Elliott Olshansky, NCAA.com
When Dean Blais got on the bus Thursday morning in Omaha, it would take about eight hours for him to return to Grand Forks, N.D. for the first time as a college head coach.
In reality, though, the journey has taken nearly seven years.
When the puck drops on Friday night at Ralph Engelstad Arena between North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha, it will be his first time coaching a college game in Grand Forks since March 13, 2004, when his North Dakota team beat Michigan Tech, 4-3, in overtime to clinch a first-round WCHA playoff series. It was the last home game of a tenure that saw Blais guide the Fighting Sioux to a 262-115-33 record over 10 seasons, with five McNaughton Cups as WCHA regular-season champions, two Broadmoor Trophies as WCHA playoff champion, and the 1997 and 2000 NCAA Championships placed in the trophy case on his watch.
When the following season began, Dave Hakstol – an assistant under Blais for four years – was the head coach of the Sioux, and Blais was working in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I felt after 10 years at North Dakota as head coach, nine as assistant coach – 19 years at one school was enough,” Blais told UNO’s student paper, The Gateway.
He became associate head coach of the Blue Jackets under Gerrard Gallant in 2005-06, but moved to player development the following season, finally leaving the NHL to coach an expansion team in the United States Hockey League, returning to North Dakota as the coach and general manager of the Fargo Force.
“I wanted to try the NHL,” Blais told The Gateway. “After three years of being there I thought, ‘eh, not for me.’”
Blais guided the Force to a 32-23 record in its first season in 2008-09, coaching a roster that included several current college players, including Alaska’s Andy Taranto (2010 CCHA Rookie of the Year), Minnesota’s Nathan Condon and St. Cloud goaltender Mike Lee.
Then, in June, he returned to college hockey, becoming just the second coach in the history of the UNO program.
At the time, UNO athletic director Trev Alberts said he was “excited to have someone with his talent and experience leading our hockey program into a new era,” and Blais justified that excitement by taking a team coming off back-to-back losing seasons and guiding it to only the fourth winning season in UNO history.
Now, the Mavericks are in the WCHA, hold the No. 16 ranking in the most recent poll , and enter this weekend’s series sitting fourth in the conference standings. They’re in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth – the second in team history – and are one of only five teams to beat conference leader North Dakota this season. Goaltender John Faulkner stopped 30 shots on November 20 to backstop the Maveircks to a 1-0 win, one night after North Dakota edged UNO in a 6-5 win at the Qwest Center.
Still, the Mavericks are 3-6-1 since that game, while the No. 2 Sioux have lost just one game since.
“We’re not playing with the same confidence we were a month and a half ago,” Blais told the Omaha World-Herald. “We’re not scoring the goals we were, we’re not executing on rushes like we were, and we’re not going to the net the way we were.”
It’s hardly the best time for a trip right into the home of the No. 2 team in the country, especially when that team is surrounded my one of the most intense home-game atmospheres in college hockey. On the other hand, Blais suggested, the big-time atmosphere created by nearly 12,000 fans could inspire the Mavericks to take their game to another level.
“It is a very intimidating place to play,” Blais told the World-Herald. “But on the other side of the coin, it’s just such a great atmosphere for hockey. And a lot of times, that can bring out the best in the visiting team, too.”
Blais has been back to Engelstad once since taking the reins of the Mavericks, as head coach of the U.S. Junior National Team that played North Dakota in an exhibition before winning gold at the 2010 World Junior Championship. On that occasion, he received a warm welcome, but he’s not expecting the same this weekend.
“Right now I’m the enemy and that’s the way most of their fans will look at it,” Blais told the Gateway. “They won’t forget what I accomplished there in those years, but it’s different now.”
Of course, a crowd that isn’t use to seeing North Dakota lose – and didn’t like seeing rival Minnesota hang a loss on the Sioux last Friday night – won’t thank Blais if his team can down the Sioux again this weekend.
Then again, maybe after all those trophies he helped them bring home, he can be forgiven.