Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nebraska Football Has Der Veiner Schlinger; UNO Hockey Announces the Taco Cannon

The Fairbury "Veiner Schlinger" has long been a tradition at Nebraska football games. I'm not sure I want to eat a hot dog that's been blasted out of an air cannon, but it's never stopped me from trying to catch one when they've managed to get it somewhere near where I'm sitting.  (Which they almost never do, BTW...)

So I'm wondering how THIS is going to work?
I'm seeing lettuce and salsa flying...  OK, Voodoo Taco... let's see a demonstration of this on YouTube!

Friday, April 17, 2015

UNO's New Arena and Frozen Four Berth: Not a Coincedence

If anybody had any questions about whether my disappointment over UNO's loss to eventual national champion Providence who leave a lasting negative effect on my opinion of Maverick Hockey, let me share what I did first thing Friday morning.  Before 8 am, I was at the UNO Bookstore, plopping down my credit card for a "Frozen Four" T-shirt. Why didn't I buy one before the game? Simple...I was greedy; I figured I'd hold out for a championship t-shirt.  And when that wasn't going to happen, it was time to get the swag that I could get.

A lot of people have pointed out how great the coincidence there is with the Frozen Four berth and next year's opening of the new UNO arena. You know, the one I call "The Mistake."  And I still believe that it's a mistake for UNO.  From my perspective, the most bogus reason for building a new facility is to call it "right-sized."  Sometimes increased demand calls for facilities to expand, such as expanding Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. But spending money to REMOVE seats?  That's something that simply defies logic.  The only way it makes sense is if you use the reduced seating capacity as an excuse to hike prices, under the guise that the environment will be more "intimate."

Sorry, but I prefer to be intimate with my wife, not my teams.

But last week, one quote in the all of the pre-Frozen Four hoopla caught my eye.  It goes back to Trev Albert's pursuit of Dean Blais six years ago.
Alberts initially offered Blais $180,000 a year. Blais, who said he was making about the same salary in Fargo, told Alberts no. Undeterred, Alberts called back a few days later and asked Blais what it would take.
The answer: $250,000 a year and a new arena.
That last quote changes everything. It's the intangible that essentially contradicts my every reason for opposing the new arena.  I was opposed to building a new downtown baseball stadium in Omaha - that is, until the NCAA basically gave Omaha the strongest hint that Rosenblatt needed to be replaced. If the NCAA says it needs to be replaced, it needs to be replaced.

And if the price of landing a coach like Dean Blais is a new arena, a new arena is needed. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't mean that I have to agree with it.  Doesn't mean that all my reasons for opposing a new arena are wrong.  They simply got trumped by the man carrying the ace.

There are reasons why UNO needed facility improvements for hockey; the idea that the team doesn't have a campus practice facility is a huge mistake.  It's been proposed for years, but not built for some reason. It's desperately needed.  I get the idea that it's best if it's attached to the arena where UNO plays, but I'm not convinced that it's a requirement.

Unless a Dean Blais makes it a requirement.  He's got two shiny rings that carry all of the authority necessary.

So be it.

And as long as we're being brutally honest here, it's not a coincidence that the influx of talent started to arrive on campus as construction began. High school players love shiny new facilities, so the promise of new facilities pretty much. So yes, the new facility had a direct causation effect on this year's Frozen Four run.

By the way, just because my opposition based on "need" was overridden doesn't mean my argument about it being "too small" was as well.  In fact, my argument is starting to be validated.  With ten days still remaining until the general public will be allowed to buy tickets, apparently less than 1,500 tickets remain for the new arena.

UNO won't admit it publicly, but the truth is pretty clear. With that Frozen Four banner in hand, the new arena is too small.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Nebraska's Spring Game Shows That There's A Lot of Work Still To Do

Every year when we watch the spring game, we're always reminded that it's really just a scrimmage that's mostly meaningless. Far too often, spring game stars are just that...spring game stars. A great spring game really means nothing.

I suspect the converse is also true. At least, I hope so.  The 2015 edition of the Nebraska spring game was pretty lackluster on both sides of the ball, and frankly, that made it difficult to watch at times.  Let's start at quarterback, where everybody not named Zach Darlington had their issues.   It's pretty clear that this offense is still a work in progress, but what concerned me the most were the number of uncatchable throws.  Sure, sometimes the receiver runs the wrong route, but more than once, the ball was thrown so far out of bounds there was no way a receiver could have ever caught it. (Maybe Riley snuck one of his old CFL plays into the playbook...)

So why did Zach Darlington figure it out when seemingly nobody else really did? Sam McKewon of the World-Herald probably has the best explanation:
Of course, it also was the first real game action Darlington has seen in nearly 20 months; his senior season in high school lasted only one game after being knocked unconscious in the season opener. Some wondered if he'd ever take a snap again, but now we wonder if he might start.

Wait. Stop. It's still the spring game.  We've seen this before with guys like Brion Carnes, who ended up finishing his career as a spot starter at Northern Iowa. So let's leave it there. Baring injury, Tommy Armstrong is the starting quarterback. And despite Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf's background, look for the offense to resemble Tim Beck's offense from last season than Oregon State's.

