OMAHA, Neb. — Clean, modern lines accentuate the exterior. Inside, the industrial colors, the grays and the metals beam to its congregation the style and work ethic it took to erect the $291 million chapel. The arena is like nothing this city has ever seen — a 14,700-seat marvel that leaves the beholder in awe.
Quite simply, it’s the Omaha Civic Auditorium on steroids.
“What an amazing facility, not only for the Mavericks, but for the city of Omaha,” Manitoba coach Mike Sirant said after his team’s exhibition game at the new building. “They should be proud of having a place like this. The vision that Omaha has not only for the convention but for the area around it, its great to have that vision.”
And don’t think the city won’t exploit the place for what it is: a marketing magnet. The stylish architecture and the city’s efforts to rebuild a once run-down northern downtown district is expected to attract marquee events of all kinds.
One act will remain a staple of the Center: Nebraska-Omaha hockey.
On Oct. 5, nearly 10,000 flocked to this new Mecca of hockey’s heartland to see their Mavericks in a new light — the spotlight.
On the million-dollar screen hovering above center ice, the fans watched as the Mavericks walked through the tunnel. Music blared and emotions soared. A new era had dawned for the University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey program.
The Qwest Era.
“Anytime you walk into a building like that, you are wowed by the amenities, the glitz, the glitter,” UNO head coach Mike Kemp said. “I think it will take a long time for all of us to get used to the fact that it’s new, ultra-modern and very high-tech, and we haven’t had anything like that.
“It doesn’t always seem like it’s little old Omaha.”
The arena had a strange opening. After news crews showed local residents what a pristine palace it would be, organizers at the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA) called for a few dozen tons of dirt to be dumped right onto the arena floor. This was the layout for the opening event, the River City Roundup, an annual rodeo and agriculture exposition.
Fittingly, Omaha had opened a palace by showcasing its roots.
Now hockey season has come and the Mavericks have the challenge to make the Qwest Center home. Kemp said that after playing at the Civic Auditorium for the first six years of the program’s history, the transition might take some time.
“We have to make our own history and traditions,” Kemp said. “Things will happen there in that building that will make it a shrine. We haven’t had time to build any memories like the play-in with Bowling Green (March 14, 2000) and the longest game in Maverick history against Ohio State (March 11, 2001) to go to the Joe.”
Some things didn’t change at the Oct. 5 exhibition with Manitoba. When the Mavericks got their first goal, UNO uber-fan Fishman still tossed his trout onto the ice, a “tradition” started last year. And the old section 96 crew from the Civic, game-in game-out the loudest section at the Aud, was still the loudest section in the new building at their new home in the third deck, section 213.
“Those people are the cornerstones,” Kemp said. “You have to have those people, they are so valuable, it’s really immeasurable.”
The fans will also have to get used to the feeling of a new barn. After the first game, the reviews posted on Maverick hockey fan site Mavpuck.com were mixed. Most said it was a glorious place, but that it may be too big and didn’t have the same “homey” feel that the Civic Auditorium did.
The six straight years of sellouts at the 8,314 capacity Civic Auditorium are most likely over, but as Kemp points out, there were nearly 10,000 at the exhibition, and he expects an 11,000 average on the year.
“There’s a reality to where were at — the reality is 11,000 with 3,000 empty seats will be better for the athletic department. I mean, there are a lot of NHL teams that average 11,000 people. We have moved forward to another era.”
UNO and the fans will grow into the Qwest, especially the first time the Mavericks host a playoff game and 14,000 pack in to see it and blow the roof off the Qwest like they did the Civic. It will be a marvel to watch in an arena that is a pleasure to be in. A new era has dawned, and the Mavericks now must collect jewels to place in the crown.
When they have accomplished something to be as proud of as the arena itself, then it will feel like home.