Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nebraska Football Has Der Veiner Schlinger; UNO Hockey Announces the Taco Cannon

The Fairbury "Veiner Schlinger" has long been a tradition at Nebraska football games. I'm not sure I want to eat a hot dog that's been blasted out of an air cannon, but it's never stopped me from trying to catch one when they've managed to get it somewhere near where I'm sitting.  (Which they almost never do, BTW...)

So I'm wondering how THIS is going to work?
I'm seeing lettuce and salsa flying...  OK, Voodoo Taco... let's see a demonstration of this on YouTube!

Friday, April 17, 2015

UNO's New Arena and Frozen Four Berth: Not a Coincedence

If anybody had any questions about whether my disappointment over UNO's loss to eventual national champion Providence who leave a lasting negative effect on my opinion of Maverick Hockey, let me share what I did first thing Friday morning.  Before 8 am, I was at the UNO Bookstore, plopping down my credit card for a "Frozen Four" T-shirt. Why didn't I buy one before the game? Simple...I was greedy; I figured I'd hold out for a championship t-shirt.  And when that wasn't going to happen, it was time to get the swag that I could get.

A lot of people have pointed out how great the coincidence there is with the Frozen Four berth and next year's opening of the new UNO arena. You know, the one I call "The Mistake."  And I still believe that it's a mistake for UNO.  From my perspective, the most bogus reason for building a new facility is to call it "right-sized."  Sometimes increased demand calls for facilities to expand, such as expanding Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. But spending money to REMOVE seats?  That's something that simply defies logic.  The only way it makes sense is if you use the reduced seating capacity as an excuse to hike prices, under the guise that the environment will be more "intimate."

Sorry, but I prefer to be intimate with my wife, not my teams.

But last week, one quote in the all of the pre-Frozen Four hoopla caught my eye.  It goes back to Trev Albert's pursuit of Dean Blais six years ago.
Alberts initially offered Blais $180,000 a year. Blais, who said he was making about the same salary in Fargo, told Alberts no. Undeterred, Alberts called back a few days later and asked Blais what it would take.
The answer: $250,000 a year and a new arena.
That last quote changes everything. It's the intangible that essentially contradicts my every reason for opposing the new arena.  I was opposed to building a new downtown baseball stadium in Omaha - that is, until the NCAA basically gave Omaha the strongest hint that Rosenblatt needed to be replaced. If the NCAA says it needs to be replaced, it needs to be replaced.

And if the price of landing a coach like Dean Blais is a new arena, a new arena is needed. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't mean that I have to agree with it.  Doesn't mean that all my reasons for opposing a new arena are wrong.  They simply got trumped by the man carrying the ace.

There are reasons why UNO needed facility improvements for hockey; the idea that the team doesn't have a campus practice facility is a huge mistake.  It's been proposed for years, but not built for some reason. It's desperately needed.  I get the idea that it's best if it's attached to the arena where UNO plays, but I'm not convinced that it's a requirement.

Unless a Dean Blais makes it a requirement.  He's got two shiny rings that carry all of the authority necessary.

So be it.

And as long as we're being brutally honest here, it's not a coincidence that the influx of talent started to arrive on campus as construction began. High school players love shiny new facilities, so the promise of new facilities pretty much. So yes, the new facility had a direct causation effect on this year's Frozen Four run.

By the way, just because my opposition based on "need" was overridden doesn't mean my argument about it being "too small" was as well.  In fact, my argument is starting to be validated.  With ten days still remaining until the general public will be allowed to buy tickets, apparently less than 1,500 tickets remain for the new arena.

UNO won't admit it publicly, but the truth is pretty clear. With that Frozen Four banner in hand, the new arena is too small.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Nebraska's Spring Game Shows That There's A Lot of Work Still To Do

Every year when we watch the spring game, we're always reminded that it's really just a scrimmage that's mostly meaningless. Far too often, spring game stars are just that...spring game stars. A great spring game really means nothing.

I suspect the converse is also true. At least, I hope so.  The 2015 edition of the Nebraska spring game was pretty lackluster on both sides of the ball, and frankly, that made it difficult to watch at times.  Let's start at quarterback, where everybody not named Zach Darlington had their issues.   It's pretty clear that this offense is still a work in progress, but what concerned me the most were the number of uncatchable throws.  Sure, sometimes the receiver runs the wrong route, but more than once, the ball was thrown so far out of bounds there was no way a receiver could have ever caught it. (Maybe Riley snuck one of his old CFL plays into the playbook...)

So why did Zach Darlington figure it out when seemingly nobody else really did? Sam McKewon of the World-Herald probably has the best explanation:
Of course, it also was the first real game action Darlington has seen in nearly 20 months; his senior season in high school lasted only one game after being knocked unconscious in the season opener. Some wondered if he'd ever take a snap again, but now we wonder if he might start.