Why? It's because that's the team Riley inherited.  Good running backs, and quarterbacks that aren't as proficient passing than what Riley's had before.  But these quarterbacks are better runners than Riley has had, so he's adding what his players do best to his playbook.  One wrinkle that Riley added for this spring game that I don't want to see again is Armstrong being the lead blocker on the zone read.

Jamal Turner had a really nice spring game. We can only hope that he can pick up where he left off as a sophomore after missing most of the last two seasons with injuries. Of the new players, wide receiver Jariah Tolbert impressed me the most on the day.

It's clear that the defense has picked up on Mark Banker's scheme faster than the offense has picked up their's. That being said, it's not as if the defense played all that great either.

So what's the takeaway from today? Husker fans might want to temper their expectations for 2015 - at least until we see some sort of substantial progress in September.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Mavs Great Season Ends with a Cup of Chowder Against Providence in the Frozen Four. I Hate Chowder.

Back in October, when UNO was shut out 4-0 by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, we learned just how much UNO's seniors would mean this season.  Dean Blais held his seniors out of the lineup, and went with a heavy freshman lineup...and the results were awful. Blais didn't try that again, but after senior captain Dominic Zombo's leg became too painful to play on midway through the Saturday night game against North Dakota, the offense went south once again. That led many to count UNO's chances out in the NCAA tournament, but stellar goaltending from Ryan Massa and the inspirational play of Zombo carried UNO to Boston and the Frozen Four.

But that was all for naught in the opener of the Frozen Four as Providence dominated the Mavs almost all afternoon.  A herculean effort by Ryan Massa kept the game tied for the first half of the game until Providence got two goals late in the second period.  UNO's Jake Guentzel made it a game for 24 seconds with a goal midway through the third period...but UNO got caught being too happy with the goal, allowing Providence to reclaim the two-goal lead. With Providence controlling play most of the game, UNO really didn't get a chance to pull Massa for an extra skater until the final couple of minutes. Predictably, Providence got the empty-net goal for the 4-1 final.

Season over.

Awful game.  Great season.

Early on, ESPN's Barry Melrose remarked that UNO looked like they were just happy to be at the Frozen Four. Earlier in the week, Blais remarked that UNO was not heading to Boston for a "cup of chowder"...but rather a ring.

They got a cup of chowder.

And I hate clam chowder.

So while I'm elated that UNO made it to the Frozen Four, the final game leaves a icky, clammy taste in my mouth. I hope that the team is leaving Boston with that same icky taste in their mouth.

In the postgame analysis, both Melrose and ESPN/CBS analyst Dave Starman pointed out the youth on this UNO hockey team. This experience in Boston should serve the young Mavs well next season, and make no excuses..this is a young team. But next year's UNO team won't have Ryan Massa to save game after game with his ninja magic goalie skills. They won't have Dominic Zombo's leadership on and off the ice.

Kirk Thompson looked really solid in relief of Massa when he injured his knee at the end of February, so UNO might not lose a whole lot in goal next season. But who will replace Zombo's heart and soul?

And the unspoken question: will all of the underclassmen return this fall? Let's start with sophomore Austin Ortega, who wasn't drafted by any NHL franchise prior to his time in Omaha. Does some NHL squad open their wallets next weekend?  What about the other Mavs who've been drafted by the NHL? Sometimes the NHL gets a little ancy with their prospects, and tries to get them under contract.

It'll be interesting to see how UNO reacts to this game. Ideally, you'd see Jake Guentzel, Brian Cooper, and perhaps Justin Parizek talking with Zombo and Massa about taking this team to the next level - much like Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter did for a Nebraska football team twenty years ago.

Will it be "hey, we're great" or "that's nice, but there's much, much more to do".  Was that taste of chowder sufficient, or does it leave UNO wanting more, much more, next season?

UNO Prepares to Crash the Frozen Four Against Providence

Two weeks ago, Mike Eidelbes previewed the NCAA hockey midwest regional, and in the process, created the ultimate bulletin board material.

He had good reason to doubt UNO.  UNO limped through the final month of the season without captain Dominic Zombo, and bowed out in the first round of the conference playoffs.  But funny things happen in playoff hockey. Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa's return relit the fuse on UNO hockey, and UNO pulled off the upset that most hockey minds didn't think would happen.  And as the Mavs dogpiled on the ice in South Bend, Eidelbes repeated his quote, with a slightly different emphasis.
Since then, it's been the best of times for UNO hockey fans. Every day, the World-Herald along with local television and radio have given UNO hockey unprecedented coverage. In some respects, it's almost like UNO has already won the national championship with fans. It's been a great ride, but now it's game time.

Fortunately, UNO coach Dean Blais has been down this path before; he's twice taken North Dakota to the Frozen Four...and more importantly, he's won it both times. He's made it clear that while getting to Boston is a great accomplishment, an even bigger test awaits.
"But, behind the scenes, I think you all know what we’re going there for. It’s not to eat clam chowder and lobster. It’s to put a ring on our finger."
So it's time to put "Boston" and "Frozen Four" all behind us.  It's Providence that matters now. The Friars play a much more deliberate game than UNO wants to do. Both teams feature top goalies.  Massa ranks fifth in the nation with a 1.92 goals-against average and a nation-leading .939 save percentage; Providence goalie Jon Gillies is 13th nationally with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.  Gillies is one of the top professional prospects; he uses his physical size (6'5" 215 pounds) to his great advantage.  Massa, on the other hand, uses his athletic ability to get to the puck despite his smaller (6'0" 180 pounds).

