Blais blazes a trail for UNO

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December 19th, 2011

Omaha, NE – University of Nebraska Omaha Head Hockey Coach Dean Blais has journeyed long and far before his arrival to Omaha. KVNO News’ Brandon McDermott sat down with Blais recently to discuss the path he has taken to UNO, and the future of this year’s team.

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Walking into Dean Blais’ office, you’ll find a coach with no shortage of items on his plate. Between coaching his UNO hockey team and recruiting for his program, Blais has found himself at the forefront of one of Omaha’s premier sports teams. And the road Blais has travelled to get there has had several stops along the way.

Blais has led the Mavericks to two consecutive 20-win seasons, while doing so he has notched his 300th career victory as head coach. (Photo courtesy UNO Athletics)

Growing up, Blais said hockey was a part of the tradition and heritage of living in rural northern Minnesota, right on the border of Canada in the small town of International Falls.

“Up there in International Falls, it was the thing to do,” Blais said. “I started skating when I was five years old, and just loved it.” Blais said he would often skate in outdoor rinks for 30-40 hours a week. “It wasn’t playing to get into the NHL. It just was playing for pure enjoyment.”

Hockey was also an important part of his family life. When asked who his mentors were growing up, Blais didn’t hesitate.

“My parents,” Blais said. “I think (my) parents were the ones who guided me through the good times and the bad times.” Blais grew up with five kids in the family, and said his parents kept him focused. “When I had my hockey games, I prepared before the game and everything, the rest of the family wasn’t allowed in the house even. So I had to have my rest and focus in high school especially. You know I’m trying to get a scholarship, that’s how important it was and everyone knew it.”

The Maverick hockey team is hosted at the Century Link Center Omaha, which seats 15,959. UNO currently holds a sell-out record of 15,137 fans, who came to see UNO beat Wisconsin, 4-1 in 2010. (Photo courtesy UNO Athletics)

In 1969, Blais became the first four-year letterman in hockey at the University of Minnesota. The NCAA had just allowed freshmen to be eligible for four years starting in 1969, during Blais’ freshman year.

Blais went on to play professional hockey with the Chicago Blackhawks in Dallas, Texas. He then returned home to take an assistant coach position at his alma mater from 1976-1977. He moved on to coach at three high schools in the region: Minot High School in North Dakota, Roseau High School in Minnesota, and International Falls High School in his Minnesota hometown. And in 1994, he returned to North Dakota to lead the hockey team to two national titles in his third and sixth seasons.

Blais said throughout his career, his coaches helped mold him into the coach he is today. High on the list: Larry Ross, his head coach in high school, and Herb Brooks, head coach at Minnesota who served when Blais was assistant coach. Brooks is well-known as the head coach of the 1980 USA national team who beat the heavily favored Soviet Union in the famed “Miracle on Ice.”

Blais also noted John “Gino” Gasparini, who was head coach at North Dakota when Blais was an assistant. “You don’t have to play the game to be a coach,” Blais said, “but certainly it’s an advantage. It doesn’t mean you going to be successful either. The best players are sometimes the worst coaches.”

But for Blais, teaching is the most rewarding aspect of his career as a coach. “I knew from the time I was growing up that I wanted to be a physical education teacher,” Blais said. “I wanted to teach. If I wasn’t coaching right now, I would be an elementary (physical education) teacher. Although, the passion for coaching hockey was more important than anything else.”

After coaching 10 seasons as head coach at North Dakota, Blais decided in 2004 to try his hand on hockey’s biggest stage: the National Hockey League. He took the position of assistant coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Blais said in the NHL, his job wasn’t focused on teaching or instruction. It was less about the improvement of the players, he said, and more about playing plenty of games and keeping the team healthy.

“In the NHL its travel and winning,” Blais said. “You have to be rested well. There is not as much stress on fundamentals.”

In his third year, Blais took a position with Player Development at Columbus which included more scouting and drafting players. After that, Blais said he knew he wanted to get back into coaching.

Blais then become the first coach of the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League. After losing in the USHL’s Clark Cup Finals that year to 3-1 to the Indiana Ice, Blais took the position as head coach on UNO’s hockey team. When pressed on why he decided to make the 400-plus mile trek from Fargo to Omaha, Blais was certain in his response.

“Because of (athletic director) Trev Alberts,” Blais said. “I wasn’t looking for a job up in Fargo, and then he and (associate athletic director) Mike Kemp talked about making a coaching change. Basically Trev was the guy that convinced me that I probably should take another run at college. And working with Trev was the biggest attraction.”

In his short time at UNO, Blais has elevated the UNO hockey program. Blais compiled a record of 41-32-8 in his first two seasons. That included an early exit last year from the NCAA tournament, which saw the Mavs lose a heartbreaker to Michigan 3-2 on a goal in OT.

So far this season, UNO holds a 9-8-3 overall, but the Mavs are third in WCHA play with a record of 7-4-3. UNO has had a tough break to start the year with four of its past five series played away from home.

Even more discouraging, Blais said, is the dismissal of senior forward Alex Hudson from the team. UNO announced the dismissal Dec. 15 in a statement, declining to elaborate further than stating it was for Hudson’s “second violation of team rules this season.”

“It’s a huge void for us,” Blais said. “A senior who was a captain at the start of the year is gone. That one player could devastate the team, or the rest of the team could rally around it.”

But Blais remains optimistic about what the future holds for his team. “Some of the worst years you have … are not the winning and losing,” Blais said. “It’s the problems you have off the ice. So every year when you get through with the year, you’re thankful for the wins and losses, but you’re also thankful for the dedication (the team shows) throughout the year.”

The Mavericks play their next game December 30th, when they take on Quinnipac University at home.

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