No players, no coaches, no arena, nothing existed of the UNO hockey program in the early part of 1996. The only thing that did were the 8,314 new fans, and season ticket holders who got on board on the announcement that UNO would get a hockey college hockey program.
From just a club sport throughout the 1970’s, to becoming a Division-1 program in (1997) and to today, where the team rivals as one of the best in the country, UNO holds home to a hockey team that’s always had a little mojo.
Current associate athletic director and former head coach of the Mavs Mike Kemp knows maverick hockey better than anyone else. Kemp’s UNO ties begin in 1975 when the Gustavus Alduvus graduate came to UNO to become the head coach of the club program.
Although the program evolving to the varsity level was discussed, the idea never surfaced and Kemp left UNO to become an assistant at Gustavus Alduvus for five years and Wisconsin University for 15 years. It wasn’t for two decades until the possibility would arise again.
“I didn’t believe it was going to happen, frankly. I didn’t even give it a second thought,” Kemp said. “I wasn’t even going to consider applying. [I thought] It was never going to happen. I was there in 1976 and they said it was going to happen then, and it never happened so why would it happen now?”
But from the efforts of athletic director Don Leahy, University Chancellor Del Weber and a committee formed to formulate a program and those within UNO were able to convince the city of Omaha to give Maverick hockey a chance.
Officials worked behind the scenes to get UNO not only a place that had ice, but a facility that was of a Divison-1 caliber.
Why did UNO think that they could kick start a major athletics program at a time where husker football dominated the culture and sports scene within the state and city? Because of the strong die hard hockey nucleus that Omaha has always had was hungry for another team.
“I know that they looked at what college hockey had done for other universities, really virtually at the Division-1 level, almost every school that has a D-1 hockey program has had it as a financially successful program within their institution,” Kemp said. “I think they thought there was always a strong history of hockey in Omaha”
In 1939, a professional team was established in Omaha under the international league and maintained in Omaha for the most part until the Lancers arose in 1986.
In 1996, UNO had the green light to bring on hockey as a Division-1 program. And before hiring a coach, or establishing a schedule, or even getting equipment, UNO did one thing first: sell tickets.
“It was May 1, 1996, they put a public sale for season tickets, on sale in the Milo Bail student center and people who wanted to preserve tickets for the new team that would start playing in 18 months. They could come down and put $25 down to reserve their season tickets,” Kemp said. “In 16 days, the civic auditorium was sold out for season tickets.”
With Omaha approval coupled with an equal amount of support by selling out of season tickets, it was time to bring in a coach to build this program up from nothing. Kemp was comfortably an assistant on the Wisconsin powerhouse program, but the program intrigued him and he was the last person to apply for the position and interview. Soon thereafter, Mike Kemp was the new coach and face of Maverick hockey.
“When I arrived basically in July of 1996, we had a desk, a phone and nothing else,” Kemp said. “I had no assistants, no players, no equipment, no staff nothing. I had no schedule. I had 15 months, to put together a program to find enough players, and it was to be a Division-1 program.”
Kemp faced two major challenges: recruiting 30 Division-1 level hockey players in a year and half and convincing teams to come to Omaha to play a brand new program.
“It was quite an honor to have some of the great programs willing to play us the first year of our program’s existence because they had nothing to gain and everything to lose playing us,” Kemp said. “But we were able to get programs like Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Maine willing to play us, power houses.”
For the next 18 months, Kemp was a travelin’ man, from literally across Canada to Finland, Kemp searched high and low, near and far to find the first Mavericks.
“I knew I couldn’t go in to the traditional hockey rich areas like Minnesota, like Michigan like Massachusetts, with a program that hasn’t started and compete for the kind of talent we needed to be able to compete with the Wisconsin’s, and the Minnesota’s and the North Dakotas,” Kemp said. “So we decided we would go anywhere and everywhere and go places where we might have at least somewhat of an equal footing.”