In many respects, this game likely revolves around who breaks first. Neither team tends to score a lot as of late, Providence's 7-5 victory over Miami in the tournament opener being the exception.  UNO had a bad habit earlier in the season of starting slow, then storming back at the end. That's not necessarily a good idea in the NCAA tournament.

The X-factor to me is Dominic Zombo.  With Zombo, UNO was a team that could compete with anybody and everybody in the country. If Zombo can make it through this weekend, UNO's chances of pulling this off increase exponentially.

And then the dream lives on.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Frozen Four Berth Opens New Eyes to UNO Hockey

For UNO hockey fans, the past seven days have been the most enjoyable in program history, surpassing even the Thursday Night/St. Patrick's Day Massacre of 2000. It's not just UNO fans, it's the entire community as a whole. People who previously ignored or disregarded UNO hockey as a "niche" now are paying attention.  And it's all awesome, except for one little thing.

The new arena.

Raising that banner on October 23 is going to be a great experience for every Mav fan who endured that eight win season or the Bemdiji trap. (And let's not get ahead of ourselves...there's a little matter of what that banner is going to say. That'll be the focus next week.) Without a doubt, the place will be packed with about 7,500 fans.

But the question I have remains, and is even stronger today.  How many people would be there if the game was downtown at the CenturyLink Center?  I don't think for even one second that UNO would sell out a 17,000 seat arena.  But the sellout isn't as important to me as the number.  Eight thousand, nine thousand, or whatever is the important number to me.

I'm constantly reminded by the arena proponents that UNO hasn't drawn those numbers regularly for hockey, and almost never without some sort of promotion. They are right.  Or should I say, were right.

That was then; this is now. Everything changed last week.

Dean Blais noted it Tuesday in a Frozen Four conference call:
“There’s nothing you can do, as far as advertising or promotion, (better) than winning. My gosh, the radio and TV stations are just blasting us every chance they get right now on how we’re going to the Frozen Four. It’s a huge deal in Omaha, what we’ve just accomplished. And if we win it, it would just be another feather in the cap of the hockey program.”
This was the dream I had for UNO hockey. And I'm watching it unfold right in front of my eyes this week. Talk show hosts that last week that didn't even acknowledge that UNO hockey existed now have to cover it. They have to; it cannot be ignored anymore.

Before last week, I was fairly sure UNO hockey tickets would be sold out to the general public next season at the new arena. That doesn't mean that every UNO hockey game would be packed; it would be much like it was at the Civic. Packed for the big games, to be sure. But when the Huskers are playing at the same time or when the students are home for the Thanksgiving or Christmas break, there will be empty seats.

That's one thing that winning won't really change. UNO hockey is going to take a backseat to family or the Huskers, for the most part.  But when North Dakota returns to Omaha at the end of next February, you won't see that huge crowd that we'd get downtown.  The people you keep out aren't the Green Sue fans; they'll find their way in somehow.  It's the other Omaha fans that you'll be keeping out.  The bandwagon Jaysker fans who simply love to support a winner, whether it's Creighton basketball or Nebraska football.  The atmosphere at this year's North Dakota series was insane, the best I've ever encountered. A student section that overflowed their usual student section and took over the entire upper deck in the end zone. They won't be there next February; there isn't room for them at the new place.

That's why I've been opposed to the size of the new arena. And frankly, I don't see any way I can be convinced otherwise. Prior to last week, people could have said "UNO would have only sold out four games" at the new arena last season.  They were right.

But that was then, before UNO hockey made the Frozen Four.  This is now.  Things are different now.  Those past perceptions and assumptions simply aren't relevant anymore.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

UNO Hockey is "Shippin' Up to Boston" For the Frozen Four

Nineteen years ago, Don Leahy made the call that started it all.  The University of Nebraska Omaha would start an NCAA Division 1 hockey program.  He hired Mike Kemp to make it reality. In October 1997, the Mavs hit the ice at the Civic Auditorium to the thunderous chant of U! N! O!

Two years later, UNO uses a late Jeff Hoggan goal to defeat Bowling Green in the CCHA play-in game to advance to the CCHA semi-finals in their first season of eligibility. Three nights after that, UNO smokes Michigan in the "St. Patrick's Day Massacre" to get a chance to play for the conference title.

Since that time, UNO has had it's moments.  A Hobey Baker finalist in Scott Parse. NCAA berths in 2006 and 2011.  But a last place finish in their first season at the CenturyLink Center. Failing to make it to the conference tournament final weekend for ten years.  Michigan stealing the 2011 NCAA tournament game with a fraudulent call.

Nancy Belck and Jim Buck's mismanagement of the program put the future of the entire UNO athletic department in jeopardy. In steps Trev Alberts, who'd never been an administrator before, to try and clean up the mess. He promoted Kemp to be his assistant athletic director, and asked him to pick his successor as head coach.  Kemp pointed to Dean Blais, and Trev somehow made it happen.

