Dean Blais still refers to North Dakota as “we.” And why not? He only won two national championships, went to another title game, and built the team that plays in this Saturday’s final before handing the reins to long-time assistant Dave Hakstol.
And this is all he has right now, ever since the NHL season was officially cancelled. Blais left last spring to take the job as assistant coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets. But he has yet to coach a game in the NHL.
“Oh yeah. It’s tough not coaching. But getting back here and seeing North Dakota get to the final game, it’s like being a proud parent,” said Blais.
“It means a whole lot when you see the guys pull together like they did … I take a lot of pride in what they’ve accomplished.”
This season was tougher for Blais than just missing a chance to coach. He also lost his wife after a lengthy battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“It’s therapeutic [being at the Frozen Four],” Blais said. “After not coaching all year long — I coached the United States team in the Deutschland Cup. But you always want to be in this position where your team is in the national championship game, but it was a tough year.”
One thing he did do was resist the temptation to interfere with Hakstol.
“I tried to stay out of it,” Blais said. “A couple months ago when they were having tough times, we talked quite a bit. With no season, there was an opp. to talk a lot with him. But the last couple months, they’ve been playing so well, I try to not go down and let the kids see me, and stay away.”
And he never doubted Hakstol, even while the Sioux struggled this season, hanging on the NCAA tournament bubble as late as the start of the WCHA playoffs.
“He was doing all the right things,” Blais said of Hakstol. “I watched practice and his drills were the same, and he had Brady Murray, one of the best players in college hockey, hurt and they still got here. His systems are in place and they’ve done a good job in the speciality teams, and that’s what it’s all about.”
This is a different kind of team than the ones Blais won championships with. Those were small teams without a lot of future NHL players. This team is loaded with size, skill, and a few first-round draft picks.
“The one thing we thought we should have, and I don’t know if we still [don’t] have is a puck-handling defenseman, a good guy on the power play,” Blais said. “We’ve always had that problem, they’re a hard guy to find, those Travis Roche types.
“We wanted a bigger, more mobile defense, and here we are with a pretty solid corps of ‘D.’ You’ve got Matt Jones and Matt Greene, Schneider and Nick Fuhrer, they can all move laterally, and Matt Smaby has gotten better — he’s 6-foot-5. So we wanted a little more size on defense. But we’ve always believed in speed and moving the puck, and that’s why we’ve got guys like Spirko and Zajac, a tremendous freshman, a first rounder. They’re just talented.
“There’s more coming too. [Our] arena certainly helped a lot in recruiting. But North Dakota has certainly won a lot of championships with smaller guys, speed, you know, Dougie Smail-type guys. This is a different group, but we always like the talent more than the size — character … kids who want to win, and pay the price to win.”
Blais is fired up talking about “his” team, and is excited just to be around hockey. But he takes a prideful approach, not an envious one.
“No, no. I still don’t regret [leaving],” Blais said. “I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward to playing next season.”