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.

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