Blais, the North Dakota legend, had the resume... and we were sure UNO was off to the stratosphere in hockey.  We thought it was 2011 until "not a goal" happened. We kept hoping.  I knew someday it would happen.

Tonight, it finally happened. In many respects, missing out on last weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff probably was a good thing. UNO had limped through the last month of the season without captain Dominic Zombo.  Then goalie Ryan Massa tweaked his knee prior to the final regular season game.  Things looked really bleak when St. Cloud State swept the Mavs two weeks ago.

Sometimes it's darkest before the dawn.

Fast forward to tonight. Ryan Massa was, well, magical against RIT in pitching a shutout. Dominic Zombo returned to the ice, and while he may not be 100% physically, he was 200% in effort. Twice in the third period, ESPNU's  announcers noted Zombo making hit after hit on the ice. And those freshmen...oh those freshmen. Luc Snuggerud feeding the puck to Jake Randolph for the golden goal.  David Pope with the final goal.  Super sophomores Austin Ortega and Justin Parizek with the second and third goals to give UNO some breathing room.

UNO advances to the Frozen Four at Boston's TD Garden on Thursday, April 9 against Providence, who's campus is just 50 miles to the south.  Win in that early game, and UNO advances to play either North Dakota (in a rematch of that epic series at the end of January) or Boston University (who smoked UNO in 2006).

It's going to take some time for all this to sink in.  Right now, it's just time to celebrate. Queue up your accordions, folks!

Win, Lose, or Draw, Everyone for Omaha, We Will Fight For U! N! O!
A video posted by Omaha Mavericks (@omavs) on

Saturday, March 28, 2015

UNO Defeats Harvard 4-1 for First NCAA Tournament Victory

With Dominc Zombo returning to the lineup to provide needed inspiration, UNO won their first NCAA hockey tournament game ever in a 4-1 victory over Harvard. Grant Gallo pushed in a rebound just two minutes into the game to give the Mavs the early lead, then Avery Peterson scored with one second left in the first period to give UNO a 2-0 lead after the first period.

After a lackluster second period, Harvard came storming back in the third period with a 15-2 advantage in shots on goal midway through the period. Jimmy Vesey, the nation's leading scorer, cut UNO's lead to 2-1 early in the third period, but UNO was able to weather the storm the rest of the way. It helped that the Ivy Leaguers took two unnecessary penalties in the closing seven minutes.  Two empty net goals in the final minute padded the final score to 4-1.

Want more detail about the game itself?  Check out Chris Dilks' wrapup at SBN College Hockey.

UNO advances to the regional final on Sunday evening at 6:30 pm against the Rochester Institute of Technology, who upset #1 Minnesota State-Mankato earlier this afternoon.  The game will be televised by ESPNU.

I dare say that tonight's victory is the biggest UNO post-season victory since 2000 or 2001.  Some might point to the 2001 double-overtime game three victory over Ohio State, but I think this is as big as the "St. Patrick's Day Massacre" of Michigan in the 2000 CCHA semifinals in Detroit. In the 2005 NCAA tournament, UNO was just happy to get a bid to the tournament and got routed by Boston University.  In the 2011 tournament, the referees awarded the game to Michigan on a blown instant replay call in double overtime.

Whatever knee injury Ryan Massa suffered three weeks ago (and aggravated two weeks ago) looks to be all cleared up...and Dominic Zombo played the whole way, which should indicate that UNO is about as healthy as they could possibly be.  And one win away from the Frozen Four, with a game against the last team in the NCAA tournament. RIT won the Atlantic Hockey conference tournament and the automatic tournament bid, so the Tigers #35 Pairwise rating placed them against #1 Minnesota State-Mankato.

Cinderella pulled off the upset with a controversial goal late in the third period...though in the NCAA hockey tournament, Cinderella almost always makes it to the Frozen Four. On paper, you have to like UNO's chances against RIT...but history shows that it really doesn't matter in the tournament.

It's been quite a weekend for UNO's conference.  As I write this, North Dakota holds a 3-1 lead over fellow conference member St. Cloud State for one Frozen Four berth. Denver plays Providence, who hung on to beat Miami of the NCHC, for another Frozen Four berth. Tomorrow could be even better.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Watch UNO's Dean Blais Score in a Practice Shootout

KETV-channel 7 closed tonight's newscast with this great clip of 62 year old UNO head coach Dean Blais scoring on a shootout in practice, one day before the Mavs take on Harvard in the first round of the NCAA hockey tournament in South Bend, Indiana.

UNO's Dean Blais scores on a shoutout in practice.

A video posted by Mike Jaixen (@husker_mike) on


(from KETV-Channel 7)
Yeah, he's still got it...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Could Missouri Valley Expansion Affect UNO? "Frank the Tank" Thinks It Could

Back when college realignment first started churning, one of the best sources of information was Chicago-based lawyer/blogger "Frank the Tank".  He was the guy who called Nebraska to the Big Ten long before anybody else did - even when guys like Chip Brown didn't believe it.  He's always been a good read, and this week was no exception.

