I see Green People.

They're popping up all over the metro. Your corner pub. The Old Market. Midtown. West town. As we speak, they may be coming down your street.

Omaha, can you spare a ticket?

The Green People have come from far away. Minot. Bismarck. Grand Forks. Fargo. They've driven 500 miles. That's nothing. This is hockey we're talking about. Fill up the tank. Chase the puck.

This weekend, they are chasing tickets.

Hockey is serious business in North Dakota, and these North Dakotans invading our burg are serious hockey fans.

We got a taste of just how serious three years ago, in that outdoor game at TD Ameritrade Park. The story was the ice turned to mush on an unusually warm February day. The sidebar was definitely the number of people walking around in green jerseys, jackets and stocking hats.

They were everywhere in a big, open baseball park set up for hockey.

Last year, crowds of 11,000 and 10,000 came to watch North Dakota play UNO on consecutive nights at the Century Link Center. Yes, there was a definite tone of green to the evenings.

But this year, with the series moving to 8,000-seat Baxter Arena, presents a new challenge for the Green People.

How are they going to get tickets? To be sure, they've planned and plotted for this weekend. There will be a strategy to get in the building.

You can be sure that strategy will involve another kind of green: cold cash.

What say you, Omaha? Would you sell your UNO tickets in exchange for, say, financing the family vacation this year? The Green Window is open for business.

The word has been out around UNO hockey circles all season: Don't do it. Keep the green out.

"As a matter of civic duty, we encourage you not to sell your tickets to North Dakota fans," said "Red Army" Rick Jeffries, a longtime Mav hockey season ticket holder. "Even if you can't be there, give them to the home team.

"It will be interesting to see how many tickets they get."

This will be interesting. This will be fun. And this might be the new rivalry in town.

Let's face it. Nebraska does not have a real rival in the Big Ten. Not yet. Creighton hasn't played enough high-stakes games in the Big East to have felt pain or inflicted any.

In some ways, it feels like UNO basketball just joined the Summit League this season.

But a UNO-North Dakota rivalry is starting to make sense. Not just because the two are in the same hockey conference. Not just because they wound up in the same Frozen Four last spring in Boston.

It's something that's starting in the trenches — the cheap seats, bars and restaurants and other places where adults in hockey jerseys cross sticks.

"They tried to buy our Frozen Four tickets last year," Jeffries said. "(North Dakota fans) called our ticket office and said they were UNO fans and tried to buy our allotment. A few of them succeeded before they figured it out."

Irrepressible. Passionate. To the point where opponents have to coax the home folks to not sell their tickets. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

"They are like Nebraska football fans," UNO coach Dean Blais said. "Except there's not as many of them."

Blais could be a centerpiece reason for a rivalry. He was North Dakota's head coach from 1994-2004, and won two NCAA titles there. That's the stuff of legends at a place that, Blais said, "they expect you to win, and when you have a real good team, they expect you to win by a lot."

"They can get on you. If you win, you're like Tom Osborne," he said.

This rivalry has a potential that even North Dakotans realize.

The NCHC schools are all asked to designate a rival in the league, to guarantee the same home-and-home series each year. Each school picked North Dakota.

Guess who UND picked as its designated rival?

UNO. According to UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts, it was because North Dakota fans like coming to Omaha.

Schools want North Dakota fans to show up, not necessarily their teams. The Fighting Hawks have won seven national championships, beginning in 1959. They've sent dozens of players to the NHL. Blais compares them to Notre Dame.

In other words, this UND is a hockey team everyone wants to beat. UNO, 7-10-1 all-time against North Dakota, is still trying to get the green machine's attention.

"When I was there, our rivals were Minnesota and Wisconsin, mainly," Blais said. "At Minnesota, they used to chant 'USA, USA' because North Dakota had so many players from Canada."

Blais helped build Ralph Engelstad Arena, which seats 11,634. He calls it the nicest arena in college sports. He says the Fighting Hawks' hockey weight room is "six times" as big as UNO's nice room at Baxter Arena, filled with state-of-the-art machines designed to develop hockey players.

But it might be the old-school stuff that separates North Dakota from a lot of so-called hockey hotbeds.

"Kids grow up playing hockey," Blais said. "There are 14 elementary schools in Grand Forks, and they all have hockey rinks.

"Dads put the rinks in their backyards. It's really a neat thing. You run the hose over the frozen grass and make enough for a small rink. Some people put some boards up, two feet high."

North Dakota hockey. Nebraska football. Think about it.

"There's no pro teams in North Dakota," Blais said. "They follow the Twins or Vikings, four hours to Minneapolis. They're used to driving.

"There are a lot of North Dakota alums in Omaha. And Denver. There are probably a couple thousand North Dakota fans who live here in Omaha. When North Dakota comes to town, they support North Dakota."

UNO and North Dakota used to be conference rivals in all sports, back in the days of the Division II North Central Conference. There are some at UNO who think North Dakota is a perfect fit for the Summit League; really ratchet up the Maverick-Hawks thing again.

Sounds good. But North Dakota plays in the Big Sky Conference, a Division I FCS league where it also plays football. So, unless the Hawks are dropping football, that's not happening.

Hockey provides enough juice. Take this weekend. North Dakota is tied for first in the NCHC, UNO fighting for home ice in fourth and still trying to nail down a postseason bid.

Whatever. Just the sight of the color green will be enough to set fire to the ice and test the structure of the Baxter Arena roof. Meanwhile, the Aksarben Village trenches will be painted black, red and green.

I'm confident the Red Army will welcome everyone to their new home.

"I think it could be a rival," Jeffries said. "Whenever you're in the arena when they're losing, it's a beautiful sight.

"But this isn't Michigan. That is really a different level for UNO fans. North Dakota fans love their hockey and they'll sit there at the bar and tell you who Dean is recruiting up in Minot.

"Michigan fans are rude people. North Dakota fans are people you can sit with and have a drink and talk about the game."

Note to Green People: He means outside the arena.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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