UNO, Air Force christen new arena, TV deal tonight

Ortega (3)

At 5-8, Austin Ortega isn’t an imposing figure, not even on skates.

But put the game on the line and the San Diego native morphs into the myriad of near superhero nicknames that befit his NCAA-record 11 game-winning goals last season for the Omaha men’s hockey team.

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TONIGHT ON ASN: Air Force at Omaha, 8:30 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Mr. Clutch. Tegs. California Hot Sauce. Scoretega.

He answers to them all.

“I like Mr. Clutch,” said Ortega, an undrafted junior forward. “It’s a good feeling knowing the team believes that at the right time I will be there when they need me. It’s a pretty good name to have.”

It’s a pretty good time to be a UNO Maverick, too.

With road sweeps at Minnesota State and Vermont to start the season the Mavericks earned their first-ever No. 1 ranking this week in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and they are second in the poll, also their highest ranking. (North Dakota is ranked 2nd and 1st, respectively).

Mix in the fact that UNO is coming off its first Frozen Four appearance and tonight’s christening of the Mavericks’ state-of-the-art $81 million dollar Baxter Arena has an absolute electric feel to it.

It took less than a week to sell out the 7,500-seat Baxter Arena, something that rarely, if ever, happened when the team played at the cavernous 16,000-seat CenturyLink Center. (The school has 15,000 students and averaged 6,241 fans in attendance last season).

“It’s exciting,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “There’s a buzz in the community with this team. Normally, when you come off a finish like we had you worry about complacency, but I don’t think that’s a concern with this group. We’ve got good leaders.”

Tonight’s game, along with fifth-ranked Minnesota-Duluth at Notre Dame, are the first games to be telecast on the American Sports Network as a part of a two-year agreement with the league. Both games involve NCHC teams.

“It’s pretty cool that we’re one of the first and it’s going to be wild in the new arena,” Ortega said. “We haven’t got to practice much in it yet, but I can tell you it is built kind of steep and it’s got a lower ceiling so I think it’s going to be really loud with our fans. I’d bet we sell out most games from now on.”

The first thing the fans will notice at the new rink is a more intimate feel compared to the CenturyLink Center. The divide between the upper and lower bowls is open so fans can keep an eye on the action even when they are at one of the five concession areas. The facility houses two NHL-regulation ice sheets and shock-absorbing boards. The UNO men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams will also call the facility home and the venue will be used for concerts and other public events.

The primary tenant nowadays, however, is UNO hockey. Taking center ice is Ortega and linemate Jake Guentzel, who form one of the most potent 1-2 combinations in all of college hockey.

Guentzel, a junior, is a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the son of Minnesota Gophers’ associate head coach Mike Guentzel.

The speedy 5-9 center tallied 14 goals and 25 assists last season and has one goal and five assists through four games this season.

“We work really well together,” Ortega said. “I think the key to being clutch is getting into the dirty area in front of the net. A lot of time players don’t like to get in there, but it’s what I like to do especially when the game is on the line. I like to get to areas where I know the puck will find me and sometimes I demand that I want the puck on my stick in crunch situations. Playing with Jake, we just know where each other will be and we find each other a lot.”

The Mavs are far from a two-man team, however. Blais uses 18 freshmen and sophomores in his lineup and the Mavs’ biggest concern entering the season — replacing goalie Ryan Massa (29 games, 14-8-6 record, 1.96 goals-against) — has been a pleasant surprise.

Junior Kirk Thompson (2-0, 2.50, .909 save pct) and freshman Evan Weninger (2-0, .50, .986) each own a shut out this season. Weninger’s college debut was stopping 40 shots in a 2-0 win over Minnesota State.

Air Force opened the season with a 5-4 overtime win over Denver, ranked fifth at the time. The Falcons lost the second game of the series 3-1 and last weekend lost the first game to Robert Morris, 5-1, and tied the second, 3-3.

Above: Omaha’s Austin Ortega is  Mr. Clutch for the Mavericks ( Courtesy Mark Kuhlmann)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu