A few weeks back, North Dakota coach Dean Blais was all smiles when discussing how his team was getting all the breaks.
Well, this season, if there’s a guy who deserves to get some breaks, it’s Dean Blais.
You’re entitled to a fortunate bounce or two when the last year sees this many ups and downs.
But then there was the big downer.
While in Milwaukee for a tournament in late December, Blais got called to Rochester, Minn., where his daughter Mary Beth had been transferred to a hospital for tests. Mary Beth was diagnosed with leukemia, and was in Rochester for about three months before returning home to Grand Forks, N.D., in mid-March.
In between, the coach split his time between practice and games in Grand Forks and being with his family in Rochester. That’s 400 miles each way.
His intention was to not let his travel interrupt his team’s schedule, but he appointed Dave Hakstol to be the associate head coach when he couldn’t be there.
“It’s been difficult,” Blais said of his season, “but no more difficult for me than for a lot of guys.”
Blais is not unlike most college coaches in that family comes first. But in this particular case, family comes first, second, third and probably fourth, leaving the games to others.
“Right now hockey has been very secondary. I think it always will be for him because he’s a very family-oriented guy,” said Scott Sandelin, Blais’ former assistant and Minnesota-Duluth’s head coach. “The one thing about him is he’s never changed. Winning or losing, he’s never changed, he’s the same person.
“With all this with Mary Beth, it’s been a real grind on him. But I think he’s done a tremendous job.”
This hasn’t been an especially cheery season for college hockey, and its coaches in particular. Maine coach Shawn Walsh is fighting kidney cancer, and his fight has caught on around the country.
The fraternity of college hockey coaches, while sometimes divided, is a tight one. When one struggles, others rush to offer their help.
Blais and his team epitomized that early this season. When they played Maine, the Sioux donned jerseys that all had the name Walsh on the back. Those jerseys were later auctioned to raise money for the Coaches Foundation, a resource set up for coaches in need of support.
It was a noble gesture by a noble man, who just so happens to be a pretty darn good coach, too.
Through it all, and with a lot of help from his assistants — Hakstol and Brad Berry — and his players, he’s led the Sioux to the Frozen Four for the second year in a row.
You can make a valid claim that this Sioux team, as well as last year’s, doesn’t have the talent that some of the nation’s other elite teams do.
Blais might even agree with you. But in the face of adversity, he’s put together a team that will go to Albany, N.Y., and try to defend a national title for the first time in almost three decades.
And if his team gets a few fortunate bounces, well, for their coach, the Sioux have deserved them.