Like Fathers, Like Sons
3 Nebraska-Omaha Players Share Common North Dakota, NHL Connections
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
As Dayn Belfour finished up the 2009-10 season with the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, he wondered where he was going to play next. He would be too old to play another season in the USHL, but he wasn't being recruited by any college teams either.
The 6-foot-1 goalie was beginning to think that his best option might be to look overseas. But then he got a call from Nebraska-Omaha coach and family friend Dean Blais. As an assistant, Blais had coached Belfour's father — Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour — at North Dakota. Blais offered Dayn Belfour a chance to walk on to the Mavericks, and Belfour jumped at it.
The choice was a no-brainer as far as Belfour was concerned. His father had kept in touch with Blais over the years, and he had nothing but good things to say about his former coach. Belfour even attended Blais' hockey camps at North Dakota when he was a kid.
"I knew Coach Blais in my younger years," Belfour said. "As I started to get older, probably around the age of 14, I really started to get to know him a little more as a person, instead of just knowing him as my dad's old coach. ... Whenever he has something to say to me, I'll respectfully listen to what he thinks. Anything he has to offer that could possibly help me, I'm going to listen."
Belfour's story isn't unique at UNO. Well, some of it is, like the part about him playing in the local Beer and Pretzel Hockey League (yes, that's actually what it's called) in 2010-11 while gaining academic eligibility. But the part about having a father who played for Blais is shared by two of his teammates.
Josh Archibald and Dominic Zombo, two sophomore forwards who have played together on the Mavericks' top line most of this season, also have fathers who played under Blais in the 1980s. In fact, Jim Archibald and Rick Zombo arrived at North Dakota together in 1981, and they even roomed together on the road at one point.
Archibald and Zombo have 33 and 31 points, respectively, playing alongside Hobey Baker candidate Ryan Walters. Although the Mavericks have struggled at times this season — including last weekend when they got swept by Wisconsin, ending their bid for a regular-season title and most likely dashing their hopes to get an NCAA at-large bid — that line has consistently been one of the best in the country. Even against Wisconsin, all three had multi-point weekends and finished with plus ratings.
Archibald, a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, always had the potential to have this kind of breakout season. As a freshman last year, he put up 10 goals and 15 points and played for the U.S. World Junior team, which was coached by Blais. According to Blais, the biggest thing for Archibald was just getting stronger. He said that Archibald seemed to get a little worn down toward the end of last season, which wasn't surprising for a freshman who came straight from high school and didn't get a winter break thanks to World Juniors.
Zombo's season, on the other hand, has seemingly come out of nowhere. He registered just three points in 32 games last season while playing a bottom-six role. But one person who hasn't been surprised by Zombo's jump in production is his father.
"In Sioux Falls (of the USHL), he had a coach (Kevin Hartzell) who didn't immediately put him on the first or second line," said Rick Zombo, who spent 12 years in the NHL after leaving North Dakota. "He taught him how to check and how to be dependable. As a coach myself, I can appreciate that. And then (Dominic) did the same thing last year at Omaha. He learned how to make the most of his ice time and play a role, and I think that's helped him prosper and become a more responsible player. He learned the defense and checking, and now you see the offense coming."
That kind of development is one of the reasons both Zombo and Archibald picked Blais and UNO. Their fathers stayed out of the recruiting process as much as possible, but they also didn't hide how they felt about Blais. Both fathers had seen first-hand how Blais helped players develop, even when he was just a young assistant. Since then, his resume has only gotten stronger.
"My dad obviously told me how good of a coach he was and how much he helped him improve his game and helped get him pro-ready," Archibald said. "You look at (Blais') past, and you look at what he did at North Dakota and even in the NHL, just what he's done with players like Zach Parise, and it speaks for itself. Other teams put guys in the NHL, too, but Blais seems to have a knack for it, and obviously I have a great relationship with him, just from having that background with my father and getting to know him before I even came here. I knew this was definitely the best place for me."
From Blais' perspective, he said it was easy to recruit Archibald, Zombo and Belfour because he knew the families they came from and knew how they were raised. He also said his relationship with the three players' fathers hasn't changed at all, which he sees as a good thing. He said he rarely even talks to the fathers outside of the occasional brief catch-up when they're in town.
That's by design, according to the fathers. All three have been coaches themselves, so they understand that a coach needs to have full control over his players, and that parents butting in doesn't help anyone, even when their intentions are good.
Jim Archibald, who is the head coach at Brainerd High School in Minnesota, has gotten to see the Mavericks the most — he's made seven visits to Omaha this season and has also caught them on their trips to the WCHA's Minnesota schools. Ed Belfour, who is a minority owner of the Central Hockey League's Allen Americans, makes one or two trips to Omaha each season. Rick Zombo, the head coach of Lindenwood University's ACHA team, hasn't been able to get to Omaha this season due to his own team playing every weekend.
"When Josh arrived in Omaha, my comment to coach Blais was, 'He's all yours now,'" Jim Archibald said. "I'm very confident in his abilities and what he can do for Josh. We'll occasionally chat about the good old days, but coach Blais is in total control of Josh. I don't get involved in anything going on with the team."
Although neither the players nor the fathers talk too much about their families' connections to Blais and to each other, the uniqueness of their situation isn't lost on them. The players said it's brought up the most the week before and after they play North Dakota, their fathers' alma mater. This year's UND series was made even more interesting when Blais announced that Belfour would make his season debut that weekend.
Belfour had played in six games last season, but he found himself stuck behind John Faulkner and Anthony Stolarz throughout the first semester. Stolarz bolted for the Ontario Hockey League in early January, though, elevating Belfour to second string. Belfour stopped 34 of 36 shots in the first game of the UND series on Feb. 8, then turned aside 20 of 22 shots in a relief appearance the next night. The next weekend he shut out Alaska-Anchorage on Friday, but then got pulled on Saturday. He didn't play against Wisconsin, but with Faulkner and Ryan Massa both struggling in that series, it's conceivable that Belfour could get another chance this weekend.
"Dayn is a really good team guy and he understands how things work," Blais said. "Dayn was working hard every day and he realized that sooner or later, he was going to get his chance. There's more than just actually playing. Being a good team guy and waiting for your time is part of being on a college team. Everyone's in a big hurry to be the star, but it seems like the ones who are a little bit patient and can wait for good things to happen and keep working hard, they seem to be more successful. That's what Dayn is. He's very patient and he works at his game."
Goaltending is perhaps the biggest question mark for the Mavericks heading into the playoffs. They're finally healthy, and despite their recent struggles, they're optimistic about their ability to beat anyone they play in the postseason. Regardless of how far they go, their parents will be proud.
"It's fantastic to see them all together," said Rick Zombo. "They come from good people, and they're all good kids. As they say, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. It's just a good network, and you know they're in good hands with coach Blais.
"The one thing you know about his teams is that they're going to play hard in all three zones. For a forward like my son, that's fantastic. They're allowed to push the pace, and they don't have to skate backwards through the neutral zone. Not only is it exciting for the fans to watch, but it's fantastic for their development."