One of the topics was Missouri Valley expansion.  Contrary to some speculation, Wichita State isn't leaving the Valley; while they play basketball at a major level, the school and it's other athletic programs aren't a good match with other conferences.  So no, Creighton fans... the Shockers aren't going to be invited to join the Big East.
But with Alabama-Birmingham looking like a candidate to join the Valley (due to dropping football), the Valley may be looking to add a twelfth school to maintain an even number of teams in competition.  Frank speculates that Loyola, UIC, and Valparaiso may be candidates to join the Valley.  That, in turn, creates openings in the Horizon League membership...and that's where UNO comes in.

Quote Frank:
This prospect of MVC expansion might be why the Horizon League commissioner has already said that it’s in the “active phase” of expansion and the league would likely expand in the near future. The Horizon League has already been interested in schools like Northern Kentucky (currently in the Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (an Ohio Valley Conference member) and the conference may need to also backfill in the event that it gets raided by the MVC (which could put Summit League schools such as Nebraska-Omaha into play).
Hmmm...  Who's in the Horizon League today? Cleveland State, Detroit, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Oakland (the school in Detroit, not across the Bay from San Francisco), Illinois-Chicago, Valparaiso, Wright State, and Youngstown State. (Yes, the home of the Fightin' Pelini's and Tressel's...)

Not exactly a great fit for UNO over the Summit League, which features schools in the Dakotas and Denver along with Western Illinois, IUPUI, and Indiana-Fort Wayne, in terms of regional play. But it could be an upgrade in prestige.

(And in case the football and wrestling guys ask, the Horizon League doesn't sponsor those sports either...)

Monday, March 16, 2015

The End of a Dream for UNO Hockey?

St. Cloud State's first round sweep of UNO was, in many respects, more of the same for UNO.  It's been ten years since UNO has advanced to the final weekend of their conference tournament. Dean Blais, the legendary coach who won championships at North Dakota has a losing record in the last month of the season at UNO.

Yes, the deck was stacked against UNO this weekend. Senior captain Dominic Zombo is still out with an injury that looks like it might be season-ending. Senior goalie Ryan Massa re-injured his knee early in Friday night's game. The NCHC sent Maverick fans' favorite referee, Brian Aaron, to Omaha as an emergency replacement for Saturday night's game. Aaron ejected defenseman Brian Cooper from the game with one of his first calls of the night, which shortened up an already exhausted UNO bench from Friday night's double overtime loss.  And while the Huskies finished sixth in the NCHC, the resume of UNO's conference is so strong that six of the eight teams could get into the sixteen team NCAA tournament.

I get that. And if UNO had advanced to the conference final weekend last season, I'd accept it more. But it's been ten years since that happened. And based on past history, you have to wonder when it will. Prognosticators hardly considered the results of this past weekend an upset; they've seen it all before and most actually predicted it.

I've long had a dream for UNO hockey that it would explode into something special. Playing in one of the premier conferences in college hockey at a school where hockey is supposed to be the number one sport. In a market with a storied history of embracing college sports and elevating them to ridiculous levels, whether it's the College World Series, Nebraska baseball and volleyball, or Creighton basketball.

All it takes is that first championship to catch the attention of the casual sports fan, and the bandwagon starts to fill up.  That bandwagon made Lincoln's Haymarket Park a reality. It's what keeps the College World Series in Omaha year after year, now that the city made sure the NCAA had what they needed. It's why it only took one day for the Big Ten baseball tournament to set an all-time attendance record last year.

UNO and most of my fellow Maverick fans have given up on that dream. They're all excited about UNO's new arena, which caps attendance at current levels. They make a good point; UNO isn't going to fill a 16,000 seat arena, so why not build something more intimate to make the best of the crowds UNO does attract.  Go to a building UNO does control so that Creighton isn't playing basketball 3 hours before faceoff and games don't have to be moved to accommodate a Yanni concert. (Yes, that happened once.)

What they won't admit is that UNO is stepping back to something even smaller than the Civic; basically saying that UNO hockey is all that it's ever going to be. Just a niche sport, not worthy of anything more.  And after this weekend, I have to admit... maybe they are right.

Any growth of the fanbase is going to be the result of winning something of substance: a conference title, or games in the NCAA tournament.  That gets the attention of the media.  This season, with Nebrasketball and Creighton basketball slipping on the banana peel, the Omaha World-Herald started to give more coverage to UNO hockey. I hoped that would lead to more coverage by local TV, who've developed this habit of leaving in the second period after they get a couple of highlights for the 10 pm newscasts.

My real goal is to have somebody ... anybody ... do what KMTV did for Creighton basketball over ten years ago, and start televising games.  Not so much home games; NET does that, and does a pretty good job.  I'm talking road games. Creighton discovered that televising home games doesn't necessarily hurt attendance, especially when packaged in with away game broadcasts that allow more people to follow the team and get addicted.

I get why it hasn't happened yet. Nobody sees a market there to make these broadcasts work; UNO hockey is still viewed as a niche.  That's why I want to see UNO hockey drawing bigger crowds - it tells television there is enough interest to make a UNO broadcast worth their while. And by capping attendance, the chances of that are disappearing fast.

