Cornell is the fourth-oldest college-hockey program that sponsors hockey at the NCAA Division I level. The Big Red began its first season in 1900. Omaha University, the predecessor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was not founded until 1908. The University and Omahans would need to wait 89 years until their community sponsored college hockey.
The roots between the Mavericks of Omaha and the former WCHA run very deep. The first coach to helm college hockey's second-youngest program (Robert Morris is the youngest. For those who think Penn State is the youngest, they need to consider that Penn State sporadically sponsored college hockey in the 1900s and 1940s in addition to consistently sponsoring club hockey from 1971) was Mike Kemp. Kemp had learned the craft of coaching college hockey at Wisconsin under Jeff Sauer.
Ironically, it was the CCHA that admitted UNO for membership. A lag year of independence was endured before admission. Crucial facets of the identity of Mavericks hockey were discerned during that one year. Foremost, Kemp led his young program to a sweep of Denver. Secondly, UNO had shown that it could sell out its building regularly. Omaha and the University of Nebraska at Omaha loved its hockey and they remained loyal to it despite a less than 0.500 in the Mavericks's first season.
UNO broke through to a plus-0.500 record in its fourth season of play. This occurred after a rousing end to the Mavericks's first season. UNO made a run to the 2000 CCHA Championship game. The Mavericks fell to the Spartans in a disappointing trouncing, but they had let the college-hockey landscape learn that even three seasons into its existence that their program and their fans could not be taken lightly.
The next season, UNO's first winning season, the Mavericks would again make it to Joe Louis Arena. They would fall this time in a semifinal contest. This tremendous progress began to seem for naught. The next few seasons would tax Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks would not advance out of the first round of the CCHA Tournament for the next three seasons. Over two of those seasons, UNO would find itself again languishing below 0.500. UNO's fans stayed loyal.
The Mavericks climbed their way above that disappointing threshold in its eighth and ninth season. The CCHA Quarterfinals were where the Nebraskans fell both years. The Mavericks fell to their friendly rival the Wildcats in the 2006 CCHA Quarterfinals. The rivalry between the two is unique in college hockey. It is a persistent vestige of the time when Nebraska-Omaha played in the CCHA.
The rivalry began in an interesting way. When UNO made its run to the 2000 CCHA Semifinal, some fans of the Northern Michigan Wildcats traveled down to Detroit from the Upper Peninsula. Their rooting interest? They supported the Mavericks from Omaha. It may have been partial embrace of the philosophy of my enemy of my enemy is my friend, but Wildcat fans cheered on Kemp's Mavericks as they downed the Wolverines of Michigan (or weasels as some UNO fans call them). UNO returned the favor and supported the Wildcats alongside Northern Michigan fans in the 2002 CCHA Semifinals. The connection was forged. It did not take long for the head coaches of each program to embrace it.
The friendly rivalry that Mike Kemp and Walt Kyle devised between Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Michigan resembles traditional college-football rivalries in some ways. Think Cornell-Penn for the Trustee's Cup, Columbia-Cornell for the Empire Cup, Michigan-Minnesota for the Little Brown Jug, or Cal-Stanford for the Stanford Axe. The winner of UNO-Northern Michigan series takes home or keeps the Spiritphone. The organized fanbase of each program, the Red Army of UNO and the Puckheads of Northern Michigan, keeps the Spiritphone while its supported team is in possession of it.
Wisely, Kemp and Kyle agreed that in the event of a split in the series, there would be no resort to a total-goals tiebreaker and the current holder would retain the Spiritphone. The friendly rivalry remains just that on the records book. Neither team has taken control of the series. The current record is 17-17-2. Cornell will face a reinvigorated Mavericks squad that is coming off a split in the Upper Peninsula. The rivalry survived UNO's defection to the WCHA in 2010 and looks as though it will continue to flourish after UNO joined the NCHC.
