Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Requiem for UNO's Hockey Season

After UNO's 4-3 victory over Denver on Thursday night, I thought the Mavericks stood an excellent chance to finally break through and make it to the final weekend of their conference tournament.

But by Saturday night, the season was over. Denver won 5-1 on Friday night and 2-0 on Saturday night to finish off the Mavs season before the conference tournament's final weekend. Again.

UNO failed to qualify for the NCHC's Frozen Faceoff.  UNO never qualified for the WCHA's Final Five.  In fact, UNO hasn't been to the final weekend since the 2004-05 season in the CCHA.  Seriously.

And that raises the question that every UNO hockey fan should be asking themselves:

Why the hell has UNO not been able to make it to Detroit or Minneapolis for the nine straight seasons?

Don't rewrite that question as anything even approaching "Fire Dean Blais"; that's a quick kneejerk response from wanna-be-George Steinbrenner's whenever a team underperforms. It's a more general question: what's holding UNO back?

UNO made it to Joe Louis Arena in the program's third season, and first in the CCHA. After the St. Patrick's Day Massacre of Michigan, the Mavs played for the CCHA title. They haven't been close ever since.

UNO has a coach with a national championship pedigree in Dean Blais. Why hasn't he been able to make it out of the first round of the playoffs?

Some people (all outside of Omaha, mind you) wonder if the game has passed Blais by. If that was the case, Blais wouldn't be continuously raiding Minnesota's best talent. He did it again last week. Heck, Blais' story is strong enough that it's caught the attention of Minneapolis TV.

So I'm going to set that idea aside for now.  And frankly, I'm not sure there is a big picture solution that's staring me in the face. UNO's 2013-14 season ended primarily because they hit a red-hot goaltender in Sam Brittain. Brittain ranks second nationally in save percentage (.934). And when it comes playoff time, teams really need solid goaltending. And up to now, I don't think Blais has been able to find that goalie just yet. I wonder if he thought that Anthony Stolarz was going to be that goalie, only to have him bail after just one semester.

This season wasn't helped by the ugly Old Market incident that resulted in senior captain Matt White being dismissed from the team. That certainly gave the media enough pause to predict UNO to finish dead last in the NCHC this season. And despite that, UNO did finish a very respectable third place in the regular season.

But again, one weekend later, the season is over, and UNO fans need to at least ask what's wrong with the program. It could very well be that Blais has UNO on the right track. While UNO will lose six seniors including Ryan Walters, who'll get some Hobey Baker award attention, there's a core group that'll be a good focal point for next season. I do suspect that junior Josh Archibald, who broke UNO's season scoring record this year, will turn pro.  But I like the freshmen, and the depth of the incoming class is impressive. I'm also reminded about how early recruiting begins now, with players being targeted in eighth and ninth grade. In that light, it may be that Blais' recruiting efforts may just now be beginning to bear fruit.  (As the Minneapolis media have noted.)

There's one more item that I wonder about. UNO has long been hampered by the lack of a practice facility near campus, and that's one of the things that's included in the new UNO arena project. It's a project I've been long critical of as a huge mistake for UNO.  I believe that it's too small, and too expensive for what it brings UNO. My mind on that has not changed one bit.

That being said, UNO needs that practice facility, and maybe that is, in fact, the compelling reason to build this thing. Nevermind that it's smaller than the average UNO hockey crowd. Nevermind that I still don't understand how UNO makes an arena work when the Mid America Center in Council Bluffs and the new Ralston Arena apparently struggle financially.

Maybe the arena doesn't make financial sense at all. Maybe it simply makes hockey sense.  Is UNO hockey's real problem that there is no on-campus facility that allows players to practice at more convenient times and not have to drive all over town to get there?

I don't have the answers. I'm just raising the questions. Because frankly, these premature endings of seasons have gotten old.

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