The first University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey fans went to games for two reasons: hot dogs and beer.
More than 20 years before UNO added hockey as a varsity sport, there was a club team.
“It was the greatest collection of human debris ever assembled,” said Michael Kemp, Associate Athletic Director for UNO and coach of the hockey club in 1975.
Tim Rock, a UNO alumni and professional underwater photographer, helped start and coach the team, along with Ron Rosso, in the early 70s.
Rock grew up surrounded by hockey equipment since his older brothers played hockey. As soon as he could get ahold of his own skates, he joined them. Rock went to Creighton Prep, and played for the Omaha Men’s Senior League in high school. After high school, he wanted to continue playing hockey, but didn’t have a team. Many of his old teammates went to UNO, so they decided to form a club. Rock said that the club started in 1972 after they met qualifications, found enough players and secured funds.
Rock didn’t just play for the UNO club, however. Many of his high school friends went to Creighton. Creighton’s hockey club wasn’t as successful, so Rock’s friends asked him if he would play for them. They signed him up for class so that he would qualify, and if UNO wasn’t playing Creighton, he would play for both teams.
One of Rock’s favorite memories of college hockey was when he got kicked off the ice. Creighton was facing Dordt College, and one of Dordt’s defensive players was massive.
“He was just out there like somebody out of Slap Shot, like one of the Hanson brothers running around and creating havoc,” Rock said. “He didn’t even have hockey skates on, he had goalie skates on.”
When Rock noticed that the opposing player was choking one of his teammates, he pulled him off and hit him over the head three times.
“That was like lighting fire to gasoline,” Rock said. “The next thing I know, I have this huge guy fighting me.”
Officials tore them apart and kicked them off the ice. They both bought beer and sat next to each other to watch the rest of the game.
“We sat there and drank a beer and laughed about the whole thing,” Rock said.
After Rock finished coaching the UNO team, Keith Walsh became the new coach. Walsh previously played for the Omaha Knights, but he shattered his arm in a car accident and was no longer able to play professionally.
In 1975, Michael Kemp took over the team. Professional hockey had been in Omaha since 1939, but in 1975, the minor league professional team left. The result? The UNO club team was able to use the Aksarben Colosseum.
In the 1975-76 season, the team was on the verge of going varsity. However, that spring Title IX was issued. The athletic department needed to make sure they met all of the new requirements and did not have time to move the program to varsity.
After 1976, hockey was history to UNO. There was neither a club team nor a varsity team.
In 1995, Del Weber and Don Leahy began plans to start a Division I program in an attempt to generate revenue for the athletic department. They hired Kemp to be coach. Today, the UNO hockey team is ranked within the top 10, and they have traveled to the Frozen Four.
Kemp said that there are many differences between the club team and varsity team.
“A club team runs on a shoe string,” he said.
Club teams have the challenge of finding enough funds through sponsorships and student fees. However, the most important aspect of a hockey team was found in both the club team and the varsity team.
“It’s all about people,” said Kemp. “That to me is the most important thing and the fondest memories I have.”