Prairie Ponderings

Somehow, I thought Omaha would be more like Columbus. After all, each is an inland, Midwestern city ringed for miles by farmland, each infused with sensible, middle-American values. Granted, Nebraska rides the Great Plains further out while Columbus is near the Plains’ eastern shore, but I somehow expected both cities to have been cut from similar cloth.

Instead Omaha is reminiscent of my hometown of Syracuse, New York — or the Syracuse I remember. The city of rolling hills a mix of old and new, with a downtown that looks very much like Syracuse, and outskirts that have a little of the look of residential Buffalo, or Erie, Penn.

At the Crossroads Mall, the parking lot was outlined by huge, decaying banks of snow, deposited when the city was hit by its last storm, now slowly melting and well insulated by a thick layer of city silt. This, too, reminds me of Syracuse, where such piles could take until late April or early May to melt completely, and where in March the sides of the roads are dun-colored, debris-strewn pedestrian obstacle courses, where hazardous patches of ice disguised as mud make walking an adventure.

This is not Columbus, nor is it Syracuse, a city whose inhabitants seem bent by snow and wind year round, where the summer rains humidity, where eye contact is not especially recommended.

Gratitude is attitude. So say many billboards in Omaha, where people hardly need to be encouraged to be nice. Nice seems to be a renewable commodity here, and along with it courtesy, respect, and everything embodied within a smile and heartfelt hello.

Or is that “howdy”? For a Midwestern city, Omaha is infused with a sense of the West. I’ve had men tip their hats at me as they’ve passed. Beef is big business here. My hotel room overlooks Dodge Street.

Then there are the Mavericks, of course, who play in the Bullpen, the loudest barn I’ve ever visited. The fans ring cowbells and shake milk jugs that contain a few pennies. People wear hats with steer horns, and there are two — not one, but two — bull mascots. One is your standard, oversized stuffed animal type, and the other is inflatable. The inflatable Maverick is a big ol’ head or so taller than his more solid counterpart, but is also occupied by a person. That’s right: a person inside an inflatable suit.

I met this mascot before the game, and asked him if the more traditional mascot would be present. He replied, “Yes, but inflatable is always better than soft.” He said this with a straight face. I knew at that moment that anything resembling eastern was miles and miles away.

Two hours before the start of the opening game in this best-of-three, first-round CCHA playoff series between Ohio State and Nebraska-Omaha, I met several faithful, rabid, fanatical Maverick hockey supporters at a nice joint called Old Chicago. Most of these folks post on the Message Board, and they treated me like a queen. Rick, Linc, Wayne and several other people chatted with me for an hour while we had some beer and pizza (for which they insisted on paying, hospitable as they are).

In the course of that hour, what doesn’t translate through mere words on a screen came through loud and clear; these are nice folks. As hockey fans, they are loyal, intelligent, respectful of the opposition. As people, I imagine they’re the kind of neighbors, friends, and colleagues that anyone would be pleased to know.

In the rink, they transformed into screaming maniacs, as is their God-given right. The Nebraska- Omaha players took the ice through yet another huge, inflatable steer’s head, and the more solid mascot lay on the ice, utterly disinterested, as the Buckeye starters were introduced.

Everyone sang the national anthem.

When Jeff Hoggan scored 55 seconds into the contest, I thought the rafters would collapse. Two periods later, when David Noel-Bernier scored the Mavericks’ go-ahead goal late in the third, I thought my eardrums would implode.

Moments later, when Eric Skaug tied it up again for Ohio State, the silence was like an absence of a presence, 30 seconds of stunned disbelief before a crowd recovery so thunderously loud — paced by the frantic chant of “U-N-O! U-N-O!” each syllable punctuated by the enthusiastic shake of a milk jug — that I couldn’t hear the person standing literally six inches away from me.

When Miguel Lafleche won it for Ohio State 38 seconds into overtime, I heard Mavs fans couching their disappointment with praise for the Buckeyes, a genuine respect for a team that displayed the kind of characteristics that Nebraska-Omaha fans love in their own team: tenacity, toughness, heartland values that can help a hockey team come back from behind, or help a city weather the transition from decline to post-recession resurgence.

So, as I’m about to gussy up and mosey on over to the Bullpen, I realize that Omaha has made a believer out of me. I believe in UNO, OSU, Bowling Green, the CCHA, and the power of the tip of a hat.

I believe in inflatable mascots, lawyers who paint their faces red and black, the three-on-two breakaway, and the power of college hockey to be a force for positive change in the Universe.

And, after last night, I also believe that my hemlines may be a little too short for this town.

But I believe in gratitude as attitude.

Thank you, Omaha.