No Cornell rivalry, neither real nor quasi, manifests such reciprocal support. Of the candidates of Boston University-Cornell, Cornell-Harvard, Cornell-Yale, and Cornell-Wisconsin rivalries, it appears that the lattermost is closest in nature. Nonetheless, the nature of Nebraska-Omaha's rivalry with Northern Michigan adds to the intrigue of college hockey.
While one of Cornell's rivalry was set to add to its distinct tenor in the 2006 NCAA Midwest Regional Final in Green Bay, the Mavericks made their first appearance in the national tournament. The UNO skaters fell to Boston University by a 9-2 margin. It was the highest point that the Mavericks would reach in the playoffs in five seasons. Over those five seasons, the Mavericks would experience many changes.
Mike Kemp departed after recording two more seasons under 0.500. Many administrators and fans began to demand more success for their loyalty. The Mavericks did not deliver after the almost-banner year of 2006. Most looked and saw empty rafters instead of two deep runs into the CCHA Tournament and a berth in the national tournament in less than a decade. It became apparent that UNO fans, including perhaps the Red Army, demanded success from their beloved program.
The Athletics Department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha did what any new or rebuilding program does to show its intentions and ignite passions. It made a big-name hire. The coach it would hire had won two national championships in ten years at North Dakota. Such was the type of result that UNO demanded. UNO hired Dean Blais, former head coach of the Fighting Sioux, to replace Mike Kemp before the 2009-10 season. Blais had seen stints as coach and recruiter for the Columbus Blue Jackets and the USHL's Fargo Force. It was the allure of building a winning program with passionate support that drew him to the UNO program.
Dean Blais played at Minnesota. He coached at North Dakota. It was apparent that it would not be long before UNO called the WCHA home. The implosion of the CHA in 2010 hastened that process. The WCHA officials yearned for UNO's impressive attendance figures and wanted to add teams to its Conference in pairs, Bemidji State would join with UNO.
The choice of Dean Blais indicates several things about Nebraska-Omaha's desires. Programs choose, actively or subconsciously, to value either regular-season or playoff titles more. Programs like Cornell and North Dakota generally value playoff titles. Programs like Clarkson and Minnesota value regular-season titles. Blais led North Dakota in a manner more similar to the latter. While head coach at North Dakota, the Fighting Sioux won five MacNaughton Cups, two Broadmoor Cups, and two national championships. Half of the seasons Blais was at North Dakota, he brought them a regular-season trophy.
One can assume Nebraska-Omaha made its choice with those goals, as well as national championships, in mind. The Mavericks played three seasons in the WCHA. They never advanced out of the first round of the WCHA Tournament. Bemidji State swept them at home in 2011, St Cloud State swept them at National Hockey Center in 2012, and Minnesota State defeated them in three games in 2013. Shockingly, the 2013 WCHA Tournament marked the first time that UNO had won a playoff game since joining the WCHA.
The recent modus operandi for the Mavericks has been to charge out to a strong start to the season then collapse in the second half. The 2011-12 season experienced UNO's accumulating nine wins before the end of December. Only five wins would be added to that total in the second half of that season. Last year, during the 2012-13 season, it appeared at one point that UNO may even threaten for the final MacNaughton Cup. The Mavericks racked up 11 wins in the first half of the season. They would add a respectable sevens wins over that span, including one playoff victory, but it was apparent that the trend of beginning the season far better than it ended it still plagued the Mavericks.
Despite what some Mavericks fans perceive as Dean Blais's underperforming, he did lead UNO back to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. The Mavericks triumphantly forced the eventual national runners-up to overtime. In a game that is very much alive in the memory of UNO fans, Michigan won the game in the first overtime. The game is not without its controversy to UNO fans, especially considering it came at the hands of much-loathed, once-intraleague foes, the Wolverines.