Wait. Stop. It's still the spring game.  We've seen this before with guys like Brion Carnes, who ended up finishing his career as a spot starter at Northern Iowa. So let's leave it there. Baring injury, Tommy Armstrong is the starting quarterback. And despite Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf's background, look for the offense to resemble Tim Beck's offense from last season than Oregon State's.

Why? It's because that's the team Riley inherited.  Good running backs, and quarterbacks that aren't as proficient passing than what Riley's had before.  But these quarterbacks are better runners than Riley has had, so he's adding what his players do best to his playbook.  One wrinkle that Riley added for this spring game that I don't want to see again is Armstrong being the lead blocker on the zone read.

Jamal Turner had a really nice spring game. We can only hope that he can pick up where he left off as a sophomore after missing most of the last two seasons with injuries. Of the new players, wide receiver Jariah Tolbert impressed me the most on the day.

It's clear that the defense has picked up on Mark Banker's scheme faster than the offense has picked up their's. That being said, it's not as if the defense played all that great either.

So what's the takeaway from today? Husker fans might want to temper their expectations for 2015 - at least until we see some sort of substantial progress in September.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Mavs Great Season Ends with a Cup of Chowder Against Providence in the Frozen Four. I Hate Chowder.

Back in October, when UNO was shut out 4-0 by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, we learned just how much UNO's seniors would mean this season.  Dean Blais held his seniors out of the lineup, and went with a heavy freshman lineup...and the results were awful. Blais didn't try that again, but after senior captain Dominic Zombo's leg became too painful to play on midway through the Saturday night game against North Dakota, the offense went south once again. That led many to count UNO's chances out in the NCAA tournament, but stellar goaltending from Ryan Massa and the inspirational play of Zombo carried UNO to Boston and the Frozen Four.

But that was all for naught in the opener of the Frozen Four as Providence dominated the Mavs almost all afternoon.  A herculean effort by Ryan Massa kept the game tied for the first half of the game until Providence got two goals late in the second period.  UNO's Jake Guentzel made it a game for 24 seconds with a goal midway through the third period...but UNO got caught being too happy with the goal, allowing Providence to reclaim the two-goal lead. With Providence controlling play most of the game, UNO really didn't get a chance to pull Massa for an extra skater until the final couple of minutes. Predictably, Providence got the empty-net goal for the 4-1 final.

Season over.

Awful game.  Great season.

Early on, ESPN's Barry Melrose remarked that UNO looked like they were just happy to be at the Frozen Four. Earlier in the week, Blais remarked that UNO was not heading to Boston for a "cup of chowder"...but rather a ring.

They got a cup of chowder.

And I hate clam chowder.

So while I'm elated that UNO made it to the Frozen Four, the final game leaves a icky, clammy taste in my mouth. I hope that the team is leaving Boston with that same icky taste in their mouth.

In the postgame analysis, both Melrose and ESPN/CBS analyst Dave Starman pointed out the youth on this UNO hockey team. This experience in Boston should serve the young Mavs well next season, and make no excuses..this is a young team. But next year's UNO team won't have Ryan Massa to save game after game with his ninja magic goalie skills. They won't have Dominic Zombo's leadership on and off the ice.

Kirk Thompson looked really solid in relief of Massa when he injured his knee at the end of February, so UNO might not lose a whole lot in goal next season. But who will replace Zombo's heart and soul?

And the unspoken question: will all of the underclassmen return this fall? Let's start with sophomore Austin Ortega, who wasn't drafted by any NHL franchise prior to his time in Omaha. Does some NHL squad open their wallets next weekend?  What about the other Mavs who've been drafted by the NHL? Sometimes the NHL gets a little ancy with their prospects, and tries to get them under contract.

It'll be interesting to see how UNO reacts to this game. Ideally, you'd see Jake Guentzel, Brian Cooper, and perhaps Justin Parizek talking with Zombo and Massa about taking this team to the next level - much like Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter did for a Nebraska football team twenty years ago.

Will it be "hey, we're great" or "that's nice, but there's much, much more to do".  Was that taste of chowder sufficient, or does it leave UNO wanting more, much more, next season?

UNO Prepares to Crash the Frozen Four Against Providence

Two weeks ago, Mike Eidelbes previewed the NCAA hockey midwest regional, and in the process, created the ultimate bulletin board material.

He had good reason to doubt UNO.  UNO limped through the final month of the season without captain Dominic Zombo, and bowed out in the first round of the conference playoffs.  But funny things happen in playoff hockey. Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa's return relit the fuse on UNO hockey, and UNO pulled off the upset that most hockey minds didn't think would happen.  And as the Mavs dogpiled on the ice in South Bend, Eidelbes repeated his quote, with a slightly different emphasis.
Since then, it's been the best of times for UNO hockey fans. Every day, the World-Herald along with local television and radio have given UNO hockey unprecedented coverage. In some respects, it's almost like UNO has already won the national championship with fans. It's been a great ride, but now it's game time.

