If it's hockey time at UNO, the week they drop the puck, this must be the Civic Auditorium.
The old barn is a little mustier than usual on this day. The Mavs arrive for practice, walking down a lonely hallway to a locker room where they used to dress, back when the place was full of fans and noise and the chants of “U-N-O” bounced off the low ceiling.
Remember those nights? Back in 1997, 1998. The program was a child, full of promise and dreams. Remember that potential?
In the last 16 years, it's been rebooted now and then. The Mavs are playing in their third conference in 16 years. They hired a national championship coach. And now there's a new arena to drool over, opening in two years at 67th and Center.
UNO hockey is the program that never stops moving, never stops giving the fans a reinvention, something to look forward to.
And yet, here the Mavs are again, back at the dreary old Civic, because Creighton took over the CenturyLink Center with a basketball open house.
With Maverick hockey, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
OK, here's something new.
The Mavs and coach Dean Blais were picked to finish last in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
That's a first for the veteran coach. And he was not amused.
“Are you kidding me?” Blais said. “The whole team's reaction was the same as me: We're not going to be there.”
There's some irony in that prediction by the media in the new league. UNO helped set up the NCHC, which is a hybrid of programs from the WCHA and CCHA.
It was a reaction to the birth of Big Ten Hockey. Neither the WCHA nor CCHA was as good without its Big Ten clubs. Schools like North Dakota, Denver and UNO feared a drop in RPI and attendance, not to mention relevance.
They got together to form a new band, and it's a terrific one. Some national hockey writers already consider the NCHC the top league in college hockey, with North Dakota, Miami and Denver. Don't forget St. Cloud, which won the WCHA and made the Frozen Four last year. And Duluth, which won the NCAA title in 2011.
Stout league. But UNO was seen as one of the heavyweights, with the big crowds and the national champion coach. Last place?
“Well, we lose a (goalkeeper) John Faulkner,” Blais said. “We're bringing in two freshman goalies. We haven't really had great years, haven't won the league, qualified for the national tournament once. Omaha's up and coming, but we're not there yet.”
The answer is somewhere in Blais' answer. UNO is all potential. But the résumé is a little light.
In four years at UNO, Blais is 74-68-16. He's finished sixth, third, seventh and seventh in the conference. There was an NCAA appearance in 2011, and a controversial loss to Michigan, which went on to play for the NCAA title.
The Mavs have teased their fans in the last four years, beaten some heavyweights, challenged near the top of the WCHA in January. But then something happens: an injury, dismissal of a leading scorer, the team hits the wall. Blais dialed back the summer conditioning program this year with the hopes it might help in the dog days of winter.
Whatever you call it, the Mavs have to learn how to finish.
“It's not really a late-season collapse,” Blais said. “It's circumstances, injuries. Alex (Hudson, dismissed) leaves in midseason two years ago. That's your leading scorer. Nobody can recover from that.”
That last-place prediction says the NCHC is going to be really good. But also, it says Blais hasn't figured it out yet in Omaha.
There have been bad breaks, and kids have left early for NHL money. That's the price of recruiting in hockey.
But even though it's only been four years, there's a sense by some fans that they expected more out of Blais. Did the coach expect more?
“We got to the national tournament in our second year,” Blais said. “We were third in the WCHA and knocking on the door in January, then the injuries. You call it a collapse. I call it bad luck.
“With three seniors, you need everything to go right. With seven seniors, like Quinnipiac, you can be in the national championship game.
“It's a process. It takes time. Mike Kemp laid the foundation. Hopefully we can take it to the championship level.”
A few years ago, Blais talked openly about championships. At one point he said he was recruiting a class that would compete for an NCAA title.
Those words were music to fans' ears. But maybe the expectations for Blais were too high. It's an easy trap to fall into. Legendary coach. Big arena. That “P” word again.
The reality is, UNO should go to a conference tournament, and then talk about the NCAAs.
It won't be any easier in the NCHC, where all eight teams make the postseason and the four winners of the first-round series will play in the league bash at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Then again, UNO has some weapons. Ryan Walters is a superstar with scoring punch around him in Josh Archibald and Dominic Zombo and there are skill people on defense. Blais calls this his most balanced UNO team. If Ryan Massa, or one of the two freshmen, can be a reliable force in goal, the Mavs have, well, potential.
What this program needs to do is grow roots. In a conference. In an arena. Get off the merry-go-round and settle into a comfortable set of expectations.
Blais' legacy doesn't have to be a Frozen Four. Get the Mavs in their new arena in two years, make them competitive at the top shelf of the NCHC, and make the NCAA tournament more than once. Get the program's first NCAA win.
Practice is about to begin. Here come the Mavs, taking the ice at the Civic. Love the nostalgia. But it's time to move on.