This article is part 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 Part I, click here. To read Part II, click here.
Along with those sitting in the stands, the players on the ice and the coaches in their ears, there’s several people behind the scenes that make a gameday happen at Baxter Arena. One of which comes in the form of a voice, 13-year Mavericks’ public address announcer Nick Handley.
“The Omaha Ak-sar-ben Knights were looking for a PA announcer at the time, and a guy approached me after a Creighton women’s basketball game asking if I’d ever done hockey before,” said Handley. “I hadn’t, but I figured why not, and I gave it a shot. After the first period it was so different than anything I’d ever done, that honestly, I didn’t think I was going to come back. I thought I was just going to do it for one night and say it wasn’t for me, but actually once we got into the second period and third period, I really, really liked it.”
After overcoming that first night, Handley was hooked, but the Knights would leave Omaha the very next year. As fate would have it, however, there was an opening at UNO in the following months. Over 250 games and 13 seasons later, Handley has only missed two series.
What’s kept him coming back? It’s simple, he said – the people.
“They will critique you, and it just shows how much this program means to them,” said Handley. “I remember somebody told me – I try to stay off the message boards – but I remember it was brought up to me someone complained that the amount of time that I would take in between the letters “U-N-O” was inconsistent, and I’m thinking, what, why does that matter?
“But then over time, you realize how much it means and you kind of become that way. You want everything particular, you want everything the way it needs to be and you realize what you’re representing. With that, I’ve learned to appreciate them [the fans] so much, because they are as loyal and as passionate as you will see in college hockey.”
Since taking over the full-time PA responsibilities, Handley has seen a lot unfold, and, he said, he’s been privileged to be the man behind the mic. There have been several “big moments” over those years, but flash back to the start of the decade and there’s one that sticks with him.
“I’ll never forget the Saturday night game against North Dakota in 2010,” Handley said. “They were highly ranked as usual, and when Alex Hudson put that puck in the net I just could not believe it. I remember I was on headset talking to the guys upstairs and going over the overtime rules, and all of a sudden, we get this last second rush.
“A lot of us guys that have been doing this for a long time are also fans, so we’re usually talking to each other on the headset about the game. So as soon as we saw Hudson open in front of the net, our intercoms were all going “No way! No way!” and I think I almost went deaf for a moment because we were just all going crazy. To see that happen–it’s big, bad North Dakota, and to get that improbable win in front of a really good crowd, it was such a huge moment for this program.”
Fast forward to January 2020, and this program has only grown, to the point that wins on that scale don’t feel as few and far between. Omaha has a top of the line facility to call home–a beautiful two tier building with state-of-the-art technology in every direction you look. Whether that be a video board over center ice, ribbon boards wrapped around the arena or even underneath in the locker room and facilities that most don’t get a chance to see, it’s a game changer.
“I’ll be very biased, but our video production team here at UNO is second to none,” said Handley. “They do such a good job, and what they carried over from Century Link Center to Baxter today with Jeff Packer, Lyle Kwiatkowski and all of their crew, they put together some of the best graphics and best videos in sports I think. When I went to Duluth – don’t get me wrong Amsoil Arena is a nice venue – but I’ve got to be honest, I was not impressed by their gameday production. I kept thinking to myself, ‘man, I like what we do a lot better.’
“A big group of us also went out to Denver to watch the Mavs play last season, which is another national championship hockey program. I remember sitting there asking some people about it, and they all said the same thing, it’s not even close compared to UNO. I think about our gameday atmosphere here at Baxter Arena, and it’s just got such a professional feel to it. It’s done so well.”
That production team is something that has drawn praise from far and wide, and it’s a huge point of pride for Maverick athletics.
“When we started our program in ‘96, there wasn’t any technology besides a scoreboard and some music here and there,” said former head coach Mike Kemp. “Now you look at what we’re capable of doing, and I truly believe we put on as good of a video show and crowd entertainment as any place in college hockey, so that’s a point of real pride for us.”
Jeff Packer, an Omaha native and long-time Mav fan, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the state-of-the-art facility, and he’s very proud of what his crew is able of accomplishing on any given night.
“This goes all the way back to my days as a student, but there’s nothing better than pulling something off,” said Packer. “If we have a new idea, whether it’s a new fancam or a feature that we’re going to roll out, just executing something crisply means the world. At the end of the day, if the team wins and we made it look as good as it felt, then I’m never going to put my head to pillow better than that.”
