UNO’s final team under Dean Blais was, he felt, a reflection of his own personality.
“They were hard-nosed and hardcore,” he said. “If you want to call it old-school hockey, let it be.”
Blais was tough on them, he admitted, but not because he didn’t care. The opposite was true.
If some of those 27 Mavericks didn’t understand that before Tuesday, they know now. One by one, they stepped into Blais’ office at Baxter Arena to briefly speak with him on the day he stepped down.
The 66-year-old coach is leaving UNO hockey after eight seasons, two NCAA tournament appearances and a Frozen Four berth. He’s shared some great moments with the current players, but he was moved by the outpouring of support they gave him after he informed them of his choice.
Blais took a brief moment to collect himself after the final player left before discussing his decision.
“I’m so happy they all came in and said goodbye,” he said. “When I coach, I don’t give that tender love. When I’m talking to one of the guys, I’m coaching the other 26 players. It’s kind of abrupt. It’s tough love, at times. And you don’t know, in today’s society, if the players are capable of taking that.
“When you’re coaching, you’ve got to be tough and, obviously, show strength. Sometimes people think tears are a sign of weakness. To me, it’s a sign of my love for the players, although I was tough on them.”
Blais said, looking back on it, he’d probably been considering stepping down since the previous season ended. But he said he hadn’t made a decision, even when suggesting after Sunday’s season-ending loss at Western Michigan that he may return. “Right now, yeah,” he said when asked if he’d be coming back.
“As a matter of fact, I wasn’t lying to you,” Blais said Tuesday. He began thinking on the nine-hour bus ride back to Omaha about whether or not this was the last road trip he was going to make with UNO.
Blais said he discussed things with his wife, Jackie, upon his return before meeting with Vice Chancellor of Athletics Trev Alberts and Associate Athletic Director Mike Kemp about his status on Tuesday morning.
“The time was right for me,” he said. “Everyone that retires says that you’ll know that it’s time to retire.”
Blais posted a 146-133-30 record in his eight UNO seasons. His final team finished with a 17-17-5 mark.
The second coach in the school’s history, Blais ushered Maverick hockey into two new conferences, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 2010 and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in 2013.
UNO then hung a Frozen Four banner in brand new Baxter Arena on opening night in the fall of 2015.
Alberts said the impact Blais has had on the Maverick hockey program “is hard to overstate.” He recalled the days in 2009 when he and Kemp, UNO’s previous coach, were “trying to figure it all out” when their Division II school was in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, yet looking to make a leap forward.
They then hired Blais — who had won two national titles in seven NCAA appearances and 262 games during a 10-year run at North Dakota — with hopes that he could make the Mavs into a national player.
“(We were) dreaming of trying to take our hockey program and continue moving it forward, and having Dean buy into that vision,” Alberts said. “We had some tremendous times here. We’re really grateful.”
Alberts said he doesn’t foresee there being a long search to find UNO’s next coach.
“(Associate head coach and former Mav) Mike Gabinet is a very strong internal candidate,” he said. “I will also say I think we owe it to the program that we take a look nationally, that we gauge some interest.
“This is a critical time. Recruiting is very important, and there will be players on our team that have decisions to make. We need to get leadership in place. I think having Coach Blais, with his experience, connections and understanding of the job, can help. This is going to be a team effort. We’re going to look at who some candidates might be. Then, hopefully, we’ll be able to move in expedited fashion.”
Alberts and Kemp met with UNO’s players on Tuesday. Their vision for Maverick hockey hasn’t changed.
“We can be a consistent player at the national level,” Alberts said. “Dean has really helped us move it forward. Our job is to find the next leader that can support these student-athletes to help us get there.”
UNO’s players weren’t expecting Blais to step down. Junior defenseman Joel Messner said they all believed Tuesday’s meeting was just another end-of-season planning session, like in previous years.
“It is shocking, obviously,” he said. “It’s the reason why all of us are here, Coach Blais. Being a small-town Manitoba kid, he gave me the opportunity to come here. It’s sad to see him go. You only really just wish him the best. He’s done an amazing job for our program and for college hockey in general.”
Senior captain Justin Parizek spoke about the impact of Blais on behalf of the team.
“He’s brought us to new heights,” he said. “The list goes on in what he’s done in my four years here. Obviously, we kind of put Omaha on the (hockey) map. And I’m glad I was here to do that with Coach.”
Blais said the reaction from his players on Tuesday made it tough to step away. But the coach lost his mother during this past season and said he’s looking forward to having more time available for family. His face lit up when telling a story from this Christmas when he was on an outdoor rink as it snowed.
“And here I am with my three grandkids in a shinny game,” he said. “It was magical. It really was.”
Blais said a photo of the moment would’ve made for a great postcard.
He’s stepping away from hockey now, although he said it may not be for good.
“If something else comes up in hockey, I might do it,” he said. “But in my situation right now, I don’t have anything else. I’m not job jumping to the NHL. That was 10 years ago. I’m not looking to do something, build rinks or something else, in hockey. If something else comes up, I still have the passion.”
Blais feels he’s leaving the UNO program in great shape for his successor.
“I set the table for you,” he joked. “You better win.”
Blais, who leaves with a year left on his contract, would’ve loved to compete in this weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis and then the NCAA tournament before stepping down. But he takes pride that those have become the expectations of his team’s fan base under his watch.
“It’s hard to catch up on programs like North Dakota, Minnesota and Denver, who have had hockey for 80 years. We’ve caught up. And it’s kind of cool when Omaha expects to win,” he said. “Not advancing to this tournament this weekend is obviously disappointing. Not getting an NCAA bid is disappointing. But isn’t it funny that the community of Omaha is expecting that? That’s what I think I’ve helped create.”