Downtown Boston. It’s home to some of the most storied franchises, venues and athletes in sports history. Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins; Fenway and The Garden; Williams, Bird, Orr; and the list goes on.
Here in the heartland, however, there’s one night in Boston’s sports history that means a little bit more. On April 9, 2015, Omaha hockey made its debut in college hockey’s premier event.
As Dave Ahlers voice rang across the airwaves just 11 days before, it was a pair of words that had never been said in program history: Frozen Four.
“And UNO is shipping up to Boston. With a 4-0 win over RIT, UNO will make its first-ever appearance in the Frozen Four!”
It’s an image etched into the minds of Maverick fans everywhere. Ryan Massa sprinting out of his net and jumping into the glass, the rest of his team following–celebrating a win that clinched the Midwest Regional.
Aided by an improbable Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) upset over Mankato, the Mavericks swept their way through South Bend, winning against Harvard and aforementioned RIT, cementing one of the last four spots in college hockey.
Five years later – despite the unwanted and unexpected end of this year’s season – April 9 is still a special night for a group that defied expectations.
“It goes back to our very first game of the season, our scrimmage against NAIT,” said former starting goaltender Ryan Massa. “I played in the first period, and then went up in the stands with [Dominic] Zombo and [Brian] O’Rourke to watch the rest of the game, but we actually ended up losing that game 4-0.
“I’ll always remember looking over to those guys and still saying, ‘Guys, who cares if we’re young? We’ve got a lot of talent this year and we don’t need 10 seniors to do something special.’ I think the small group of us seniors that we did have took it to heart as a leadership group to get everyone to buy in and be committed. From that day forward, the leadership core of that team really did a tremendous job. We had a chance to do something that no other team in the history of the UNO hockey program had ever done.”
Little did that group of three know what would be in store for them the following seven months–especially for a team that featured 17 underclassmen and was picked to finish near the bottom of the NCHC.
“I think looking back, we always found a way to struggle or get snakebit in our non-conference games my first three years,” Massa said. “Everyone knows with the powerhouse conference we play in, those out of conference games really have a big deciding factor on your NCAA tournament bid. That year we beat a few of those bigger name schools which really helped us out in the pairwise and getting a bid.
“We had a group committed to the process, and Coach Blais did a fantastic job of commanding that focus and discipline throughout the season. I also think each of those games served as a turning point, if you will, that made our team believe we could do something special and really gave us that confidence.”
That season started with a home split against the eventual No. 1 team in the country, Minnesota-State Mankato, a (1-0-1) weekend at Cornell and a sweep at Ohio State within the first four weeks of the season. On top of that, the Mavs added wins over Alabama-Huntsville and New Hampshire during the holiday break.
Once into conference play, Omaha put up a (12-8-4) record, good for third place in the NCHC. That set up a No. 3 versus No. 6 matchup against St. Cloud State in the opening round of the playoffs. Going into that weekend, with the resume the previous 34 games had given them, it looked like the Mavericks would play on, win or lose. It’s something most guys wouldn’t have seen coming at the start of the season.
“Honestly, I didn’t think so,” said former sophomore forward Austin Ortega. “Obviously everyone wants to get to the tournament, but it wasn’t really something within the program to think we’d be a tournament team every year. As the season continued to go on, we were winning games and beating some top ranked teams. And once we got on a little bit of a roll, you start to get the feeling this group could make a run.”
However, that roll hit a roadblock. The Mavericks were swept on home ice by St. Cloud State, a 2-1 Friday night overtime loss and 3-1 in game two. But, the roadblock gave the team a chance to hit the reset button, said former senior forward Dominic Zombo.
“That weekend kind of gets overshadowed since we went right to the regional after that,” said Zombo. “Our conference was, and I still think is, the best conference in college hockey, so that helped. We were a little above 0.500 in conference play, but everybody was so good.
“Yeah losing sucked, but St. Cloud was a good team. We didn’t exactly bring our best that weekend either, but having that extra week off actually gave us more time to rest and heal up for our regional. Obviously we wanted to win that playoff round, but for me, especially being injured for most of the season, it really helped recover from some of the bumps and bruises and get ready for a tournament run.”
Ortega agreed: The extra week off may have been a blessing in disguise.
“Obviously we wanted to go into the tournament coming off some wins and go into it feeling good,” Ortega said. “At the same time, it wasn’t the end of the world. We knew we’d have a chance to continue on into the national tournament, and we just needed to put those playoff games behind us and go in with a fresh mindset.”
Go in with a fresh mindset they did. After learning they were South Bend bound during the Selection Sunday show, the path was clear. Two more wins and the team that was an afterthought for postseason play could be making their way to college hockey’s grand stage.
