If things carry on as they appear they will, UNO will finish fifth in the CCHA for the third straight year. And while it's nice to finish in the upper half of the conference, that "fifth place ceiling" is starting to become an albatross to the program. Not that there aren't some explanations that can come into play: two years ago, all-American Scott Parse got injured late in the season. And this season, defensement Juha Uotila missed the first half of the season due to academic issues. But when so many explanations are necessary, they come off as excuses to some.
Which raises the question as to what UNO wants out of it's hockey program. Is UNO happy to finish fifth in the conference year after year? After the turmoil of the Nancy Belck era, one might say yes. But that period is over. Finally today, Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald finally gave us the answer:
Shatel talked to UNO chancellor John Christensen who finally gave us an authoritative statement of where UNO hockey should be:
Harsh words for Kemp? Nothing that some fans haven't said. UNO is close, but UNO needs to take the next step. Up until 3 years ago, the difference between fourth and fifth was neglibile. Now with the playoff format the CCHA uses, getting to fourth place is HUGE. And once again, UNO is going to fall just short of it.
"My vision for the hockey program is to have them compete for the conference championship on a regular basis. And peridically, compete for a national championship. That's the same for all of our sports. I don't want to waiver from that. We have to take the next step. Mike (Kemp) understands that. We want to be in the top four, playing for the league championship, in the next three seasons. We need to feel we have arrived in that top group."
Last year, Michigan State finished fourth in the CCHA, and went on a roll. They swept UNO in the playoffs, then steamrolled everybody else and won the national championship. Fourth is the next step in the program... it gets you into position to win conference championships. It gets you into position for the NCAA tourament. It's huge. It's where UNO needs to be if the program is to grow.
Last night's game got bumped to the Civic Auditorium, the original home of UNO hockey. Many of UNO's greatest moments in hockey occurred there. The World-Herald revisited the famed Bowling Green play-in game from 2000, now referred to as simply "Tuesday Night". The joint was rocking that night. That's the magic that UNO hockey needs to find again. But that magic wasn't the Civic. UNO returned to the Civic last night, and only drew 5100. The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights spent two years there, and finally gave up. That building is not the future of UNO's hockey program, it's it's ghost.
UNO hockey needs to get back to the Joe. It needs to start making NCAA tournament appearances. That will get UNO hockey back into the mindset of Omaha sports fans.
Chancellor Christensen says it:
"Look at what Creighton did. If we take the next step as a program, we can grow in that building."