Terry Leahy: A look at the man behind the voice of Omaha Hockey

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR

Two men in a broadcasting booth
Terry Leahy, left, alongside his partner in the booth, Dave Ahlers, right. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

From the opening faceoff in October of 1997, to an NCAA tournament berth in 2006, the 2015 Frozen Four and every moment in between, one thing has remained constant over the years for UNO Mavericks hockey, and that’s the voice of Terry Leahy.

“Terry’s voice is as synonymous with UNO Hockey as the logo of the bull,” said 10-year play-by-play voice of the Mavericks Dave Ahlers.

An Omaha native, Leahy graduated from Creighton Preparatory high school in 1977. Like most boys growing up, he took a liking to sports at a young age. However, it didn’t take long for hockey to catch on, and Leahy was hooked right away.

“Growing up not far from here, the Ak-sar-ben coliseum, where the Knights played, I was certainly into hockey. In the late 1960s, my dad took me to a game when I was about 10 years old and saw the Omaha Knights play in the old Central Professional Hockey League. The red pants, those Ranger style uniforms—I’ll never forget hearing the sounds of that rink for the first time,” Leahy said. “When they started that game and dropped that puck for the first time, it was amazing to see that thing move around the ice, and that’s how it all started for me.

From there, Leahy’s wheels started to turn toward an interest for the news business and eventually broadcasting. At the time, Leahy was in college majoring in journalism/mass communications and political science—but he was just waiting for a chance.

“I started doing some cable television here in Omaha, and I started working at the College World Series a lot for the NCAA in the mid-1980s, which really exploded things for me. I started meeting these guys, some legendary college announcers, and suddenly I got started with KFAB and that’s where I’ve been ever since,” Leahy said.

Working at KFAB started Leahy on the path to UNO hockey.

“That led to a gig for a while as a sideline reporter for Nebraska Football, which was cool, and then those rights went away, which opened the door for this program (UNO Hockey). It was pretty much, hey we know you like hockey, so you’re doing it, you’re on the broadcast. That’s how the whole thing started, and that’s how it is in this business. It’s total right place at the right time, and here we are 23 years later,” Leahy said.

Sure, 23 years in one spot is an accomplishment in any field, but in his case, it’s a little extra special. He’s been with this program from the start, giving him a unique perspective and ability to connect with generations of fans, as he saw Maverick hockey get up and running first-hand.

“It was amazing, and it was exciting,” Leahy said. “Coach (Mike) Kemp was a master in rolling out this program with the administration and the work of Don Leahy (athletic director at the time), and they did a great job rolling things out. Again, a lot of those generations of fans were really brought into this thing, and when this program was announced on June 1, 1996 and when those tickets started going on sale, the excitement was unbelievable, and it reached a fever pitch leading up to that first game.”

From there the early success would only continue to grow. Through his eyes, Leahy saw a lot of progress for this program, and he still says some of his favorite moments come from those early 2000s Maverick teams.

“In that first year Omaha was in the conference, a lot of great things were starting to happen. Even though they had a losing record, they were making their presence felt their first year in the CCHA, and it would culminate with a trip to Joe Louis Arena. That year, current Mavericks assistant coach Dave Noel-Bernier scored a game-winner at Michigan State, which was a momentum builder. That game happened to be a national broadcast and it was a Thursday night, which started to put us on the map,” Leahy said.

“Also, later that year, Omaha beat a really good Northern Michigan team in the playoffs in a best of three, which led to an all-time great moment. The famed Tuesday night against Bowling Green (3/14/2000, 3-1 Omaha win), the play-in game of that format, and what happened at the Civic Auditorium that night was incredible. That place was shaking and put the program well on its way to that run in the conference final four, but those are just some of the many great memories from those early years,” Leahy said.

Over 20 years later, the Mavericks have compiled 372 all-time wins, find themselves in the best conference in college hockey and are in year four of a seemingly brand new, beautiful on-campus arena, with a banner hanging from the rafters.

Could anyone imagine that when that initial announcement was made in June of 1996 this program would turn into what it is today? Probably not. Leahy admits that himself, but he also doesn’t shy away from the fact he’s excited for the future of Omaha hockey.

“The games are big here in Omaha,” Leahy said. “It’s not the NHL and even though it’s at the collegiate level, the feel for NCAA hockey is special, especially in this place. The team is really exciting and it’s exciting what we have going on with this campus. It’s been a blast to watch the fans and players come together over the years, and this program just continues to develop, so I’m excited for our fans going forward.”

Sure, this program has seen its fair share of good times over the years, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad. As with anything in life, there are going to be ups and downs along the way, and that really hit home in the spring of 2015. On the ice, everything seemed to be firing on all cylinders, eventually ending the season in Boston, one win short of a shot at the national championship.

