OMAHA — Hard to believe, but the story actually goes back to 1975.
Mike Kemp, right out of college, agreed to come to Nebraska-Omaha to coach the club hockey team in hopes that the following year, the team would go varsity. Didn’t happen. Kemp skated away to begin a coaching career as an assistant at Wisconsin.
Twenty-one years later, the job came calling again, and this time, the program was for real. It turned out the lure of coaching at the Civic was too much for Kemp to deny.
So in 1996, Kemp again came to UNO to help begin an era of Maverick hockey. Don Leahy, then the athletic director, struck a deal with the city to play college hockey at the Civic Auditorium, an ideal facility for the sport and one of the largest such venues at the time.
Tickets first went on sale May 1, 1996, and season ticket sales were sold out by May 16. In fact, every ticket ever offered to the public has been sold.
What started off as a good idea culminated into a loyal congregation. Its subject was UNO hockey. Its sanctuary was the Civic Auditorium. Its first sermon was an exhibition against the University of Manitoba, October 17, 1997. The team remains; the congregation has grown; but, the sanctuary, beginning next October, will change.
Last Saturday, for the 131st consecutive–and final–time, the place was sold out as another 8,314 gathered to pay homage for the last Maverick game at the Civic Auditorium.
It was not a time for mourning, but for celebration. And what started out as a hockey game, turned into a spectacle. The Blue Line Club, the nation’s largest college hockey booster club, rented the old barn for a party that lasted from 5:00 p.m. to midnight.
Before the game started, announcer Fred Brooks preached on about the memories every UNO fan holds of the Civic.
The first game, the first goal, the first sweep, and the day the roof nearly caved in. Yes, the Mavericks almost needed a new home before its time.
It was March 14, 2000 when UNO, led by two Jeff Hoggan goals, defeated Bowling Green 3-1 in the CCHA play-in game. It was UNO’s first year in the league and the underdog team battled with heart as the road to the conference championships went through the Civic.
The media guide reads, “Civic Auditorium historians say that it may have been the loudest crowd ever to attend a sporting event at that building.”
The 8,314 strong nearly created an echo strong enough to collapse the roof on the old barn.
After reminiscing about times past, fireworks rang out and a pyrotechnic display greeted the team as they took the ice for the last time. The four seniors, David Graham, David Brisson, Greg Zanon and Joe Pereira were honored for their contributions to the program.
And then a hockey game broke out.
UNO skated to a 2-2 tie. It really shouldn’t have ended like this. It would have been quite fitting for Zanon to score the game-winning goal.
But the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks were going for a record, most ties in a single season. When they knotted the game at two for their NCAA-most tenth, they dragged UNO, and the Civic, into the record books for reasons other than the celebration of the final game. Perhaps it was a tribute from fellow-Mavericks.
After the buzzer sounded, balloons fell for a symbolic final curtain call of the Aud.
As the balloons popped, so too did the timeline of the Civic. The final speeches were made as Zanon and Kemp, still the head coach, both spoke of their fondness of the Civic and how much it had meant to the program.
“Finally, at our last night at the Civic, the only home we’ve known,” Kemp said, “We thank you, the fans. And my hope is that you bring this enthusiasm to our new home.”
Zanon said the Civic has been his second home, and that the fans are the best he’s ever played for. Joe Pereira cried with his family.
With all the fond memories and celebration, it did bring sadness. Now, the hope is that between now and next October the faithful can recruit enough to build the flock and fill the 14,500 seat MECA arena next year.
It’s going to take quite the task for Omaha to continue the sellout streak, and most say it’s over. Most say the ambiance will be lost in the vast expanse of the new building.
But that, of course, is up to you, the fans. Saturday night, was definitely a night to remember for UNO.
A Farewell to Aud.