Kemp hired David Quinn as his first assistant. Quinn, a graduate of Boston University and former NHL player for the Minnesota North Stars, embarked on a recruitment quest with Kemp through Canada.
“So we did spent a tremendous amount of time early on in Canada, from one end of Canada to the other. Because we felt we could go up there, and people would at least give us an ear. A college scholarship.. And every kid up there is geared towards going to college,” Kemp said.
From Salmo British Columbia to North Battleford Saskatchewan, over to Stintsville Ontario and into parts of Quebec, Kemp and Quinn dug up the talent that would make up the inaugural UNO hockey program.
“We were educating, we were selling and it was virtually a 12 month window where we were.. David and I were on the road the whole time,” Kemp said. “We would cross paths periodically, we would come back when we had recruit visits, as soon as the recruits left we left and we were on the road.”
It wasn’t your typical recruitment pitch. Kemp and Quinn were pitching to young men around the northern hemisphere, they had to get kids to buy into something, to become pioneers.
“It was amazing how many times we would go to a town and they would be like ‘Omaha, where’s that? And what is it?,’” Kemp said. “And we had so much explaining to do about UNO and about school and about the city and basically ambassadors out selling the city.”
But the pitch caught the ear of the aspiring collegiate hockey players, presented with a chance to go down in history and become legends.
“What we had to do was sell people as you could be a pioneer. It’s your chance to come in, and like we are, you’re going to start something, and establish something great that is something that will live on forever. When everything’s set and done, you’ll be able to point and say you were a part of the first team that every played there,” Kemp said. “Which was actually a great sales pitch.”
After nearly two years of recruiting, Kemp had complied his 30 man roster, and thus UNO hockey was formed.
With 30 new guys at his command, Kemp was ready to start the journey of preparation towards the first game of the season. The first practice was… chaotic.
“The first day of practice, I know I skated by coach Quinn and I looked at him and I said ‘I don’t know that we could ever win a single game with these guys,’” Kemp said. “Most first days of practice you have five or six guys who learn for the first time what you do in practice, and you got 24 other guys who are going to say ‘follow me, here’s what we do.’ Well, we had 30 guys who had no idea what we were doing, the systems we were installing, what we were expecting, and it looked like a Chinese fire drill.”
But despite the early uncertainty that Kemp had thought at the beginning of the season, the young Mavs squad made a lot of progress throughout the regular season.
A microcosm of the first season can be shown through one series, UNO’s final road series against the national power that was Maine.
“Friday night at Maine, The first period ends.. and we played every team very tough. We had never trailed by more than two goals going into a third period all season. The first period ends 5-0, the second period ends, 10-0, we’re just getting pounded,” Kemp said. “And I come off the ice and I’m just absolutely apoplectic. I cant believe how bad.. And my assistant looked at me and laughs and he goes ‘Mike, did you really think it was going to take this long to get hammered?’ I look back and go ‘yeah, that’s the truth.’”
As expected in the first year of play, a team will face others that simply have much more talent. That’s the ritual that comes with joining D-1 athletics. But the next night is what set UNO apart, and what would be a shining moment within this early program.
“The next night, it was Maine’s senior night, the last night to highlight their regular season,” Kemp said. “Last home game of the regular season, we changed a few things up, and Maine obviously took us a little easy after beating us 11-0 the night before.”
Maine played their backup senior goalie in the game and UNO squared up, still with a bitter taste in their mouths from last night’s loss. UNO took the game to the second period tied 0-0, but then jumped out and scored first in the second period. The two sides traded goals throughout the whole game, UNO always answering Maine’s comeback effort.
“And we’re just hanging on, hanging on. They score to make it 4-3, and we hang on down to the nuts at the end of the game, down to the nubbins, and all of a sudden, we hang on,” Kemp said. “We’re blocking shots. We’re diving in front of pucks. We’re doing everything to make sure they don’t score and we win 4-3. It’s those kind of things in the first year that were just absolutely amazing.”