Although some guys in the locker room had played in, or even won championships in juniors, the NCAA tournament was a completely different animal, bringing out a new level of excitement.
“It was the first tournament for everyone on the team, so there were a lot of jitters and everybody was nervous,” Ortega said. “After we got that first win against Harvard and were going into the third period against RIT, we all could feel how close we were to making it to the Frozen Four and having a shot to win it all.”
Looking back though, that win over RIT was no easy task.
“Mankato found out the hard way,” said former junior defenseman Brian Cooper. “RIT is one of those teams that once they get a goal, they’re solid defensively, and their goalie has the ability to steal a game. So after we beat Harvard and were going into that game, our focus was trying to get one or two, because we knew if we could take care of business in their end that Mace [Massa] would keep us in it on our end.”
That crucial first goal came just 1:01 into the third period, as Jake Randolph blasted a shot past RIT netminder Jordan Ruby from the top of the left circle. From there, as all Maverick fans know, the floodgates opened.
“When Randy scored that goal early in the third, I’m thinking right away, ‘we’re going to Boston,” said former freshman defenseman Joel Messner. “Ryan Massa was playing so well, and we knew he was going to shut it down. Honestly though, going into that first game against Harvard when we saw RIT beat Mankato, it’s like, ‘oh man, we win this game, we’re going.’”
Ortega, Parizek, Pope: Three goals in 1:54, making it 4-0 Omaha, the final of a special Sunday night on the campus of Notre Dame. The celebration that followed would form some of the best memories in several of these Mavericks’ hockey careers.
“At the end of that game, just seeing how many people had traveled to South Bend to support us, I think it was just an instantaneous reaction to celebrate with them,” Massa said. “I just instinctually flew out of the net and jumped into the glass where our nearest cheering section was. To get to celebrate something that had never been done in school history as a team and a fanbase together, that was really special.”
For backup goaltender Kirk Thompson, like any competitor, there was a part of him that wanted to be the guy in goal, he said. At the same time, he was happy to say he had a chance to share the crease with Massa that season.
“We had a really good relationship,” Thompson said. “It was kind of a unique situation, because we were both battling for a starting role the year before. I think we kind of split the games, but my second year when he was a senior, he had one of the best years I’ve seen a college goalie have.
“He ran away with it and played a lot of the big games, deservedly so, but more importantly he was a great guy to learn from. You don’t run into too many guys like him throughout your hockey career, and without Ryan Massa, I don’t think we’d be talking about going to Boston.”
In addition to the play between the pipes, another key for the 2014-15 team was the “next man up” mentality. Sure they had Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega leading the way offensively, but for a team that was balanced up and down the lineup, having guys play a specific role was instrumental to their success.
“We had guys accept their roles that they honestly probably weren’t ready for,” Cooper said. “But each guy embraced what they needed to do, especially our seniors. Brian O’Rourke was our steadyhand on the backend and a guy like Dominic Zombo, who was hurt for part of the year and then he came back big for us. Our freshmen were huge, too.
“Yeah they came in as cocky little pricks, but at the same time, they did a good job of doing their part. Whether it was Randolph scoring in South Bend, Vesel and Avery Peterson doing their thing, Messner on defense, I could keep going. Even a guy like Grant Gallo, he’s a defenseman playing forward, and he scores a big goal against Harvard. It was just a full team effort.”
After the win and an “anti-climactic” bus ride back to Omaha, to use Cooper’s words, the focus was quickly on one thing: a date with the Providence Friars on the biggest stage in college hockey and in one of America’s most storied cities.
“Walking into TD Garden, it was almost a different lifestyle,” said former senior defenseman and captain Brian O’Rourke. “There are four teams left, so to be one of those teams, it was difficult to ignore the attention. At the same time we knew there were only two potential games left in the season. We’re this close, so let’s try and focus on what we can control. Ultimately, we didn’t get the result we wanted, but just to get to that point was something we could all be incredibly proud of.”
After a private charter, never-ending rounds of media, multiple team dinners, a tour of Fenway Park and police escorts around the city, it was uncharted territory to say the least for the Mavs. As many outside noises and potential distractions as there were, inside the Omaha room it was “just another game.”
“I just remember everyone being hyper-focused and locked in,” O’Rourke said. “Everyone has their gameday routine, and we all tried to stick to it as best as possible. I tried to tell the guys we’ve won however many games up to this point in the season, whatever we’ve been doing has worked and we’re this close, so let’s try to keep it the same and treat it like any other game.”
That message was echoed by two of his fellow defensemen.