Fortunately, UNO coach Dean Blais has been down this path before; he's twice taken North Dakota to the Frozen Four...and more importantly, he's won it both times. He's made it clear that while getting to Boston is a great accomplishment, an even bigger test awaits.
"But, behind the scenes, I think you all know what we’re going there for. It’s not to eat clam chowder and lobster. It’s to put a ring on our finger."
So it's time to put "Boston" and "Frozen Four" all behind us.  It's Providence that matters now. The Friars play a much more deliberate game than UNO wants to do. Both teams feature top goalies.  Massa ranks fifth in the nation with a 1.92 goals-against average and a nation-leading .939 save percentage; Providence goalie Jon Gillies is 13th nationally with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.  Gillies is one of the top professional prospects; he uses his physical size (6'5" 215 pounds) to his great advantage.  Massa, on the other hand, uses his athletic ability to get to the puck despite his smaller (6'0" 180 pounds).

In many respects, this game likely revolves around who breaks first. Neither team tends to score a lot as of late, Providence's 7-5 victory over Miami in the tournament opener being the exception.  UNO had a bad habit earlier in the season of starting slow, then storming back at the end. That's not necessarily a good idea in the NCAA tournament.

The X-factor to me is Dominic Zombo.  With Zombo, UNO was a team that could compete with anybody and everybody in the country. If Zombo can make it through this weekend, UNO's chances of pulling this off increase exponentially.

And then the dream lives on.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Frozen Four Berth Opens New Eyes to UNO Hockey

For UNO hockey fans, the past seven days have been the most enjoyable in program history, surpassing even the Tuesday Night/St. Patrick's Day Massacre of 2000. It's not just UNO fans, it's the entire community as a whole. People who previously ignored or disregarded UNO hockey as a "niche" now are paying attention.  And it's all awesome, except for one little thing.

The new arena.

Raising that banner on October 23 is going to be a great experience for every Mav fan who endured that eight win season or the Bemdiji trap. (And let's not get ahead of ourselves...there's a little matter of what that banner is going to say. That'll be the focus next week.) Without a doubt, the place will be packed with about 7,500 fans.

But the question I have remains, and is even stronger today.  How many people would be there if the game was downtown at the CenturyLink Center?  I don't think for even one second that UNO would sell out a 17,000 seat arena.  But the sellout isn't as important to me as the number.  Eight thousand, nine thousand, or whatever is the important number to me.

I'm constantly reminded by the arena proponents that UNO hasn't drawn those numbers regularly for hockey, and almost never without some sort of promotion. They are right.  Or should I say, were right.

That was then; this is now. Everything changed last week.

Dean Blais noted it Tuesday in a Frozen Four conference call:
“There’s nothing you can do, as far as advertising or promotion, (better) than winning. My gosh, the radio and TV stations are just blasting us every chance they get right now on how we’re going to the Frozen Four. It’s a huge deal in Omaha, what we’ve just accomplished. And if we win it, it would just be another feather in the cap of the hockey program.”
This was the dream I had for UNO hockey. And I'm watching it unfold right in front of my eyes this week. Talk show hosts that last week that didn't even acknowledge that UNO hockey existed now have to cover it. They have to; it cannot be ignored anymore.

Before last week, I was fairly sure UNO hockey tickets would be sold out to the general public next season at the new arena. That doesn't mean that every UNO hockey game would be packed; it would be much like it was at the Civic. Packed for the big games, to be sure. But when the Huskers are playing at the same time or when the students are home for the Thanksgiving or Christmas break, there will be empty seats.

That's one thing that winning won't really change. UNO hockey is going to take a backseat to family or the Huskers, for the most part.  But when North Dakota returns to Omaha at the end of next February, you won't see that huge crowd that we'd get downtown.  The people you keep out aren't the Green Sue fans; they'll find their way in somehow.  It's the other Omaha fans that you'll be keeping out.  The bandwagon Jaysker fans who simply love to support a winner, whether it's Creighton basketball or Nebraska football.  The atmosphere at this year's North Dakota series was insane, the best I've ever encountered. A student section that overflowed their usual student section and took over the entire upper deck in the end zone. They won't be there next February; there isn't room for them at the new place.

That's why I've been opposed to the size of the new arena. And frankly, I don't see any way I can be convinced otherwise. Prior to last week, people could have said "UNO would have only sold out four games" at the new arena last season.  They were right.

But that was then, before UNO hockey made the Frozen Four.  This is now.  Things are different now.  Those past perceptions and assumptions simply aren't relevant anymore.