Blais: 'College is Where My Heart Is'
Former North Dakota Champion Returns with UNO
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Nebraska-Omaha's decision to hire inexperienced former college football All-American Trev Alberts as its new athletic director, was met with ridicule by some pundits. Particularly when Alberts' first big move was bumping the only coach the program ever knew up to assistant athletic director, thus making his first coaching hire a hugely important one.
No one is laughing now.
Crediting Alberts' "persistence," two-time national champion coach Dean Blais — who at first turned down the offer — finally agreed to become the Mavericks' new head coach. He made the decision this week, and it was announced Friday in Omaha.
"I didn't think it was the right move (at first)," said Blais, who won his two titles at North Dakota (1997, 2000), then spent last season as head coach of the first-year Fargo Force of the USHL, leading them to the league finals. "I had my training camp going, I have a new artificial knee and I'm rehabbing that. It was a hard decision to make, but it didn't seem right.
"But when (Alberts) called me back, he was really persistent. He said he talked to others, and he still wanted me to take it. So I reconsidered, and here I am."
Alberts said the school looked closely at five other names, all of whom had applied for the position. Those names were presumed to include Minnesota assistant Mike Hastings, Colorado College assistant Mike Guentzel, Boston University assistant David Quinn, and Minnesota-Duluth assistant Steve Rohlik.
But, when consulting the likes of former coach Mike Kemp and others on his search committee, one name stood out. And Alberts made a decision that he was going to pursue Blais personally.
"If there's an opportunity here to take UNO hockey to an elite level, that's our intention," Alberts said. "And I was thrilled that enough coaches around the country viewed this as a potentially elite program. So we're pretty thrilled that a guy like Dean Blais thought enough of us to join us in our quest."
Alberts said his criteria included someone with a proven track record, and there was no one else on the market even close to Blais' college head coaching record.
"I said, 'Tell me who the coach would be that if we were able to hire him, our opponents would say, "Oh no." And they said 'Dean Blais,'" Albert said. "So I said, 'We need to go talk to that guy.'
"His record speaks for itself. I'm well aware that doesn't always necessarily translate to similar success, but it is something you can go back to say, 'This guy has done this.'"
Alberts knows he is new to the college hockey landscape, but a leader doesn't have to know everything. He has to listen, and lead.
"I took this job because I love challenges, and I think Dean took this job because he loves challenges," Alberts said.
"I think Mike Kemp made an impact, I think Omaha sells itself, I think that we're in the middle of the USHL recruiting territory."
Blais will reportedly receive $250,000 annually, with Alberts' cobbling together a big chunk of it from private sources.
The 58-year old Blais is coming off knee replacement surgery. As a result, he said he may only have five years left in him, but isn't sure.
"I could go longer than that, but ... 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," he said.
"It had to be the right fit. I wasn't looking for a job. It just happened. ... College, I guess, is where my heart is."
Blais made the decision to leave North Dakota after the 2004 season, looking to pursue opportunities in the NHL. He got a job as associate head coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but had nothing to do for one year while the NHL season was wiped out by the lockout.
Blais knew he needed to get back to coaching, and took the job in Fargo.
When Blais left North Dakota, he gave up a chance to coach that year's World Junior team. He was selected again to coach this year's team, and will still do so.
Count on Blais, known as an offensive-minded coach with the Sioux, bringing his run and gun style to Nebraska.
"I'm a coach that really believes in speed and transition and puck pursuit," he said. "We'll trap at times, play defensive at times, but more than likely, we'll be high speed and puck pursuit and possession."
Blais also said he wants to be right back in the mix, influence NCAA policy within the coach's fraternity.
"I'll be back in there swinging," he said.
Said Alberts, "I think it's great for college hockey. Dean needs to be involved in college hockey."
With that move out of the way, Alberts — and Kemp and Blais — will turn their focus to UNO's future conference affiliation. The WCHA has made a strong push to get UNO to join its league, and UNO is considering it. Blais' WCHA ties would suggest the decision is a shoo-in, but Blais said there are pros and cons both ways.
(See complete WCHA/CCHA story)
"To me, either league is acceptable," Blais said. "I'm more familiar with the WCHA than the CCHA, but we've played Michigan and Michigan State in the playoffs, and for a while we were playing Western Michigan and Ferris State. So I know a lot about the CCHA."