Thanks to the strength of UNO's schedule, the Mavs look like they are a lock to get an NCAA hockey berth. Some might view it as "backing in", others might consider it getting a bye week.  Either way, an off week has to help get Massa healthy, and you never know about Zombo.  Would Zombo be able to take to the ice and give it one final shot, knowing that it's his last opportunity to wear his college jersey?  And the lethargic UNO offense sure needs some tinkering.

What a difference from six weeks ago, when UNO looked like every bit the equal of the best team in the country. The eternal optimist in me still wants to believe it can and will happen. But more and more, it looks more and more like dreams that will go unfulfilled.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I Beg To Differ: The CenturyLink Center Was Built for Hockey, But Also Concerts

With this being the last weekend for UNO to play hockey at downtown Omaha's CenturyLink Center, Tom Shatel looked back at the Mavs' hockey home for the past twelve years. Unfortunately, and with all due respect, it turned out backwards.

I think we can agree that the UNO hockey had it's issues with the CenturyLink Center.  Some of it was by design, as it's bigger than necessary for college hockey. The primary motivation for the CenturyLink Center was to bring big events to Omaha such as NCAA tournaments and concerts.  It was a way to keep the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting here.  Events like the Olympic Swim Trials would never be possible in Omaha without an arena this size.  College hockey programs don't really need 16,000 seats.  U2, Springsteen, and Jimmy Buffett need those seats though, and that's why we got it.

But let's walk back 15 years and revisit the contentious debate over building a new arena.  At that time, UNO hockey had sold out every game at the old Civic. It had it's issues, though. Fans in the upper deck had to duck to avoid banging their heads on the rafters. It didn't have some of the modern conveniences like a jumbotron or club seating, let alone suites.

It didn't even have a spot for students.

Over time, some UNO fans grew romantic over the Civic, preferring to remember games like "Tuesday Night" or "Six Seconds with Alex Nikoforuk" over the games where the atmosphere was so dead, it led to the creation of groups like the "Red Army" - dedicated to fighting the "tyranny of silence."

During the design and debate over the CenturyLink Center, hockey was always front and center.  The bowl is set up around a hockey rink, unlike Lincoln's Pinnacle Bank Arena, which is optimized for basketball.  Sure, Creighton plays basketball at the Clink, but they have to extend the seats with a lesser pitch to fill the area around the court.  In Lincoln, some seats in the corners won't be have a view of the ice, should they ever play hockey there.

When the Clink was being debated, all of the illustrations of the inside of the arena showed a hockey rink in place. It was designed first for hockey, and for good reason.  At that time, UNO was selling out every game with 8,314 fans.

Creighton hoops was averaging around 5,000 fans a game. The question wasn't whether UNO was going to play in the new arena, it was whether Creighton was going to make the move.

Well, we all know what happened next.  Dana Altman turned Creighton around and they became a Missouri Valley contender.  Fans love a winner, so attendance increased...and increased.  Nebrasketball tanked, turning some fans into Jayskers.  And with a larger arena, there was room for them at Creighton games, and the Bluejays flourished in the new digs.

Meanwhile, UNO hockey tripped over their feet over and over again. The first season at the new arena, the Mavs finished dead last in the conference, losing three times as many games as they won.  Attendance surged initially, but the product on the ice left a lot to be desired.  People tried the product, and their first impression was negative.  It's a perception that never cleared up.  Even when UNO made the NCAA tournament a few years later, people still thought of UNO hockey as that "last place" loser.

And let's not get into the ineptness of the Nancy Belck/Jim Buck/Bob Danenhauer/David Herbster eras. While UNO hockey straightened itself out fairly quickly on the ice, it really took until Trev Alberts arrived before the administration stopped alienating fans and supporters.

To this day, I believe UNO's issues downtown are more the fault of UNO than an issue with the CenturyLink Center.  I believe that if UNO hockey can make a move in March like I think they are capable this year or next, interest in UNO hockey will far exceed the capacity of the new arena.  It already does; most UNO hockey games after the holidays tend to draw more than the listed 7500 seat capacity of the new barn.  Dean Blais is absolutely right that the new arena should have a capacity of 9000.  Building a 7500 seat arena for UNO is a huge mistake, in my opinion.

In my mind, UNO's decision to build their own arena is like the dog tucking it's tail between it's legs and slinking away.  Building a 7500 seat arena is an inexplicable step backwards - an admittance that this is all UNO hockey will be.

Which is blatantly false. I've seen it over and over again on those nights when UNO would draw 9,000 or so fans with a fairly lively crowd.  When North Dakota came to town in January, the atmosphere was electric...and it wasn't because of all of the green people.

I wanted more of that.  And I'm not going to be able to get that moving forward, because some people simply don't believe enough in UNO hockey to make it happen. 

So next year, when UNO opens up their season in what I call "The Mistake", I'll always wonder how many more fans would have been there if the game were downtown.

Just because others gave up on the promise of UNO hockey doesn't mean I did.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Will This March Be Different For UNO Hockey?

It's hard to believe that UNO's best March of hockey was the first season the Mavs were eligible to play in the post-season. In March 2000, UNO made a bold push in their initial season in the CCHA, winning a best of three first round series on the road against Northern Michigan, setting up an unexpected play-in game two days later.  Unexpected...because the City of Omaha had already melted the ice at the Civic Auditorium for a car show.  So as game three came to a conclusion in Marquette, Michigan, the staff at the Civic fired up the compressors and began a rush job to put down a new ice surface for what is now known as "Tuesday Night."