However, back at home, there was something much more important on the line than a chance at a title, and that was the deteriorating health of Leahy’s loving wife of 24 years, Sheila. An avid fan and supporter of UNO hockey, Sheila was a fixture within the Omaha hockey community.

For nearly two decades, Leahy had brought a passion and energy about UNO hockey to the broadcast that was unmatched. However, during one of the most celebrated times in program history, Leahy would stay behind. For Ahlers, something was missing during that stretch, and that was the voice he had grown accustomed to sharing the airwaves with.

“I would say the games I remember the most were the weekends that Terry wasn’t there,” Ahlers said. “When we went to the NCAA playoffs in 2015, Terry’s wife was very sick at the time, and he stayed back for our trip to the regionals at Notre Dame and for the Frozen Four in Boston. He joined us from the studio for that Frozen Four, and was part of the broadcast as an analyst, but for as much fun as I had on that trip, it would’ve been a lot more fun to have Terry along with me.”

However, as tough as it may have been for Leahy to not be alongside Ahlers doing what he loved, the choice was obvious—it was the right thing to stay back home with his wife.

“When they had that run in South Bend, I was listening to Dave and Lester (St. James) and turned it on TV, so it was an interesting and different perspective. My wife was fading and not in good shape at the time, and she was at home with me, so we got a chance to watch those games together,” Leahy said. “I remember the days were getting longer, and the sun was shining bright through our bedroom window when we had those games on, and I will forever cherish those moments with her. But, I had no business being there and needed to be at my wife’s side. I certainly wanted to be there, and that was tough timing, but bigger things were going on.”

After the miraculous run to the Frozen Four, the Mavericks returned back to Omaha with a lot to be proud of, and from there, it was not only a team, but a community that stepped up to help in a time of need for the Leahy family. In late April of 2015, a fundraiser was started and a few weeks later an event was held at their church.

Sadly, Sheila passed away on the morning of May 30, 2015, after a battle with cancer. Now, a little over four and a half years later, Leahy still can’t believe the support he received from those around him in the Omaha hockey community when he looks back.

“I had support from every which direction during that time. It was really three-pronged. I had my family, who were incredible. My brothers, sister-in law’s, and as I joke, eight million nieces and nephews, and friends, which was amazing to see how much they did for me. A lot of it also came from my faith community at my church here in town, Holy Cross Catholic Church,” Leahy said.

“Finally, this Omaha and UNO hockey community, which was unbelievable. They saved me in a big way when that was all happening with an incredible fundraiser, and I could never thank them enough,” Leahy said. “At the time, they really settled things down for me and it allowed us to get so much of that financial side – of her getting sick, taken care of, and not having to worry – so we could enjoy the time we had left, but it just really showed how special this place is.”

Born and raised right here in Omaha, this community is not only home, but it means everything to Leahy.

“It’s where I’ve spent my whole life, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s so comfortable, it’s in such a great part of the country, and it’s in the middle of everything. There are so many phenomenal people here and the incredible kindness of people, it’s incredible,” Leahy said.

That kindness that Leahy speaks of might just be part of the “Nebraska nice” reputation around here, but with him, it’s not a gimmick.

“With Terry, what you see is what you get,” said Ahlers. “He’s just a good human being who really doesn’t take for granted his involvement with this program over the years, and what he’s been able to do with it throughout the course of his life. Whether he’s meeting somebody in line at Hyvee, or somebody at his church, during the season he’s thinking about hockey, talking about hockey, and he’s just a tremendous ambassador for this program.”

For first year play-by-play man Donny Baarns, the same can be said, and it hasn’t taken long to notice that passion and personality.

“It’s been really fun. His passion for UNO hockey, the community, and for the growth of the sport is really infectious to be around,” Baarns said. “Terry’s just extremely genuine and very authentic. He cares about the people, cares about the job, the program and it’s refreshing to be around. He’s just a very good guy, and I’ve developed a pretty fierce love for him after only working with him for a couple of months.”

Throughout the years, Leahy has obviously seen and called his share of hockey, but besides one small detail with prep work, after giving it some thought, he says there’s nothing he’d change.

“None … nothing … not at all—I don’t think I’d change anything at all,” Leahy said. “It’s not a full-time job, so sometimes I wish I had a little more prep time here and there, but beyond that, this job has such a ‘big-time feeling’ to it and I don’t take any of it for granted.”

How would Leahy describe his experiences with UNO hockey in one word?

“Incredible,” he said without hesitation. “That’s it, it’s just been an incredible experience behind the microphone and 23 years later, I still love every minute.”

It’s been an enjoyable 23 years at that, and Leahy is a voice – and a man – Maverick hockey fans are lucky to call their own.

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