I would just throw it and run to the bathroom to wash my hands, but for some reason I thought, ‘I’m gonna watch it this time.’ After I throw it, I look out at the ice, and there’s no fish. So I looked down at my hand and the fish was hanging there, with the wire stuck in my hands. I yanked it out and threw it out on the ice, but my hand was just a mess.”
Coincidentally, it was the same day the arena EMTs had come up earlier and asked to see “the fishman.”
“He runs off to the bathroom and comes back to the seats with this wad of paper towels around his hand,” said Lori. “I’m stunned, and he says ‘go find me the EMTs.’ So I take off looking for them, and when I first walk up to them one of them goes, “Cool! We wanted to get our picture with the fish and find out who the fishman was!” I go, well, you get to meet him up close and personal, come with me. They wrapped [his hand] up and wanted him to go to the emergency room right away,”
“Which wasn’t going to happen,” Jon chimed in.
“And I told them he wasn’t going to leave until the game was over. So, I signed their release form and took him to the hospital straight after the game. When we got there, his blood pressure was 200-something over 120-something, and the lady asked us what had happened. Jon tells this lady he threw a fish at a hockey game and it got caught in his hand, she laughed and asked me, ‘what really happened?’” Lori said.
“I said ‘sadly, that’s what really happened,’ and it was the talk of the hospital that night. It’s just another chapter in the story of the fish tradition.”
To this day Martin still has a scar on his right hand and can’t feel the end of his ring finger, but he said it’s all been worth it for him.
It’s this type of dedication that makes several thousand people on any given Friday or Saturday night proud to say they’re a Maverick.