Before Penn State and ASU, Hockey in Omaha Boomed Out of the Gate
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
In May of 1996, the University of Nebraska at Omaha — a Division II school — decided to create a Division I hockey program. At the time, there had been programs that folded, but none recently had started from scratch.
“Leadership at the university made a decision possibly to gain ground both as an income-generating, revenue-producing sport for the university and to give our university an identity on a national basis,” associate athletic director Mike Kemp said.
Nebraska-Omaha approached the community to sell season tickets to the Omaha Civic Auditorium for the team’s first season. It took less than two weeks for the tickets to sell out.
“Without a single player, without a coach, without a uniform, without a schedule, nothing,” Kemp said. “Just the idea that they were going to start a hockey program.”
Kemp, who had coached the school’s club team in 1975, was hired to coach the new program. At the time, Kemp was scouting players for Wisconsin at the U-17 regional camp in Lake Placid, where he saw Dave Peterson, a former Olympic hockey coach and a good friend.
Peterson pointed to a man on the ice and told Kemp to hire him as an assistant coach.
His name was David Quinn — better known now as head coach of Boston University.
With just an assistant coach, Kemp took to the road to bring recruits to Omaha for the team’s first season.
“People didn’t know where Omaha was, obviously had never heard of our program because it didn’t exist,” Kemp said. “We had to go out and sell the concept that you’re going to be a pioneer. You come here to be a pioneer.
“And it’s very true. How many times in life do you have an opportunity to take something that doesn’t exist, create it in our own vision and then be a part of that inaugural opportunity?”
After pushing the program, Kemp brought roughly 30 players back to Omaha. He had no seniors, but recruited several juniors and sophomores. With a roster in place, the team prepared for its first season and the Omaha Civic Auditorium was fitted with its first sheet of ice.
The Mavericks finished their first season 12-8-3.
Now, in their 17th season, the Mavericks, now led by two-time national champion coach Dean Blais, are one of the best teams in the country. They’re headed to their third NCAA tournament in program history, and their success this year has brought attention to Omaha.
“The [fans] deserve to have that experience of watching their hometown team go far in the playoffs,” Mavericks goalkeeper Ryan Massa said, “It just goes back to how much they’ve given the program and it’s great now to be a part of a group that’s been able to give back to them.”
After spending years in the cavernous CenturyLink Center, the Mavericks will move to a new facility in the fall that seats 7,500. The new ice surface is just one example of hockey’s growing influence in Omaha.
But without the city’s preexisting hockey culture, Maverick hockey may never have existed.
Hockey in the Heartland
In 1939, the roof of the Duluth (Minn.) Amphitheater collapsed. With no arena to play in, the city’s semi-professional hockey team moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where it played for the remainder of the season.
At that moment, hockey in Omaha was born.
It started with the Ak-sar-ben — Nebraska spelled backwards — or Omaha Knights, who occupied the city from 1939-75, switching their affiliations to different leagues. NHL stars like Terry Sawchuk and Gordie Howe laced up their skates in Omaha during that time.
Fred Shero even spent time in Omaha, where he coached the Knights for two seasons. In 1966-67, Shero coached the team to a 36-24-10 record. He returned in 1970-71, taking the team to a 72-45-16-11 record and the championship. It was Shero’s last stop before he joined the Philadelphia Flyers, where he created the Broad Street Bullies and won two Stanley Cups.
Once the team disbanded in 1975, hockey took an 11-year hiatus from Omaha. But in 1986, a new franchise came to the city — the USHL’s Omaha Lancers.
“Coming from Canada, where I’m originally from, obviously hockey is culture up there,” Lancers assistant coach John Faulkner said. “Honestly, they have that same type of feeling here.”
In their first season, the Lancers finished 0-48-0. In 1990, the Lancers turned the losses into wins and finished as runners up in the championship.
Over their 28-year history, the Lancers have 13 championships, including five Anderson Cups and seven Clark Cups.
“It’s helped create a great fan following of fan base throughout the town and the surrounding areas,” Lancers coach Brian Kaufman said. “The Lancer organization has done a really good job over its whole life to really ingrain itself in the community and give back a lot.”
The Lancers have produced numerous college hockey players, including almost 20 to UNO. The Lancers even produced three players — Jeff Edwards, Tom Kowal and Andrew Tortorella — who joined the Mavericks in 1997-98 for the team’s first season.
Massachusetts-Lowell forward Gage Hough, one of a few Division I college hockey players from Omaha, also played for the Lancers during his junior career.
Hough’s grandparents, mom and uncle used to watch the Ak-Sar-Ben Knights play out of the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. His uncle introduced hockey to Hough and his brothers, and they grew up watching the Lancers and then the Mavericks.
“I think it’s huge. For me and my brothers growing up, I got to see both sides of it,” Hough said. “I got to see the USHL which is how you get to college and then you get to see the college level. It really sparked our interest and motivated us to get there at some point.
“I feel like the other guys that have played [here] would say the same thing because the hockey culture is pretty strong even though it’s in the middle of the Midwest.”
As a player, Hough spent two seasons with the Lancers. As a fan, he watched the team win the Clark Cup in 2008.
