Due to the state wrestling tournament, UNO got bumped back to the Civic Auditorium for this weekend's Notre Dame series. The Irish took advantage of a Alex Hudson turnover and buried a goal with under two minutes left in overtime for a 4-3 Domer victory.
For much of the evening, it was clear to me that UNO had outgrown the old Civic. The crowd was much smaller than other UNO crowds against big name opponents, mostly because tickets weren't available. (Even though it was supposed to be a near sellout, nearly 1,000 seats sat empty.) It was slightly louder at times than an equivalent sized crowd at the Qwest Center, thanks to the smaller size, lower roof, and the lack of concert acoustics.
But everywhere you went, you had signs of being someplace that time had passed by. The lines for the bathroom snaked out into the concourse. (We'll leave the disgusting plumbing problems in the restrooms out of this discussion.) The concourses themselves were cramped, making it difficult to get back to your seats in time, especially when the Qwestapo blocks your passage back to the seats. Even the ice left something to be desired, as defenseman Eddie delGrosso realized. (Krutov's MavBoni had trouble getting on and off the ice as well...)
UNO certainly didn't help themselves with atmosphere last night. They pushed the students up to the upper tier nosebleed seats rather than their usual spot behind the visiting goalie. The band was nowhere to be found, and the soundman was slow to fire up the school song after goals.
I thought last night had finally stuck a fork in the old Civic vs. Qwest Center debate once and for all, until Nick Fanto tied the game with about 12 minutes left in the third period. Then, the one asset that the Civic Auditorium still has came into play. That low ceiling without noise dampening acoustics magnified, instead of dampened, the cheers coming from the crowd, and it spread. For nearly five minutes, the deafening chants of UNO had the Irish on their heels as UNO took it to the second-ranked Domers. Sadly, it wasn't enough, as the game went into overtime, where the Irish's Billy Maday buried the game winner.
Some fans remember that remarkable stretch in the third period and recall with fondness the Tuesday Night playin game and suggest that UNO needs to move back to the auditorium. Nothing could be further from the truth. Last night's game would have drawn more than 8,000 at the Qwest Center.
But last night's game also points out that the Qwest Center is unlikely to ever be the best spot for UNO Hockey either. The spacious arena was designed for concerts, with sound deadening acoustics to make concerts great. But that makes for less desirable sporting events, except when the action is so overwhelming that it too overtakes the acoustic challenges.
It's been suggested that a refurbished Civic would be the perfect home for the Mavs. I beg to differ. It's still miles from campus. Adding in the amenities that a refurbishing entails further reduces capacity. Last night drew 7300 to the auditorium; a refurbishing might limit crowds to 6500 to maybe 7000 fans a night. And while I'd hope for sanitary reasons they could fix the bathrooms, I don't see how the concourses get solved.
No, the Civic's future is as a spot for future downtown redevelopment. Capitol Avenue has been becoming Omaha's business corridor as it develops from east to west. At some point in the distant future (once the economy rebounds), someone will want to pursue redevelopment of the Civic site. And with the convention center and exhibition hall sitting as unused relics underneath the auditorium, it's an inefficent use of the space long term for this city.
It's been suggested that $15 to $20 million could put the shine back on the Civic. It would help the old barn, to be sure. But it's not a good investment. Two years ago, Omaha tried to bid for the Big XII basketball tournament, but the Big XII rejected the Civic as too small. Yeah, you could fix the place up, but at the cost of further reducing capacity. It's a lose-lose proposition.
The answer: once the stadium debates are over, Omaha needs to revisit a secondary arena near UNO's campus. Use some of the things that make the Civic great as a starting point. Low ceilings, cement block and/or brick to echo sounds. Seats near the action. Then add in the advantages of the Qwest Center: suites, media areas, party rooms, wide concourses, working bathrooms. Then add in things that ensure a home ice advantage for UNO: bleachers behind the goal for the students and the band.
UNO needs to do this, as the Sapp Fieldhouse is also nearing the end of it's useful life as well. A new UNO Coliseum near midtown is going to be necessary for UNO's entire athletic department, not just hockey program. Add in practice facilities for UNO's sports build adjacent to the coliseum means that it's efficient for everybody.
Yes, the money's not there now. But Omaha isn't going to build this now, not with the stadium effort underway. But the need is coming soon, both for the city and UNO.