Published Friday, January 11, 2013 AT 10:52 AM / Updated at 5:07 PM
Tom’s Friday Tailgate (UNO Hockey Edition)
Tom Shatel Omaha World-Herald

Dean Blais put his team on a plane to Denver on Thursday. Then he climbed into the truck for the eight-hour drive to the Mile High City and UNO hockey’s biggest series of the year.

The Equipment Truck.

Why?

“Why not?” Blais said with that toothy grin.

There’s an old-school quality to everything Blais does that is endearing and just plain fun. You can only imagine Blais kicking back, riding shotgun, and entertaining the driver with stories of magical winter nights in cozy Minnesota and North Dakota hockey barns. You could probably make another “Slap Shot” movie with the material.

Yes, Blais is old-school hockey, and that adds a twist to the current situation the coach and his Mavericks find themselves.

The coach played at Minnesota, for the legend Herb Brooks, then carved his own legend at North Dakota. Either way, both ways, he’s a WCHA man.

This is his last truck tour through the old hockey league, his league. UNO packs up for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season, a who’s who of midwest hockey powers not going to the Big Ten. It will be exciting.

But Blais’ sentimental journey is interrupted by this news flash: UNO is in first place. The Mavs and their WCHA coach very much have a shot to win this thing in their last go-around.

“It would be unbelievable to accomplish that in our last year,” Blais said. “That (sentimental feelings) could happen, but right now you’re worried about survival. Being in first place is an amazing accomplishment.”

The league coaches picked UNO to finish eighth before the season. Blais said he didn’t take that as a slap; the Mavs lost some heavy firepower to the NHL from a team that was 14-18-6.

But every year’s different. The chemistry, leadership, roles. You never know. UNO has slowly grown, behind the rock goaltending of senior John Faulkner, and then watching others emerge.

Sophomore forwards Dominic Zombo and Josh Archibald have found their stride in their second go-around; Zombo going from three points last year to 23 this season and Archibald already at 21 points after getting to 15 last year and hitting the wall. Blais said the grueling college schedule,  plus playing in the World Juniors last winter, affected the Minnesota high school star. But he gained weight (muscle) over the off-season and grew stronger.

Meanwhile, Ryan Walters has gone from fourth on the team in scoring last year to a Hobey Baker candidate.

There’s a chemistry on this team that should hold up. The curious mid-season departure of freshman goaltender Anthony Stolarz earlier this week didn’t cause a ripple. Stolarz wanted more playing time. That happens in a room full of NHL prospects, some stay, some can’t wait. But this team is focused on winning. Interestingly, Blais said as soon as Stolarz announced he was leaving, Blais got 10 emails from junior goaltenders around the country interested in his spot.

That’s the talent-rich, high-competitive culture Blais promised to create when he came here four years ago. There was big promise of chasing league and NCAA titles when Blais brought his resume to town. The rub is, when you bring in NHL talent, they can leave early and you find yourself starting over a lot.

Well, don’t look now, but Blais and the Mavericks have found something. The season starts tonight in Denver, live on the NBC Sports Network. A heck of a place to start.

“We still have a long road ahead of us going to Denver, where we’ve never won a game,” Blais said.

The Equipment Truck is coming, though. And it’s packed with potential.

 

About Tom Shatel

Tom Shatel is a columnist for The Omaha World-Herald. You can get in touch with Tom on Twitter (@tomshatelOWH), or send him an email at tom.shatel@owh.com.