By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
Last Tuesday, Head Coach Dean Blais announced that the UNO hockey team had chosen senior forward Alex Hudson and junior forward Terry Broadhurst as team captains. Hudson and Broadhurst will start the new season not only as captains, but also as the Mavs’ top two scorers from a year ago.
Junior goaltender John Faulkner and junior forward Brent Gwidt were selected as the Mavs’ alternate captains. Faulkner is the only UNO goalie to start every game in a season, and Gwidt is a two-year starter for the Mavs, appearing in 37 of 39 games last season.
Three of the four new captains came to UNO from the USHL. Hudson is out of the Tri-City Storm, Broadhurst came to the Mavs from the Sioux Falls Stampede and Gwidt arrived in Omaha via the Indiana Ice.
The trio are part of 18 current Mavericks that spent time in the USHL– 72 percent of the roster. The USHL connection is one that is especially pronounced for what will be The National in 2013.
Out of the six teams in the new conference, 87 players on current team rosters spent time in the USHL. Between North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, Denver, Miami (OH) and UNO, that’s 55 percent of all team rosters.
But exactly why is that important? Simply put, the USHL has been the nation’s best producer of young hockey talent for the last 10 plus years.
Six of the past 10 Hobey Baker Award Winners, the award for the nation’s best college hockey player, have gone to former USHL skaters. When you add to that the fact that the NHL includes 165 players from the USHL, and college hockey has 284 USHL commitments, the value of the USHL becomes rather apparent.
Out of the six teams that will comprise The National, UNO’s 18 former USHL players are the most among the six. Miami (OH) comes in second at 17, Minnesota-Duluth has 16, Colorado College 15, Denver 13 and North Dakota 8.
For the Mavericks, new assistant coach Brian Renfrew, UNO’s ability to attract USHL players is a lot like real estate- location, location, location.
“How many teams are within driving distance?” Renfrew asked. “They (USHL players) can get here, you can have them visit, you can have them take a look. To me that’s big time.”
Of the 16 teams in the USHL, 10 are within a driving distance of five hours or less. The other six, though further, are reachable within a day.
Could Omaha’s location alone explain the rapid success with which the UNO hockey program was built? It took the Mavs just nine seasons to qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2006, one of the quickest ascents to the tournament in college hockey history.
As an outsider coaching in Alaska and then Michigan for the past eight seasons, Renfrew said he always had a suspicion that Omaha could have something big. Two things in particular stood out to him.
“They (Omaha) had success with the Lancers, and they were getting people in the seats there,” Renfrew said. “And two is their location with the USHL. To me if you look at it, they can build because you can get kids here quickly on visits.”
Eight of the top 15 scorers in UNO history came to campus through the USHL. Dan Ellis, who holds the Maverick record for most wins by a goaltender, was an Omaha Lancer before he was at UNO.
Both of the Mavs’ NCAA tournament teams had a roster that was made up of at least 15 USHL players. Six of the eight recruits that signed on for the coming season were USHL players as well.
“You got a lot of kids from a lot of different areas in that league (USHL), and all of a sudden [they] are brought into your footprint, which I think is a positive where you have a chance to build it quickly,” Renfrew said.
As a competitor, Renfrew used to come to Omaha and use the city as a home base from which to set up shop. Some days he’d be driving to Fargo and Sioux Falls, the next he would be in Lincoln and Kearney.
Regardless of where his recruiting travels might take him, Omaha was the hub for him and a lot of other coaches to operate out of. Whether he had to see players in Sioux City and Sioux Falls one day then Lincoln and Kearney the next, his best option was to come to Omaha to do it.
It’s a fact that excites Renfrew when he thinks about being the newest member of the UNO coaching staff. As a staff, Renfrew, head coach Dean Blais and assistant Mike Hastings only have to go as far as their own car to see a recruit play or practice.
Those recruits, Renfrew says, have been talking about The National more and more lately. With only one Minnesota school in the new conference, could that open UNO up to more than just the USHL?
Renfrew says it’s hard to say how the transition might widen the Mavs’ recruiting base. But for now, he’s pretty happy with the position UNO is in.
“I think you have an unbelievable opportunity here to recruit and to recruit really good kids from a lot of different areas because of them coming out here and playing in the USHL,” Renfrew said. “That’s a really big positive for me. They don’t have to be from Minnesota; they don’t have to be from North Dakota.”
“You can get a kid from western New York, you can get a kid from Pennsylvania to play here, because they’re gonna come out here and play for a year, maybe two maybe three in this league.”
“Well shoot it almost becomes home. They come out here and they become part of the community, and they have that experience in this league. They know you’re putting nine, 10, 11, 12,000 in the building downtown. [They think], I wanna be a part of that.”