Dean Blais hasn’t been in the mood to talk much this week.
Nebraska Omaha’s hockey coach saw his Mavericks lose their first games at their new Baxter Arena. He lost freshman starting goalie Evan Weninger to an ankle injury last weekend. The Mavs are 10-0 against the rest of college hockey, but 4-5-1 against the NCHC.
And, oh yeah, Blais is basically coming home this weekend when Omaha travels to Grand Forks to take on North Dakota for a two-game series between NCHC powers. Nothing like playing in a packed house in front of friends, family and admirers to help ratchet up the intensity.
Asked if his players know the significance of this weekend’s series, Blais replied “They better or I don’t even want to see them again.”
He finished with a laugh, but the intent was serious. It’s not just his own ties to UND, it’s what the program is built on and the culture he helped create that he wants his own players to take seriously.
“(UND) is a special place, obviously for me,” Blais said. “I coached there for 19 years and I think that’s the team that everyone compares themselves too. They’re sitting at 18-2-2 and they’ve won a lot of championships. There are no banners in that arena for second place. Whether it’s the WCHA, the NCHC or the NCAA Tournament, there is no second place, no runner-up banners and that’s what they strive to be. We’re not there yet, but our guys are trying to get there.”
When some coaches leave successful programs and return with rival teams — See Saban, Nick and LSU — they’re often met with boos and disdain when they return.
Not the case with Blais in Grand Forks.
After 19 seasons as a coach at UND — 10 as head coach from 1994 to 2004 when his teams went 262–115–13 (.733 winning percentage) and hoisted national title banners in 1997 and 2000 — Blais has become the measuring stick for future UND coaches.
UND coach Brad Berry knows it.
As an assistant under his predecessor Dave Hakstol, now coach of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, the biggest critique of Hakstol’s leadership was winning the big one.
In some ways the criticism from some fans went overboard.
Hakstol’s teams reached the Frozen Four in seven of his 11 seasons at the helm, an absurd rate of success.
Then again, Blais won a national title. Two, actually.
Hence, the area’s love for the former coach who used to spend his free time in the office of the Zamboni operator playing pinochle.
“I think it will always be special when Dean brings a team back here given his history and what he’s meant to the program,” Berry said. “You know he’ll have his guys fired up.”
This weekend marks his fourth trip to The Ralph since taking over as head coach of Omaha. UND hockey is always the toughest ticket in town, but given Blais also cut his teeth as in high school hockey in nearby Roseau, Minn., and in Minot, N.D. — and married a North Dakota girl — tickets are tougher to come by this weekend than a 60-degree January day in Grand Forks.
Few coaches have had a bigger influence on UND’s program than Blais. His photos and name are scattered about UND’s arena, and when you get down to it he is the primary reason UND has Berry as a coach.
“Dean and I go way back to when I was being recruited out of juniors in Canada back in 1982,” Berry said. “He and John Marks were assistants under Gino Gasparini — what a staff that was, right?— and Dean would come to Canada when I was playing juniors to convince me to come here. He just made it feel right and it turned out to be really the best decision I ever made.
“I mean, if you look at it everything I have in my life right now I really directly owe it to Dean convincing me to come here. I met my wife at school here on a double date with a teammate and his girlfriend. When I wanted to get into coaching, Dean gave me a job. Really, I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. He’s a good friend.”
At one point, Blais offered Berry as an assistant coaching job in Omaha after Berry had left Hakstol’s staff to coach the AHL’s Manitoba Moose from 2006 to 2008 and to be an assistant coach with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets from 2010-12.
Berry turned it down and returned to UND to rejoin Hakstol, largely because of his own family ties to Grand Forks and because he was happy as an assistant under Hakstol.
“I had no plans to be a head coach, none,” Berry said. “I was really happy being an assistant under Dave, but when he left in the spring I was very fortunate the school gave me a chance. It’s been everything I could have hoped for. It’s such a great area to raise a family and the support of the program in the community is unbelievable.”
If you could paint a perfect scenario, it’s the one Berry has created. He is coaching at the school he played defense for from 1983 to 1986 before leaving after his junior season to join the Winnipeg Jets. He lives in his wife’s hometown near lakes, and his team is poised for a Frozen Four run.
He is, essentially, enjoying the ultimate honeymoon season.
Credit UND officials for knowing what they had in Berry.
Last spring, as news spread of Hakstol’s departure, social media was buzzing with tweets and posts suggesting options for head coaches, including bringing back Blais.
Instead, UND moved swiftly to lock up Berry within the day. The transition has been seamless.
The new coach has silenced the Blais backers by turning 11 freshmen and three new goalies into the No. 2 team in the PairWise rankings and the No. 1 team in the USCHO poll. Fans are happy. So is Blais.
“I still have a lot of good memories,” Blais said. “Jackie’s family is from North Dakota and I’m from Minnesota, so we will have a full house with all the relatives this weekend. I know I will be buying a few tickets to the game because there won’t be enough comps to go around.”