One of the most respected coaches throughout college hockey and a well-known name in Omaha, former Mavericks Head Coach Dean Blais has added yet another accolade to his long hockey resume. Blais has been named as one of the four members of the 2020 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class.
‘Chief Thunderstick,’ as some of his players nicknamed him throughout his time in Omaha, Blais had a reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach. However, it’s that fire and push for the best out of his players that played such a key role in his success.
The International Falls, Minnesota native finished his college coaching career with a 408-238-63 record spanning over 18 seasons. 10 of those coming from the University of North Dakota, where he won two national championships (1997 and 2000), and the final eight as the Mavericks bench boss. Those tenures being separated by three years as an assistant coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets and a 2-year stint with the USHL’s Fargo Force.
Prior to taking the reins in Grand Forks in 1994, Blais also spent nine seasons as an assistant coach for the Fighting Sioux (1980-1989) where they won two more titles. As a player, Blais tallied 139 points (56 goals, 83 assists) over his four years at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota alum actually began his coaching career as an assistant coach for the Golden Gophers in 1976 and would become a household name within the high school ranks in the years to come.
However, it goes beyond the time behind the bench, and the newly named Hall of Famers’ impact in Omaha was felt off the ice just as much. At the time, the school was about to endure a key transition into and gain traction right away in the WCHA (2010), and eventually the newly formed NCHC (2013). Blais’ name alone throughout college hockey was a huge part of the hiring process.
It was a decision that was in the best interest of the program and a much-needed one for Omaha.
“Dean was a great guy and I really enjoyed having him as our coach,” said Omaha Athletic Director Trev Alberts. “We were trying to get an arena done and we needed to get into the NCHC, so there were a lot of reasons why Dean’s credibility was critical.”
Over 11 years later, it’s fun to look back on bringing Blais on board for Mavericks Athletic Director Trev Alberts. He and the then recently stepped down head coach Mike Kemp had a vision going into the coaching search, and they wanted someone to put Omaha on the map. It’s something he couldn’t have expected after their first initial meeting in a hotel lobby in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“I didn’t know much about Dean Blais to be quite honest with you,” Alberts said. “I didn’t have much of a hockey background coming into it, but he [Kemp] was giving me the background on him and he says, ‘I want you to know, he looks like David Letterman, so I don’t want you to be overwhelmed when he walks out here.’
“I’ll never forget Mike building this guy up to be this almost larger than life. So we’re in the lobby and I turn to look, and here comes Coach Blais with a walker. We didn’t know he had just had his knee replaced, but we just both started giggling because you couldn’t have scripted it any more differently from what to expect.”
For Kemp, who worked side-by-side with Blais as Senior Associate Athletic Director, the hockey ties run deep with the long-time coach.
“If we go back historically, I had recruited and coached against Dean forever,” Kemp said. “When he was an assistant at North Dakota, I was an assistant at Wisconsin- which are big rivals, and we coached against each other as assistants.
“So when Trev and I sat down to decide who we were going to hire to be my replacement though, Dean was one of the first suggestions I made. I gave him [Alberts] a list of people I felt we would want to interview, there were several, but Dean was one of the first. Having him as our coach, our relationship was solid, and it was one that my job was to support him in every way I could to help the program.”
Shortly after that initial interview process, Blais was hired as the second head coach in program history on Friday June 12, 2009, just over a month into Alberts tenure as Athletic Director. Oddly enough, Blais was actually reported to be initially ruled out as a candidate for the job, however the two sides would come together on a deal.
In Omaha, Blais went 146-133-30 over his eight seasons. His teams produced four all-Americans and two NCAA tournament runs (2011 and 2015), the second one leading to the program’s first and only Frozen Four appearance. Blais finished his collegiate career with nine total NCAA tournament appearances.
Now 69 years old, Blais officially resigned as Mavericks head coach on March 14, 2017. A big part of that was to spend more time with family, but he’s left a lasting impact behind him in Omaha. There’s a banner hanging in the Baxter Arena rafters to show it.
“His career accomplishments are clearly worthy of a place in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and we couldn’t be happier for him” Alberts said, via a statement released by the athletic department.
Blais joins Tony Granato, Jenny Potter and Jerry York in the 2020 Hall of Fame class, which will be formally enshrined alongside next year’s class in December of 2021.