Last week someone asked Dean Blais if he was mellowing with age. The old bear gave his response Saturday night.
The first came during faceoff at North Dakota. The Mavericks had lost to UND 4-2 Friday night. The opponent had its way with the Mavs.
On Saturday night, as UNO's Josh Archibald and UND's Stephane Pattyn lined up for the faceoff, the two exchanged slashes.
Before a puck could be dropped, the two were thrown into the penalty slammer.
UNO's hockey coach didn't mind one bit.
“They were trying to establish territory,” Blais said. “On Friday night, there were penalties not called — I'm going to say on North Dakota — and we weren't going to let that happen on Saturday.
“So here's their tough guy, Pattyn, their big, mean, tough guy, going against our top scorer. He (Pattyn) takes a swipe at him. You know what our leading scorer did? He retaliated, the same way. You're not going to do that tonight.
“A hit for a hit, a slash for a slash. Whatever game they want to play, we're going to beat them at. That was our team attitude.
“We're going to skate and have a nice friendly game? We're going to do what you want to do.”
In other words, no more old-time hockey.
What happened next was Blais drawing a line in the ice. After a third straight penalty on UNO in the first period, Blais got himself ejected. For the first time in his long and storied career.
Blais would not comment on the ejection. But observers at the game said the official motioned sternly to Blais, pointing his finger at the UNO bench and then pointing it to the penalty box.
The coach called the ref a “hot dog” and began to clap, as if to say the ref was putting on a good show for the crowd.
And Blais showed no sign of sending a player to the penalty box.
And so he was gone.
Blais had made his point. Now what? He was thrown out of Ralph Engelstad Arena, the North Dakota palace he had helped design, where he had won two national championships and become a North Dakota hockey legend. The sellout crowd was silent as he was taken to the Zamboni room, where Blais used to hang out and play cards with the maintenance staff.
Making this kind of a statement can go two ways: It can inspire or backfire. Blais had committed the cardinal sin of putting his team in harm's way.
“It wasn't a good move when I was sitting in there and it was 3-1 (North Dakota),” Blais said.
But then the Mavs' offense came alive. They won 6-3 in a crucial game to keep alive the important things left in the season: a shot at the NCHC title, home ice in the playoffs, a chance at the postseason.
More importantly, the coach showed that he had the team's back. And the team returned the gesture.
“We know he has our back,” Archibald said. “Obviously the calls were not going our way that game. For him to put himself in that situation and fight for us, we're going to fight right back for him. He's a different coach like that at times, a different mindset, and we wanted to fight for him.”
So Blais' Mavs showed they have more than a pulse and some pride. Now what?
The fan who wondered if Blais was mellowing wasn't alone. Expectations were huge when Trev Alberts coaxed Blais back into college hockey and paid him pretty pennies. That's what you get when you hire the biggest coaching name in amateur hockey.
In five years under Blais, UNO is 85-81-16, with an NCAA appearance and a third-place finish in the WCHA three years ago. The Mavs have had injuries, lost budding stars early to the NHL. Things that other programs go through, too.
Meanwhile, it's not unfair to ask, When does the winning big start? Does the fire still burn? Blais says yes. People who know the man say nobody wants to win more. He didn't come to Omaha to play golf.
The prizes are sitting on the tee for Blais as we speak. The Mavs are in fifth place in their new league, a hybrid of elite programs. They're three points out of first in a conference that rewards three points for a victory.
Eight games left, four at home. Denver comes to Omaha this weekend, and here's a chance for UNO hockey to grab center stage. Or at least share space with Doug McDermott and friends.
UNO's revenue sport has had this town buzzing a couple of times. There was 1999-2000, when the Mavs beat Bowling Green at the Civic madhouse and upset Michigan at the CCHA tourney in Detroit. A few years ago, Blais took the lads to St. Louis for NCAA pucks against Michigan. Tough loss, and the Wolverines ended up playing for the national title. That could have been them.
But now Blais has the kind of team that could captivate the average Omaha sports fan. The Mavs are like a basketball team that runs and shoots 3s. They're a spread football team that goes no-huddle, all the time.
The coach has always had a thing for attacking, offensive hockey, but he's never had an offense like this. UNO is averaging 3.3 goals a game, and 35.3 shots. The Mavs had 53 shots a few weeks ago in a 3-1 loss. There's a punch line in there somewhere.
The point is, Blais' top-gun recruits are in full bloom. Archibald, Dominic Zombo and Ryan Walters shoot and score often, and freshman Jake Guentzel is coming up fast. UNO has scored 24 goals in its last five games.
“The fans love it,” Blais said. “After the 6-3 game, some of them said, 'Hey, great game,' and I said, 'Yeah, but we lost.' They don't care. They just want to see offense. One of their favorite games was 8-6. That's a coach's nightmare.”
UNO's defense has been inconsistent. So have the Mavs, period. They're 11-13-2 overall and 8-6-2 in the league. There are times they look great and other times they can't close. What we've come to expect from a program that has changed leagues and arenas, travels to practice by car, all that.
But last week Blais had his team draw a line in the ice. Is it time to do that again? There's no time like the present.
With this high-flying offense and legendary coach, first place in the vaunted NCHC and a run at the postseason is there for the taking. Blais likes his team's leadership and spirit.
“You've got to have an edge,” Blais said. “Our edge is, everything is high speed, high intensity. It's hard to do over an entire season, but we've done it.
“Now, here we are, with eight games left. Can we win the league? Damn right we can. Can we end up down at the bottom? Damn right we can.”
The old bear laughed at that one. What UNO needs now, though, is more growl.