It is not hard to see why many in the college-hockey world love Nebraska-Omaha even if they have not ventured to the CenturyLink Center. UNO represents great exposure of the great game of college hockey to an audience that may not have experienced it otherwise. An audience that clearly loves it. Nebraska-Omaha games averaged an attendance of 7,697 over the last three years. The Mavericks may not fill their building to 99.0% capacity like Cornell does Lynah Rink on average, but they consistently draw crowds that rank among the top-five largest in college hockey. If that is not an element of tradition, then what is?
Furthermore, who cannot appreciate a program that manifests an unquenchable hunger for success that will catapult them to the elite level with the humility to acknowledge that it is not yet on that plane? UNO is proud of its program, but not prematurely boastful. The Mavericks and their fans know that they have a good program, but they realize that it cannot have the attitudes of historic and established programs like Boston University, Cornell, Minnesota, North Dakota, or Wisconsin.
The sign that hangs above the entrance to the ice from the Mavericks's locker room at CenturyLink Center reads "our relentless battle to the top begins here. Step forth and believe." This writer has seen no better capturing of the passion and humility of a new program that someday will be regarded as elite. It is refreshing, if not moving.
The Mavericks, their coaches, and their fans show great appreciation for history. In the build-up to this first series between Cornell and Nebraska-Omaha, Mavericks fans have regarded Cornell and its history in the most respectful, if not reverential, terms. Furthermore, they are very aware that Cornell is one of four programs that they have not played. The other three being Penn State, Robert Morris, and RPI. Cornell has played a slightly narrower swath of the college-hockey landscape as the Big Red after this series still will not have played Alaska-Anchorage, Bentley, Connecticut, and Holy Cross. The excited anticipation of UNO's fans captures their appreciation for college-hockey history and diversity.
The programs at Cornell and Nebraska-Omaha have few parallels at first gloss. Cornell sponsored a hockey program nearly ten years before Omaha University opened. Cornell's two NCAA national championships in hockey bookend Omaha University's merger with the University of Nebraska in 1968. Cornell won nine Whitelaw Cups before the University of Nebraska at Omaha began to entertain the prospect of creating a varsity hockey program. Dean Blais won a national championship for North Dakota the season before the first Mavericks laced up their skates.
The paths of the two programs unknowingly crossed even before UNO created its team. Blais and his Fighting Sioux squared off against Mike Schafer and Cornell in the 1997 NCAA West Regional Final in that season. The two coaches would compete at the same venue nearly nine months to the day later in a mid-season tournament. Since that time, the paths of the two programs have not overlapped. Cornell won three Whitelaw Cups since then, earned a berth in the Frozen Four, and appeared in seven NCAA tournaments. UNO got excruciatingly close to a Mason Cup once and earned two berths to the NCAA tournament. The two paths seems disparate, but UNO has laid a great foundation.
It took Cornell ten years to win a national championship from when it reinstituted its program in 1957 after disbanding it. Nebraska-Omaha has existed for just six years longer than that in an era when it is arguably harder for programs to establish themselves. UNO hockey has a proud tradition. It is a developing one. It has established rivalries. It includes devout adherents of the hockey program. The Mavericks are battling to make it a winning tradition.
Nebraska-Omaha plans to move into a new 7,000-seat, on-campus facility by the beginning of the 2015-16 or 2016-17 seasons. If the trajectory of the Mavericks continues, they may be semi-regular contenders for the Penrose Cup by the time they face off at their new building. It is likely that in the not-too-distant future that college-hockey fans will not remember a time when UNO was not consistently nationally relevant.
There is little doubt that this season, the first of the NCHC, is pivotal in determining whether the Mavericks will continue to ascend or will remain stalled in a place of mere respectability. Most in college hockey can agree that UNO and its loyal fans deserve success. Can it really be denied? However, the Lynah Faithful and Cornell hope that Nebraska-Omaha's eventual climb to the top of the college-hockey heap does not come at the expense of emerging victorious when it battles Cornell. Let's celebrate the first meeting of two great, albeit historically different, programs while waiting for the day when college hockey's second-youngest member joins Cornell as an established winning program.