So, you really miss the NHL, huh?
Altogether now: You mean they aren't playing?
Dean Blais misses it. He would. Blais is a hockey guy, from his head to his skates. Grew up on the ice. Coached in the NHL. Watches it. Lives it.
Like most hockey heads, the University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey coach thinks the NHL's stalemate/lockout is blowing what's left of the sport's low profile in this country.
“This is hurting hockey right now,” Blais said. “We're not baseball, basketball or football. We're below that. We might be below NASCAR.
“To lock out, and not give people an opportunity to watch and follow the sport, it's hurting everyone. It hurts the people that are working, the scouts, the players, the coaches. Does it really help in the long term? We'll see.”
But the mess at the top could turn into a blessing down below. Like at UNO.
NHL owners are in the mood to decrease the players' guaranteed cut of hockey revenues, introduce term limits on contracts, change free agency. The players want to keep what they have, and maybe get some first-class plane tickets out of the deal.
The fight that nobody is paying attention to boils down to this: Unless you're a proven veteran or star, players shouldn't expect windfalls of cash. Not for a sport that is barely on TV. I think.
It also means that for the young guns coming up, bonus money and long-term lucrative deals will not be plentiful.
Which is where Blais comes in.
UNO has won four straight, is 6-3-1 and entered the rankings this week. Goalie John Faulkner is hot again, while Dominic Zombo and Josh Archibald are among the various players who have stepped up.
The Mavericks are in second place in the WCHA, where you would expect Blais to have them.
But his fourth UNO team was picked to finish eighth this season. A bit of a letdown? Maybe. But he lost three scorers to the NHL in the offseason.
If those three stay, this is a completely different Maverick conversation. But that's the route he's chosen: Recruit big and hope they stay.
“That's a luxury of getting good kids,” Blais said. “You develop 'em, you lose 'em. Then you just go and get more good kids.”
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Blais lost two of his top three scorers last season, Terry Broadhurst and Jayson Megna, to the NHL. It's most every player's dream to lace up NHL skates. Consider, too, that Megna signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh that would pay him $925,000 if he makes the big club.
But nobody's playing for the big club so far this season. That's why Blais advised Broadhurst and Megna to return to UNO. Yes, it would benefit the Mavs. But with the lockout looming, why go?
“To sign on a lockout year, I think, was a mistake,” Blais said. “Right now, the players are at the advice of myself, their family adviser (agent) and their parents as to what a degree means and whether to sign a contract.
“The family adviser will suggest that they go because he makes a commission from it. They aren't always looking out for (the player's) best interests. My feeling is, if it's right, they should go. But I hate to lose them if it's the wrong situation and this was the wrong situation.”
It can be a good problem to have. Blais has eight players on his roster who were drafted by the NHL, the most ever on a Mav squad. That doesn't include junior Andrej Sustr, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound defenseman who is blossoming into an NHL prospect.
At least that's what one of the 30 NHL general managers or scouts who attended Sunday's game told Blais. That's right: 30 GMs or scouts were at one UNO game. You may lose some kids every year, but attracting that kind of crowd makes it easy to recruit, too.
But if the financial rules of pro hockey change, maybe the line to leave early for the NHL isn't quite as long.
“With the lockout, how much are they going to pay those entry players?” Blais said. “They took care of the guys who have been there five to 10 years. The average lifespan in the NHL is five years. So the guys who are the stars are going to look out for themselves, so the guys coming in aren't being rewarded with signing bonuses and big contracts.
“So for a kid to leave, what are you leaving for?”
Admittedly, Blais is biased. But as a longtime college and amateur-level coach who dabbled in the NHL, he's seen enough kids jump and get lost.
“You start to get that paycheck and you start feeling the pressure,” Blais said. “You have two or three bad games, then it's down to the next league. Here, we try to coach you back up. They do, too, they don't just dump you. But it's hard to make it. You're playing against guys whose paycheck is just as important as yours.
“They need to realize this is the time of their life. They're going to school, playing hockey, growing and developing here. And they're getting that college degree.”
It's a good sales pitch. The two-time national champion coach can sell dreams, too. Blais has talked about bringing a national title to UNO. In year four, that's still a tad lofty.
The Mavs made the NCAA tournament in Blais' second year, losing to Michigan in the first round, then finished seventh in the WCHA last year. Where is UNO hockey? Blais is stockpiling talent, trying to keep it together for a deep run.
“Are we there yet? No,” Blais said. “Two years ago, Michigan beat us on an illegal goal and they made it to the (NCAA) championship game and lost in overtime. That could have been the Omaha Mavericks. That's how fast we can get there.”
But in a sport where upperclassmen thrive, where teams grow into championships, the NHL can provide detours. Sometimes, you have to get lucky.
“It changes when, after awhile, they stay together,” Blais said. “There are several guys as juniors who say, let's really go after it our senior year. We can always sign after. The money's always going to be there.”
What if there's less money available? That could mean more hockey for UNO.
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