Tuesday night might be the greatest night of hockey in the city limits of Omaha.  People rearranged their schedules, and there was hardly an empty seat at the Civic that night and the atmosphere was electric, much like it was when North Dakota came to town in January. It was a close defensive battle until Jeff Hoggan scored the game winning goal against Bowling Green late in the third period, sending the Mavs to "the Joe" for the CCHA semifinals.  Three days later, UNO beat the University of Michigan 7-4 in what is remembered as the "St. Patrick's Day Massacre."  Nevermind that UNO lost 6-0 to Michigan State the next night to end the Mavs' Cinderella season.

The future was bright, right?  Just year three, and UNO was right there, on the cusp of national prominence.

But UNO never quite made it back to that same stage.  They played again at Joe Louis Arena a few more times, but never made it past the semifinals.  UNO has even made it to the NCAA tournament twice, losing both times.

Arguably, it's gotten worse under Dean Blais.  UNO moved to the WCHA in 2010 and the NCHC in 2013, and UNO hasn't even made it to Minneapolis for either conference tournament.  The second weekend of March has been awful for UNO hockey historically.

This weekend, it's St. Cloud State up for the Mavs in a best of three series.  The Huskies swept UNO three weeks ago up north, though UNO had their chances up there.  In December, UNO swept St. Cloud State, so the series is tied for the season.  UNO may not need to win this series to advance to the NCAA tournament; they may have done enough to earn a berth at this point.

But if UNO wants to reset the trajectory of the program, this weekend is a must-win.  Post-season wins are too few in number, and this UNO team is by far it's most talented.  It's time to put the past behind and set a new course.

Seniors like goalie Ryan Massa have never played in the conference tournament semifinals, and this is their last chance.  Massa was a late scratch last Saturday night after injuring his knee in warmups, but may be able to go this weekend. A hot goaltender can carry a hockey team far during the postseason, and Massa has been stellar all season long.  No word as to whether senior captain Dominic Zombo will be able to go this weekend either; I suspect he won't, though I imagine that's killing him to not be able to contribute.

I understand the doubts based on the past, but UNO hockey has done things this season nobody expected they would early on.  Will that be enough to get UNO to Minneapolis next weekend?

Monday, March 09, 2015

A Few Thoughts on The Massive Biography on Mike Riley

Yesterday's biographical feature by Dirk Chatelain was very thorough and well researched, though I have one minor issue with it.  And, of course, me being a blogger, I have a couple of opinions on it as well. I throw a lot of criticism towards Chatelain's work when he tries to analyze games or (even worse) play with statistics.  But he does features amazingly well...and this is no exception.

I do have one criticism of Chatelain's article, and it hits home to me.  I also write for CornNation.com, which is part of the SB Nation network of sports blogs.  Jon Johnston, the managing editor for CornNation, points out that Chatelain interviewed Andy Wooldridge, the managing editor for SB Nation's Building the Dam, yet never mentions the site. No link...just a reference to a "fan site."  I get that many of us bloggers do this as a hobby, and for Chatelain, this is a full-time profession. But if you are going to use a blogger as a reference, at least reference his work so that your audience can further evaluate his credibility.  Not doing so was disrespectful of not only his source, but also his readers.

BTW, if you want to read more about Wooldridge's thoughts on Mike Riley, CN's Brian Towle published a Q&A with him back in December.

So what are my takeaways from the Riley biography?  He's a fascinating guy, and no doubt in my mind, he's going to be a fan favorite initially.  He's easy going and genuine.  I can see why a lot of people like him.

But...and here's the concern, and Chatelain points it out.  He left Oregon State because his program was struggling. His offensive scheme seemed to be out of date, and his defenses weren't that great either. Reportedly, the athletic director wasn't happy, and was looking to restructure contracts moving forward to limit Oregon State's financial commitment, should Riley not be able to turn the program around.  Assistant coaches were going on year-to-year contracts, and Riley's automatic rollover was being eliminated.

Yes, Oregon State was preparing to dismiss Mike Riley and his staff. Not this year.  Probably next year or the year after.

Funny thing happened a few hours later.  Shawn Eichorst calls Riley and within hours, offers him the job at Nebraska. What probably started out as one of Riley's worst days rebounded to be one of his best...  you get a really, really bad job review that calls into question your future, and suddenly a new, even better job appears out of the blue.

There shouldn't be any question as to why Mike Riley left Oregon State. His time was up there.  Why are he and his assistants so happy to be in Lincoln? Because the buzzards were circulating, and their job security was on the line.  Suddenly, they all got big raises and a fresh start.  Of course they are extremely happy to be in Lincoln.  They literally won the lottery.

Many people want to point to Oregon State's relative lack of resources as a reason why Mike Riley didn't succeed as much at Oregon State. It's true that the Beavers aren't going to have the resources of a school like the University of Oregon and it's Phil Knight/Nike support.  But they aren't bankrupt.  Oregon State has resources they could have deployed, if warranted.  They marshalled those resources and are paying Gary Anderson nearly a million dollars more than they were paying Riley.

