Dean Blais is good for college hockey.
Having now broadcasted 11 of his games this season (between Team USA at the World Junior Championship and Nebraska-Omaha) I have come to appreciate what he is all about. I had a chance to get to know Herb Brooks a bit during my time at the Minnesota Hockey Camps and I see a lot of Brooks in Blais.
Brooks is best known for his ability to make a team believe in itself at his own expense. That was the 1980 Olympic Team, the one Brooks convinced was better than any other team in Lake Placid — or the world, for that matter. He never let them breathe, he intimidated them into being winners and he got them to buy into a team-first, high-octane style that carried them to a gold medal and into American immortality.
Blais did what Brooks did this past Christmas break. He coached a U.S. team to a gold medal in a major international hockey tourney, the World Junior Championship. That is the second-toughest gold medal to win in hockey after the Olympics, and the WJC is a yearly event that the whole hockey world watches.
His job performance in Saskatoon with the American entry to the WJC was nothing short of masterful. He went in with an attitude, a belief and a goal, and from day one of the evaluation camp in Lake Placid it was clear to everyone that this would be different.
Blais separated his players in Lake Placid into two teams and their paths never crossed. He created competition where friendships and bonding were once the norm. He made sure competition was emphasized and that players who had been there before were not guaranteed of being there again. He cut the fat, trimmed the candidates and brought them to Grand Forks in December with players still on the bubble. He took his type of players, sticking to the Bill Parcells theory of, “If I’m the chef I’d like to have a big say in what the ingredients are.”
The message was clear from the first line to the fourth: do your job, do it well, or be replaced. During the WJC he took Danny Kristo (North Dakota) off the big line and moved him to the fourth, which in 1980 terminology would have been like benching Mark Johnson. Kristo responded with a huge effort and reclaimed his spot and was phenomenal the rest of the way.
He demanded effort and execution but he also demanded belief. He made sure the players were accountable to the staff and to each other. He also created fear. Like he is doing at Nebraska-Omaha, he made sure that he was the thing most feared in his own dressing room, not that next opponent.
UNO’s players want to win and a lot of that has to do with not having to face Blais on the Monday morning after a bad weekend and there have been a few on those this season for the Mavs. That has changed drastically, and last weekend’s sweep of then-No. 19 Michigan has shown that UNO can get up and down with the big boys.
Following a win Friday night, Blais let the team have it on Saturday morning in a five-minute meeting. He explained to them in an emphatic manner that Friday was a win but that they would have to be even better Saturday because Michigan would be also. He pointed out several moments in the game where the Wolverines had come back and taken over the play. He mentioned that a few of the players that had big games on the score sheet Friday night were guilty of egregious puck mistakes in the game that could have cost them the vital three points they needed.
The bottom line was he preached accountability. He made sure every guy knew what was expected of them. It was a message that could not be mistaken.
That was vintage Brooks. Remember it was him who ripped into his players after beating the Soviet Union in their medal round semifinal of Feb. 22, 1980. As we near the 30th anniversary of that huge win, we also near the anniversary of the last practice that team had before it beat Finland to win the gold. The players always mention how Brooks laid into them, telling them not to get too overjoyed because a loss to Finland would render the whole experience meaningless.
Blais was right — Michigan was better for a good part of Saturday’s game, but UNO was better overall and swept the Wolverines. The old saying goes, the team who gets off the bus with the best players usually has the best chance of winning. Not last weekend. Michigan had the better players but Blais had the better team, and that is because of the job he and his staff have done creating that team. Michigan brought it, UNO had an answer. It looked like USA-Canada all over again.
Mike Kemp brought in this entire group and his recruitment of these kids has to be mentioned. He was the chef until stepping up to take a role in the new athletic department administration of Trev Alberts.
Blais took the job in mid summer and since then has been relentless in his effort to make the team relentless, and that’s what the Mavericks are. That step up in tempo and pace to their game, which also includes a healthy dose of mean, took a while. It’s in place now, and add in some timely goals and what seems to be much more consistent goaltending the past three weeks and Blais has a team that believes in itself and what it can do. Whether anyone else believes in them is irrelevant to them; they believe.
Blais took a USA Hockey program under fire and left a trail of scorched teams in his wake in Saskatoon. Now, with sweeps of Ohio State and Michigan and a split at Notre Dame in the last three weeks, UNO is a team to contend with. Credit goes to the players, a lunch pail gang that might be the hardest working team in college hockey.
They hit, skate, do the little things and make their own luck. Their captain, Jeric Agosta, is having a career year. Defenseman Eddie Delgrosso has become an effective and dependable two-way defenseman at the NCAA level. Terry Broadhurst has become a power-play threat and would remind you of a young Mike Bossy the way he is blasting away and scoring power-play goals lately.
However the head coach deserves a ton of credit here. He changed the culture of this team to one that is in constant movement, a 60-minute game of seek and destroy. They don’t stand around much on the forecheck because when they do, not much gets done. They stay in motion, flush out flat footed defensemen, stack the line so they don’t risk getting beaten wide on the rush and win a lot of battles.
Where UNO goes from here, we have no idea. Where the Mavericks are at now is pretty good. The coach made them believe, and in the process they have become an entertaining team to watch and a tough team to beat. That is great for college hockey.
So is the coach.