The 2002-03 season was something of a disappointment for the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. Picked to finish fifth in both the coaches and media preseason CCHA polls, the Mavs finished 10th and ended their season with two quick losses to Ohio State in the opening round of league playoffs.
“Certainly, we underachieved last year tremendously,” says head coach Mike Kemp, “and we’re very, very disappointed with that. I think that’s why we won’t make the same mistake.”
This year tabbed 10th by the media, 11th by the coaches, if the Mavericks are going to make up for last season, they’ll do so by sneaking in under the radar.
“I think the polls right now are reflective of where we’re at, and absolutely in our situation I don’t think we deserve to be rated any higher than that right now,” says Kemp. “If you look at the youth of our team, look at what we’ve lost, and you look at it on paper it only makes logical sense.”
On paper, this looks to be a rebuilding year for the Mavs. Gone are forward David Brisson, defenseman Greg Zanon, and goaltender Dan Ellis, the three stars in the Omaha sky. Returning are Andrew Wong, Scotty Turner — and 18 freshmen and sophomores.
“We’ve never been a team that’s necessarily been blessed with being the most talented team in the league,” says Kemp. “When we’ve had success, it’s been our heart and soul, how hard we work, our work ethic and our playing style. I think that’s why I believe that we’re going to be a team who will move up by the end of the season and be more reflective of where we feel we should be.”
At the start of the 2002-03 season, the Mavericks were plagued by sudden recent coaching and player departures and a slew of injuries, a bombshell from which UNO never really recovered. This past summer, Dan Ellis did leave in favor of professional hockey, but the move didn’t take UNO by surprise.
“Unlike a year ago when we really did struggle with several problems early on in the year with injuries and departures and those kinds of things this year the Dan Ellis situation is one that we anticipated,” says Kemp. “That’s why last August we recruited Chris Holt with the idea that it very well could possibly be Dan Ellis’s last year in our program. I think as late as early July we did anticipate that we would have Chris Holt as our goaltender.
“As the summer went on, the situation for Danny became a little more clear and we realized that he was going to … take the opportunity to go play pro. It was something that we anticipated and prepared for, and when you do that it becomes a little less disruptive.”
Kemp says that without Ellis, the Mavericks won’t be able to rely on their stellar goaltender to keep them in every game. “We’re not going to have a team that is going to think, ‘Well, Dan Ellis is back there so I don’t have to worry too much.’ There is that underlying mentality that we can now avoid.”
Still the Maverick defense was porous last season, allowing on average 3.46 goals per game, and the PK — even with Ellis backstopping — was nothing to brag about (.796). How will losing Ellis along with Zanon affect the Maverick blueline?
“We suffer with the loss of Greg Zanon, but he’s just one player,” says Kemp. “Believe it or not, we’re going to be much deeper at defense. We went through a stretch from early December through late January [where] we played three forwards at defense. During that time period, that’s where we really hit our greatest struggles.
“Now, we’re going to be young back there, but … we’re going to have four freshmen back there who have played junior hockey with great success, plus a transfer student in Jason Krischuk who already had a year under his belt at Colorado College where he played every game as a freshman. We feel we can be improved back there and that will help us a lot.”
Who doesn’t love UNO? Maverick fans made their beloved Bullpen one of the best venues in the league. Kemp has built a well-respected program. In their short history, the Mavericks have introduced us to players who were fun to follow.
This season, the Mavericks move into Qwest Center, the third-largest college hockey venue after OSU’s Value City Arena and Wisconsin’s Kohl Center. The new building, which comes bundled with Omaha’s new convention center, features an eight-sided, center-suspended instant replay scoreboard, 32 private suites, 1,100 club seats, and 450 rooms at the Hilton Hotel connected to the whole shebang.
“The new arena is phenomenal,” says Kemp. “It’s a beautiful building, state of the art. Obviously, everything that’s been thrown into it is the newest technology … and I think it will be a gem in college hockey.”
And to think we already loved road trips to Omaha.
Andrew Wong, John Thomas, Micah Sanford. Work with me here. This is a team that tallied 98 goals in 40 games last season.
Seventeen rookies and sophomores, five newcomers on defense, and few forwards who can find the net. Here’s hoping that Chris Holt knows what he’s doing back there.