Oregon State's didn't see the value in investing that money in Mike Riley. And that's a big reason why I don't think Nebraska should have invested it's resources in Mike Riley either.  Nebraska has plenty of resources to offer in football, and if Nebraska was going to make a move to contend for championships, resources could have and should have been used to hire the best available coach.

That didn't happen.  And by judging from the speed in which Riley was hired, it was never even considered.

I hope Mike Riley works out. It's a heck of a lot more fun to win than lose.  Mike Riley isn't a bad coach, but he hasn't won enough, especially at the level Nebraska fans are striving for.

Oregon State's best days in football came AFTER Mike Riley left Corvallis the first time. I suspect that Oregon State will be better again, now that he's left a second time.  That conclusion doesn't bode well for my favorite team either, I'm afraid.

And I sure hope I'm dead wrong on that...

Thursday, March 05, 2015

UNO Hockey Tries to Wrap Up Home Ice & NCAA Berth Against Colorado College

The bad news for UNO hockey is that they haven't won a game since Valentines' Day.  The good news is that the strength of their conference schedule has kept them in fairly solid position to host a first round playoff series next weekend and ensure that they'll be playing in the NCAA tournament in three weeks.

The conference regular season title is out of the question, but second place is still very much possible.  Colorado College is in last place, while UNO sits just two points behind second place Miami, who has to host #1 North Dakota this weekend.  If UNO gets two wins, Miami has to win or tie both games. (Two ties would require Miami winning both shootouts, if you want to get particular.)

This weekend is all about setting up seedings and matchups for next weekend.  Two UNO wins means the Mavs will play either Western Michigan or St. Cloud State next weekend in Omaha.  A split probably means a matchup against Minnesota-Duluth...and two losses likely sends the Mavs on the road to Denver or Duluth.

Why is it so important for UNO to try to get to 2nd place?  That would give UNO a home matchup against Western Michigan, currently ranked 27th in the Pairwise...right in the middle of the college hockey rankings.  That's a tough matchup when you consider that the Broncos will finish in second to last place in the conference.  St. Cloud State, on the other hand, is on the NCAA tournament bubble at 17th place in the Pairwise.  They're on the verge of playing themselves into the tournament.

And if that's the sixth place team, you pretty much know the rest of the conference is stacked...and those are teams you don't want to face until you get to Minneapolis.  #1 North Dakota. #3 Minnesota-Duluth. #4 Miami. #5 UNO.  #8 Denver.  Five out of the top eight teams in the country in one conference.

That's why I think that if UNO wins two games this weekend, they should be in good shape for the NCAA tournament.  No matter what happens after that, the resume looks to be good enough to get them in.  But it's better to not chance it either.

BTW, even though UNO only managed two ties last weekend at Duluth, it was a noteworthy on a national basis as Jake Randolph pulled off the hockey highlight of the weekend nationally with this shootout goal Friday night.
He's done it before...two years ago, in Omaha, for the Lancers.
UNO is undefeated in shootouts this season, and goalie Ryan Massa has stopped 11 of 12 shootout attempts this season. The senior goalie has been rock solid all season, which should bode well for UNO's chances in March.

Maybe longer.


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

One Great Thing And One Awful Thing From Mike Riley's Preseason News Conference

Over at CornNation, I blogged a summary of what all was said during Mike Riley's first pre-Spring practice news conference. I took two things away from what was said; one was really good, and the other brought back really bad memories.

Let's start with the good. The idea of splitting the team up and running two separate practices is an extremely innovative idea - and it's one that I really like.  It really makes sense and seems to be a great way to allow the coaches to spend more time with the players without breaking the rules limiting the amount of time players can spend in practice.  It's certainly not something that he'll want to do a lot, because it limits the ability for players to interact with each other. But in this situation where the coaches and players are getting to know each other, it simply seems like a great way to get started.  I could even see doing this for the first week or so of preseason practice as well.

But then there was this:
I can appreciate wanting to work on Armstrong's passing ability, but the idea of turning Tommy Armstrong into a pocket passer reminds me an awful lot of what Bill Callahan did to Joe Dailey. Husker fans remember how that 2004 Southern Miss game ended.  Dailey's instincts were to run, but Callahan's attempt to retrain Dailey to fit his system made him hesitant, and it showed on that horrible final play when he looked completely bamboozled as he couldn't decide what he should do.  Husker fans knew exactly what he should do...run it into the endzone for the touchdown. Bill Callahan criticized him for not throwing the ball.

Is Mike Riley making a Bill Callahan mistake with his quarterbacks? It's too early to make that call, and frankly, it's taking a quote out of context. After all, Riley has also talked about utilizing the quarterback run game as a new weapon in his offense. An offense that Riley admitted didn't work anymore at the end of last season. We really won't have any idea what Riley is going to do until the Huskers line up against BYU, and until then, it's all idle speculation.  Even if Riley knew exactly what his offense will be in September (without one single practice with his players), there's absolutely no reason to tip off opponents in March.

Mike Riley has talked about adapting his offense to the skillset of his players. If he truly does that, this won't be a problem. But Langsdorf's comment causes you to pause and "hmmmm"...and that's not a good "hmmmmm" either.