UNO had multiple shocking feats in the inaugural season. The Mavs first home sweep of ever was against Denver, who was a top team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The Mavs finished the season 12-18-3.
“We had some great, great accomplishments that year and it may be.. It’s hard to judge back then. It’s hard to go back and judge what are the most satisfying years of your coaching career, but that first year had to be. That had to rank right up there,” Kemp said.
The fuel that fed the Mav hockey flame stemmed back to the fantastic, and surprising crowd support UNO had at home. The Mavs continued to pack the Civic Auditorium game after game.
“We sold out every game from the first game on Oct. 14 1997 until our last game in the Civic Auditorium, which was March 8 2003,” Kemp said. “You start thinking every game was consecutively sold out in that building. Pretty phenomenal. That was something that I think really caught the nation by surprise. It really brought UNO notoriety on a national level, which at that time was not happening on a regular basis, which was pretty cool.”
Similar to a quarterback having a ‘sophomore slump,’ the second year can be challenging for a program. As UNO didn’t become a playoff contending team over night. In the second season, the Mavs, started 2-17. But UNO won five of their last six, and finished strong at 11-24.
“The next year which.. I did expect it..That it would be more difficult than the first year. Because first of all, people didn’t really take us seriously the first year, but because of what we did the first year, they started taking us seriously the next year,” Kemp said.
The next year was another step, and milestone for UNO, as the Mavs’ program was admitted into the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. (CCHA). Just like UNO’s first season in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the Mavs were picked at the beginning of the season to finish last.
“It was really a strong conference. Arguably the best conference in the country at that time. And we went into that conference with very low expectations,” Kemp said.
Despite being stacked with few seniors still in just their third year in existence, in Kemp’s words the Mavs played hard and made strides. UNO finished the year 16-19-7, at seventh place in the conference, qualifying for the CCHA playoffs.
UNO was slated to face Northern Michigan in the first round of the playoffs, who finished second in the conference, and tenth in the nation. UNO took them to three games… and won.
The Mavs then had two days to prepare and host a one game playoff against Bowling Green at home, for a chance at getting to the final four of the conference tournament. The Mavs won this game too, making a significant run in just their first ever opportunity in the playoffs.
Then, when things couldn’t possibly get any crazier. The Mavs shocked Michigan in the Final Four of the CCHA. The Mavs played Michigan State in the CCHA championship game for an NCAA tournament bid, but ran out of gas.
Picked to finish last, UNO ran a train through the CCHA, falling one game short of winning it all.
“We were runner up in the CCHC playoffs in the third year of our existence. That sent out a message to the country that we were going to be here for real,” Kemp said.
The Mavs officially became a respectable team in NCAA D-1 hockey. Kemp led the Mavs to their first ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2006. Kemp would then coach the Mavs for three more seasons, before handing the reigns to current head coach Dean Blais and stepping back into an administrative role.
“I’ve given now 16 years of my life to this program. The players that have played here, they’re a part of my family. The legacy that we established here is something that to me is… it’s been my life,” Kemp said.
Blais, a hockey legend himself, has kept the fire burning with continued success year after year, as well as developing guys who have gone on to have careers in the NHL.
From a different perspective now outside of the trenches of coaching, Kemp still lives and breathes hockey at UNO.
“You don’t start something like this and not be heavily invested in,” Kemp said. “It’s not something you can just walk away from.”
In Kemp’s current role, he’s working to provide the hockey program something that they’ve never had before. A place to call their home, and nobody else’s.
“The future with that new arena that’s going to come in on that south campus, that’s going to be the game changer here. We’ve fought for 16 years without a facility to call our own,” Kemp said. “I work on that project every day pretty much all day. It’s really fun to see it coming together because that’s really the next step for our program and for our campus.”
From rumors of a club team becoming varsity in the 1970’s to the well-established NCHC program that is now here in Omaha, UNO holds home to a great program, and one that is still on the verge or something special.
“We’ve had great moments in the past,” Kemp said. “But we’re on the verge of great things.”