“It’s interesting being on both sides of it when you play and when you’re in the crowd and it’s something really special whether you’re a fan or you’re a player,” Hough said.
“A lot of the players that have come in that I’ve been with have loved Omaha just for playing in front of the fans and I think that speaks for itself.”
Several Mavericks started their Omaha hockey careers through the Lancers, including freshman defenseman Luc Snuggerud. A current Lancer, Steven Spinner, is committed to the Mavericks.
Spinner started his USHL career with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. But the organization assumed Spinner would join the Mavericks as a true freshman, so they traded Spinner to Omaha. Spinner loved his Lancer experience enough to spend another year in juniors.
“They have the best coaching staff, they have the best facilities, the best fans,” Spinner said. “Their rink is the best, everything down here is just so much more amplified than every other USHL organization that I’ve visited.”
Spinner, a Minnesota native, is one of two Lancers committed to UNO.
“Being able to have a nationally competitive Division I ice hockey team here in the Midwest, it gives those players coming up through the USHL an opportunity to say, 'Hey, maybe this is where I want to play,"” Massa said.
“It gives our coaches a great opportunity to scout and recruit players from these local junior programs. So to have the location of this school and the location of this program it’s great.
“Your road trips aren’t very taxing, of course unless you have to go out east, but for the most part having everything in a really nice central location, great weather and the ability to have such a recognized program in the Midwest, in the heartland if you will, it is certainly very important for the development of our university.”
The Star Attraction
UNO took the ice for an exhibition game against Manitoba on Oct. 17, 1997 — the first game in program history, Jason Chalmers scored the program’s first goal, underneath a sellout crowd at the Omaha Civic Auditorium.
"Every home game, they’re cheering loud, they’re making it difficult,” Massa said. “Our student section has grown immensely since I first got here. The support from our peers in the classroom and stuff like that has really made a difference in our whole atmosphere.”
It was the first sellout for the next several years, as the Mavericks drew over 8,000 fans until 2004-05.
“Initially, our building was sold out so our students really had trouble getting into our games,” Kemp said. “It was largely a community-based crowd that was supporting our team because they were the ones buying the tickets.”
In the 2003-04 season, the Mavericks moved to the CentrutyLink Center. The cavernous building averaged around 6,000 fans, despite UNO competing with Nebraska football for half the season.
“The fans, they’ve been through a lot, they’ve seen our team lose several years in a row at the most important time of the season [but] it doesn’t stop them from coming back and supporting the team next year,” Massa said.
“That speaks to the character of our fans and the character of our fans.”
While Massa said Nebraska football is the most coveted sport around, the Mavericks have locally televised games, a radio coaches’ show, and a reporter from the Omaha World Herald covering the team.
“Kids like to go places where it’s important to be a hockey player. A hockey player’s going to go where it’s important to be a part of the program,” Kemp said.
On the USHL side, the Lancers play in Ralston Arena, which was opened in 2012. The rink holds over 4,000 fans, and the Lancers have sold out several times this season.
“It’s an amazing place any game, but a rivalry game against Lincoln Starts there’s a lot of energy going through that building,” Faulkner said. “As a player, that’s something you can feed off and is a lot of fun to be a part of.”
The community has given a lot to the teams, but the teams have given an equal amount back - especially for the growth of hockey.
The Growing Hockey Cycle
When Maverick hockey was first founded, the program practiced with mite and squirt teams and hosted summer camps. Now the Mavericks host youth hockey teams at games and provide locker room tours.
“One thing that both programs do very well is just the involvement in the community,” Faulkner said.
“It’s something that’s just growing and growing here with the junior Lancers program, there’s a AAA program that’s doing very well, just starting to spread the name and getting people involved in the sport I think it’s done wonders for the city of Omaha and the game of hockey.”
The Mavericks practice at different facilities, allowing youth hockey players to watch UNO hockey before jumping on the ice for their own practices.
“To have kids that show up for their practice and see their role models playing at UNO practicing on the same ice that they’re about to really makes an impression with them,” Massa said.
UNO’s presence, along with the Lancers, has sparked improvement in youth hockey. Omaha boasts a successful AAA program, a growing youth hockey program and an increase in ice surfaces, including the two-sheet rink under construction for the Mavericks.
“I’ve been here for four years now and I can certainly attest to the growth that not just UNO hockey but the community,” Massa said.
The key to it all, from the Mavericks' perspective, is how it translates to their own success. The team has had great moments, Hobey Baker Award finalists, NCAA appearances, a transition from the old CCHA to the WCHA to the new NCHC, and the hiring of Blais as coach. This year, they are in the top 10. But UNO is still waiting for that "next level," a conference championship or a Frozen Four or beyond.
How it plays out, remains to be seen. But the impact so far is unquestionable, and has room to grow.
“Across from my desk there’s a panoramic picture of the first game of the program’s history, and also a picture panoramic view of every player on the team that year," Kemp said. "There’s about 10 or 12 of the guys on that list that still live here in Omaha, are raising families, have homes, jobs and nobody came from Omaha to play on that team.
“We’ve started out as college athletes working with kids in the youth program. Now so many of our former players are back coaching at the mite, squirt, peewee levels in the program and helping out and giving back to the Omaha hockey association in that capacity.”