North Dakota’s Dean Blais, first in winning percentage among all active Division I coaches and winner of two national championships, is stepping down from his job in Grand Forks to take over as associate coach for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, USCHO.com has learned.
Blais is in Raleigh, N.C., site of this weekend’s NHL Draft, and is expected to be announced as part of the new Columbus coaching staff at a Friday news conference. Gerard Gallant, who was named the Blue Jackets’ interim head coach last season, is expected to be named to the job on a permanent basis.
Blais has a connection with Columbus; the Blue Jackets’ director of scouting, Don Boyd, was an assistant with Blais with the 1982 North Dakota national championship team under Gino Gasparini.
In an interview with the Grand Forks Herald, Blais said he was influenced by Gasparini to take the job, because Gasparini by-passed his opportunity for an NHL position.
“I don’t want to be like Gino and reach 60 years old and always wondering if I could have made it at the next level,” Blais said to the Herald.
It is uncertain how this will affect Blais’ position as head coach of the 2004-05 U.S. World Junior team. The prestigious tournament is set to take place this year in Grand Forks, N.D., and Blais was picked earlier this year to coach the defending gold medallists right in his backyard.
Blais, known for his up-tempo, offensive style, won two national championships with the Fighting Sioux, in 1997 and 2000. In 2001, the fifth of five straight NCAA appearances, North Dakota was runner up. In all, North Dakota had seven NCAA tournament appearances in Blais’ 10 years as head coach, as he compiled a 262-115-33 (.679) record. The Sioux also won five regular-season WCHA championships and two WCHA tournament championships in that span, which included five 30-wins campaigns.
North Dakota is the only head coaching job Blais has had in the NCAA. He became North Dakota’s coach in 1994, leaving the coaching position at his alma mater, International Falls (Minn.) High School. Blais played at Minnesota, and spent time there as an assistant before leaving to coach Minot (N.D.) High Schoool. From 1980-89, he was an assistant to Gasparini at North Dakota, then left to coach Roseau (Minn.) High School before eventually landing at International Falls (Minn.) H.S.
Just last summer, Blais, 53, signed a contract extension with North Dakota in an 11th-hour deal. His previous contract was set to run out after the 2003-04 season, and he gave the school a July 1, 2003 deadline to sign him to an extension or else face losing him after this past season. He finally agreed to terms with the school on an escalating contract that was set to pay him close to $200,000 annually by the time it expired in 2008-09.
At that time, Blais said, “I’m happy that entering the last year of my [old] contract with UND, this won’t be my last year of coaching here. It means that for all the players coming in this season, I’ll be around all four years they’re here.”
Blais was also the assistant coach with the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, and assistant coach with the 1987 and 1988 U.S. World Junior teams. A two-time Spencer Penrose Award winner as the nation’s top collegiate coach, Blais also was head coach for the 1994 World Junior team.
Blais’ departure leaves a gaping hole at North Dakota, and could set off a merry-go-round that will change the face of the WCHA.
Early speculation on the Sioux’s new coach will focus on Scott Sandelin, a North Dakota graduate (1986) who coached on Blais’ staff until leaving to take the head coaching position at Minnesota-Duluth in 2000-01. Sandelin was named last season’s Spencer Penrose Award winner as national Coach of the Year, as he led the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four.
However, current North Dakota assistant Dave Hakstol is a 1992 graduate, with head coaching experience in Sioux City of the USHL, and is sure to also get serious consideration. The other current assistant is 1986 North Dakota graduate Brad Berry, who is a veteran of 241 NHL games but has never been a head coach on any level.
Other candidates include former UND assistant Cary Eades, who has been a junior and high school coach and is currently the athletic director and boys hockey coach at Warroad (Minn.) High School; former Fighting Sioux forward Steve Johnson, who is the head coach and general manager of the Lincoln (Neb.) Stars of the USHL; and another former UND assistant, John Marks, who is the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Greenville Grrrowl of the East Coast Hockey League.