“We just tried to do whatever we could to stay calm,” Cooper said. “It’s just like any other road game–find what works, forget the soccer ball, get your music right and it’s business as usual. I remember going out for warmups though. You see the size of the arena, and it’s just ‘woah.’ It kind of hits you and you have to get those butterflies tamed down a little bit, but it was definitely a surreal experience.”
Former sophomore Ian Brady remembers most of the same, but it was still hard not to get caught up in the spotlight of that day, he said.
“That gameday was such a whirlwind,” Brady said. “Everybody was so hyped, but it was just very surreal to be playing on that stage. Obviously we couldn’t pull it together and get the win, and I think looking back on it now it kind of got to us a little bit, but it was an unbelievable two weeks and we got a chance to put Omaha on the map.”
As fate would have it, that night at the TD Garden signified the end of the line. Former Bruin and current Florida Panther Noel Acciari put the Friars ahead 11:02 into the second, and Mark Jankowski stretched the lead to two. The Friars never looked back.
Jake Guentzel, as he did all year long, found the back of the net with just 9:14 left in regulation to give the Omaha bench life. Only down 2-1, the Mavs put up a good fight, but fell in the end 4-1.
Massa, who grew up a diehard Red Sox fan and spent a lot of time in the Boston area as a kid, said playing in The Garden is a tough feeling to describe.
“To be in that building, the history and nostalgia–I really can’t put it into words,” Massa said. “As a goaltender, it was so hard to really enjoy it for what it was because I had to focus exclusively on Providence and putting myself in a mental state to just treat it like just another game, in another building, on another night.
“When that final horn sounded though, obviously it’s tough to know my college career was over. I just remember standing on the ice alongside Zombo and O’Rourke, and just looking around, thinking back to that night against NAIT, about how far we’d come. Here’s this team from Omaha, Nebraska, playing in a Frozen Four, in a sold-out arena, with our family and cheering section there every step of the way. To say we’re the first ever team from Omaha to make it that far is something that can’t ever be taken from us.”
When Baxter Arena opened the following fall, the impact of those three weeks became evident.
“That next year, when you put the banner up, that’s when it really hits you,” Messner said. “You sit there thinking, ‘oh, we’ll get there again’, and you kind of take it for granted how tough it is. Looking back, you don’t realize in the moment what you’ve really been able to accomplish. Whenever you look up and see that banner now though, you realize we had a part in laying the groundwork for the future.”
That momentum is still part of the program today.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience and something I’ll never forget,” said Thompson, the current Omaha goalie coach. “But the coolest part about it was that we built all that momentum to move into Baxter Arena the following year. To still see the city of Omaha really get behind the team to this day is something very special to me.”
Like any other sport, professional or collegiate level, it’s a long season. Yes, that 2014-15 Omaha squad may have come up short, but for a team and a close group of guys, the support they received along the way has formed a lifetime of memories.
“Not being from Omaha, a lot of us don’t really think of Omaha being such a hockey city,” Brady said. “Once you get there, though, you learn quickly. We really saw that when we put together that run, and the support that the school and the community showed for us was very special. We’ll never forget it.”
For the three seniors who sat together in the upper bowl of the CenturyLink Center on that Monday night in October, it’s still hard to grasp how far they really came that season.
“I think early on it was hard to block out the noise,” O’Rourke said. “We were really young and predicted to finish so low in the conference, but we as seniors made it a point that we didn’t just look past our final season. There could’ve been that natural tendency with the new rink coming in the following year and the young team for people to look to and be excited about the future.
“Quite frankly though, it was our last chance to make something out of our four years in Omaha and we wanted to do something special. Little did we know what we really had.”
For O’Rourke’s former roommate, best friend and fellow St. Louis native, it’s the group of guys they had that still stands out.
“I don’t want to be that guy hanging my hat on one season, but that group of guys was the best group I’ve ever been a part of,” Zombo said. “It was one of the best teams on the ice too, but looking at the connections that we made and the fact we still stay in touch, it was the most fun I’ve had playing hockey. We were really out to prove people wrong.”
The same was said by his goaltender.
“The fact that we were written-off before the puck even dropped did not sit well with me at all, and that pissed me off,” Massa said. “I think it bothered a lot of the other guys on the team as well, and we were out with a chip on our shoulders.
“We wanted to prove the Omaha hockey brand belongs at the top stage in college hockey. I honestly don’t think it’s going to be much longer before we see another Omaha team not only reach the benchmark that our group set that year, but exceed them, and hopefully put a national championship banner in the Baxter Arena rafters. We were picked as a nobody and finished as a somebody.”
Five years later, it’s still a special night for so many Mavericks, fans and players alike. Time has flown by and a lot has changed for the Omaha hockey program since that early April night in Boston. But, the benchmark this group set perhaps doesn’t seem too far out of reach.