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.

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