Often seen with a camera in hand, the Director of Video Production is a busy job, but a key part of putting a game presentation together. Along with Kwiatowski and the rest of the crew, the end goal is to add to an atmosphere and put together a show that brings people back.
“There’s the product on the ice–which I think we can all see significant signs of growth,” said Packer. “At the same time, as good or as tough as things may be going on the ice, we know that we get to play that role of getting people here to support them and making them want to come back.
“Because honestly, so much of this is entertainment, and we know if we can make the environment special around this place that we can play an impact. Even for people like me – I think back to when I was a kid, if you can get kids like me here and give them a reason to come back, we can create future Maverick fans.”
A classic example of what this program wants to build, Packer attended his first game on March 14, 2000, and has been hooked ever since the famed Tuesday night play-in win over Bowling Green at the Civic Auditorium. He’s only seen this program grow since, he said.
“I think if you would’ve asked me that 15 years ago, I would’ve honestly told you I think they can get to where it’s at today. It sounds like 20-20 hindsight, ‘oh Packer just wants to be right’, but at the same time I was at a lot of games at the Civic and I know what this program means to people. That Tuesday night, when Hoggan scored that goal, I just was hooked. To this day – and I’ve been to World Series games, NFL, big-time college football – I’ve never seen a place shake like the Civic did.”
“That place was scary to play in for other teams,” said Packer. “While we lost that downtown a little bit, I always thought if they could get in a smaller venue like we have here and get that home ice advantage back, it can become lethal. I still think that’s possible in this building.”
A home ice advantage is definitely something fans, coaches and players alike want to install in Baxter Arena eventually.
“When we left that arena that Tuesday night, our ears were still ringing because it was so loud in there,” said Lori Martin. “That shows you the backing we had early on, and I hope we get this program going again, and this building to that point–because that’s the way it should be.”
Although attendance numbers may not be where most would like, the potential is there, and the building is the perfect fit, said Handley.
“We may only have 5,000 people in attendance, but the atmosphere is there now,” said Handley. “If you put that crowd in the Qwest or Century Link, it felt like the place was empty, and there was no home ice advantage or type of atmosphere. That’s what I like about Baxter, the people are on top of you, the building is loud and it has an actual atmosphere that you can feel. It’s a special place.”
For the man behind the bench for so many years, that Tuesday night is forever etched into his memory. At the same time, the end goal is to get Baxter to that level on a consistent basis.
“There was maybe a one in 10,000 chance that we were going to be able to host that game,” said Kemp. “Not only did we have to pull the upset at Northern Michigan, but Bowling Green had to upset Lake Superior for us to even have a chance to host, and luckily they did. They actually had taken the ice out of the Civic for the year, and they had to work close to nonstop to put the ice back in. The ice was so bad on Monday that neither team could even have a full practice, so it was just all the circumstances put together.
“It was a one game knockout to go be the fourth seed at the conference tournament, and nobody was prepared for this game – honestly, we didn’t even plan for it. We didn’t sell physical tickets. It was open seating, and lines at the Civic Auditorium were out the door hours before the game, and before we even went out for warmups, the whole building was packed. Everything about that night was so unexpected, but the crowd was absolutely off the rails and it was such an incredible accomplishment for a third-year program.”
As special of an evening as that night may have been, it all dates back to the inaugural game. An exhibition contest with Manitoba on Oct. 17, 1997.
“Don Leahy always told me this because it was something he was so moved by,” Kemp said. “The first game we played as a program, at the end of our school song, that U-N-O chant that everybody chants at the end of the fight song had never been heard before or done at this school. It just started with that first hockey game, and to have that continue on throughout the years was something he was always proud of.”
Going back to that first year, many probably didn’t imagine this program getting to where it is today. When asked to describe their experiences with UNO hockey in one word, the answers range all over the board: class, electric, exhilarating, intimate, love, special, therapeutic, tradition. But, there’s one that stands out–family.
“Here it’s more than just what’s on the ice,” said Bridget Brooks, who has attended 479 consecutive Maverick home games since the first season. “It’s about the relationships. It’s just a big – sometimes dysfunctional – hockey family, and that’s what makes this place special.”
A lot has changed since that initial announcement on May 1, 1996, but one thing has remained the same for this program, and that’s the family feel.
It’s an Omaha tradition like no other.