For years, college hockey fans have been hoping that Dean Blais would return to the game we love, to the game we know he loves, and we CCHA fans are the lucky ones to welcome him back.
“My best time of the day is spending that half-hour on the ice in practice,” Blais said at the league’s media day.
It is a shame on more levels than can be explained that the CCHA will count Blais as one of its own for one single season. His sincerity is charming; his ability to coach is impressive.
Blais, who has spent three of the last four years with the Columbus Blue Jackets organization and last year as head coach of the Fargo Force (USHL), compiled a record of 233-115-33 in his decade as head coach at North Dakota (1994-2004), leading the Fighting Sioux to national championships in 1997 and 2000.
With no disrespect intended to the man who built Maverick hockey, Mike Kemp, Dean Blais may be exactly what that program needs to go to the proverbial next level.
In their admittedly short history, the Mavericks have never been serious contenders for the CCHA regular-season title, finishing as high as fourth three times, but more often than not flirting the bottom of the top tier or middle of the league pack. In the last two seasons, the Mavs finished tied for seventh; when the current UNO seniors were freshmen, they finished fifth.
In his return to college hockey, Blais hopes to return to the high-flying offense he coached at North Dakota. “I don’t even care if they can’t skate as fast as maybe the players I had up in North Dakota; we’re going to play a high-energy game,” said Blais. “We’re going to try to be energetic and working hard all the way through our 120 minutes over the weekend.
“At times it happened here and at times it didn’t happen here. I’ve already had a few discussions with some of the players that wanted to go half speed, and I had to more or less convince them [that] we don’t do anything half speed. Even if you make mistakes, you do it at full speed.”
Some things have changed in Blais’ four-year hiatus from college hockey, and he admits that he himself needs to get up to speed.
“One of the things you can’t control … is the officiating,” said Blais. “I think it’s really tough to play the game sometimes that we want to play, especially in the defensive zone where your defensemen go in and contain people, and that’s tougher to do right now. I actually don’t know how you do it, so I hopefully hired the right coach in Mike Hastings to teach the defensemen some proper angles and detainment techniques.
“Back in the old days, you guys know, you had to take a real severe penalty for that second penalty. You had to chop a guy’s arm off before they’d call it. Now it’s just part of the game.”
UNO returns a veteran team with seven seniors, including goaltender Jeremie Dupont and underrated defenseman Eddie Del Grosso.
“Eddie Del Grosso is one of our captains. He’s a real good kid,” said Blais. “He’s got a lot of tattoos, which I’m not really used to, but it doesn’t bother me.”
It should be a very good year to watch Maverick hockey — for so many reasons.