Q&A: Dean Blais
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Dean Blais, 58, was out of college hockey for five years after leaving North Dakota following the 2004 season. With the Sioux, he won national titles in 1997 and 2000. He left for a job in the NHL, then left there to coach Fargo in the USHL this season, leading them to the finals.
Recently, Blais had knee replacement surgery, and wasn't sure the timing was right to get back to college hockey. But ultimately, he was persuaded by new Nebraska-Omaha athletic director Trev Alberts, and becomes just the second coach of the Mavericks' program, succeeding Mike Kemp.
Blais has the second-best winning percentage now among active Division I men's head coaches, behind only Notre Dame's Jeff Jackson — who, like Blais, left for pro and junior hockey, then returned to the college game.
CHN: So you originally weren't going to talk the job, and Trev Alberts sold you on it?
Blais: My wife has a ton of friends in Grand Froks, the kids got to come down and watch games (in Fargo), we have family in the area. To move seven hours south, it was a tough decision. We talked about it and thought, if I'm going to coach 4-5 years, college hockey might be the better fit than junior. In junior, I had a blast. It's great kids, and we accomplished great things. But college I guess is where my heart is.
CHN: Had you been actively looking, thinking you wanted to get back in it?
Blais: I thought about it, but I didn't apply anywhere. I didn't go to the NCAA (coach's) convention. We were in the midst of our playoffs. In fact, I was supposed to get my knee done a month earlier, but the team screwed up and kept winning. That's where I am now, trying to rehab a new knee.
It had to be the right fit. I wasn't looking for a job, it just happened.
CHN: Are you saying that you only see yourself coaching another five years?
Blais: I could go longer than that, but I'm 58 yrs old, so I don't know how long this body can hold out. It's a demanding job when you start going on the ice every day. The way the camps are run in the summer, you've got to be in Rochester, New York three straight weeks, and then to Minnesota. You don't have much of a summer.
CHN: What did you make of the USHL in your time there?
Blais: It's just an unbelievable developmental league, from the coaches, the players, to businesses. It's a miniature NHL the way teams market it, and have their sales, and run their teams. The referees develop out of there, the coaches are some of the finest. A lot of guys in the USHL can be college head coaches. I was always appreciative to how good the coaching was, but I didn't really understand it until I got in there. That was what surprised me the most.
CHN: Do you think you are done pursuing pro jobs? (Blais left North Dakota for the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL, but the first year, was the NHL lockout, wiping out the whole season.)
Blais: I think so. I had my chance and it didn't work out. If it happens again, it happens again. I never looked back. I tried it, and it wasn't my cup of tea. The guys in there were super, super dedicated — not that I wasn't, but I never saw my family. We were at the rink all day. There's so many games, 100 games a year. Those practices are just stretch, loosen up, give the goalie shots. But my thing is going on the ice every day, planning practices, seeing kids getting better over the course of the year. The NHL is all preparing to win. It's just different.
I don't regret it. That timing on a lockout year, I could've picked any other year. Then we had a real good second half the second year, we were eight games over .500 after Christmas, but it was too little too late. And the third year, I took over player development. There was a difference in personalities and philosophies, so I went into something a little different. But my passion is coaching, so I needed to get back into coaching at some level. And lo and behold, it worked out in Fargo.
CHN: It's interesting that you and Jeff Jackson (who also won two national titles) did the same thing, leaving, then coming back. You have a lot in common.
Blais: There's no better coaches than Jeff Jackson. His passion is practice too. He loves it. I've seen him on the ice. And with the NHL, you sometimes don't get that. Nothing's wrong with the NHL, it's the best players in the world, it's just different. You can't put everything into practices because you're putting it into 100 games a year. That's just the way it is. In college, you have all week to prepare for Friday and Saturday. It's a good life.
CHN: Is it safe to assume you'll bring the same offensive-minded approach to Nebraska as you've always had?
Blais: I'm a coach that really believes in speed and transition and puck pursuit. We'll trap at times, play defensive at times, but more than likely, we'll be high speed and puck pursuit and possession.
CHN: That's one spot where it's the exact opposite of Jeff Jackson.
Blais: Jeff loves the defensive part of the game. If Jeff and I are recruiting a player that's real real offensive, I would play for me. But Jeff's really successful and a very good coach.
CHN: Do you sense anything changed about the college hockey landscape since you left?
Blais: Landscape? If we're talking about driving seven hours from Fargo and seeing two or three ducks — there's not a lot down here. (laughs) No, Omaha's a great city.
CHN: Like there's a lot more in Grand Forks?
Blais: At least in Grand Forks the geese are coming through a couple times a year. Hunting's been part of my life. (laughs)
But no, the big changes are the rules and regulations, and the NCAA with (more and more) early commitments. I think it really has to change. I don't think it's good and healthy for schools to be promising scholarships, and a kid doesn't turn out. Usually a verbal commitment is verbal — in ninth grade, you don't know what that kid is going to be in four years. As coaches, we're created a monster and we have to change it. I don't have all the answers, but I don't think it's good, for the kid or the colleges.
That's our college coaching body. Cripes we can't get them to agree on much of anything. For a while, myself, Shawn Walsh and Walt Kyle — we wanted to allow kids to play one game of major junior (before college), and we got to a vote, and it was split right down the middle. ... So that was thrown out by the NCAA right away. We couldn't even agree within our own governing body. We're our own worst enemy sometimes.
But the early commitments, I said this five years ago — it's gotten too young. It's not healthy. If you don't do it, you fall behind. If you do do it, someone's going to get in trouble sooner or later.
CHN: Well, it's good to have you back fighting.
Blais: I'll be back in there swinging.
CHN: So you're going back to Fargo now, what's the timetable for settling in Omaha?
Blais: I don't know. I have to hire two coaches. There's two there now. I don't know if they're interested in being my assistant, and there's others that might want to be. I can do a lot in Fargo, but there's going to be a time when they want me (in Omaha). Probably around July 1st.