Hockey season, which stretches from nearly the beginning of the fall semester to spring break or beyond, is a long grind.
And, after two seasons of seeing his team fizzle at the finish, University of Nebraska at Omaha coach Dean Blais decided this offseason to dial down the team’s summer conditioning program.
“Hopefully it will help us at the tail end (of the season),” Blais said. “It’s tough when they stay here all summer. It’s a long year anyway … so we shortened it up.”
Blais and his players met with the media Friday at the CenturyLink Center, three days before the team’s exhibition game with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and a week before the season opener with Bentley.
The Mavericks didn’t take the summer off, but they did head home a bit more than in previous seasons. UNO players were required to be in town only from July 9 through Aug. 9.
“I think over the summers we were getting a little gassed,” said senior defenseman Michael Young, UNO’s captain. “This year, guys got to go home and relax, do their own thing, wind down, then come back and jell together like we normally do. We’re a good family right now.”
Last year, after positioning themselves for a possible run at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season title, the Mavs went 3-9 after Feb. 1 — including losses in their final four regular-season games. After squandering home ice for the playoffs, UNO lost two of three at Minnesota State-Mankato to end the season.
That finish mirrored 2011-12, when the Mavs lost their final six games. The first four losses cost them home ice for the playoffs, and they were swept on the road in the playoffs by St. Cloud State.
So UNO tried something else.
“Everyone still put in the work, but everyone was able to go home for a little bit,” junior forward Dominic Zombo said. “At the end of the year, guys get a little tired — so this helps. It’s a long year, and the last thing you want at the end of the year is to be thinking about how you want to go home. I like it. Guys are fresh. Guys want to be here. We’ve got the drive to get going. We’ve got that edge to get on the ice.”
The Mavs started well the past two seasons. Last year, they started 10-4-1 overall and 6-2-1 in the WCHA before settling for 19-18-2. And despite finishing 14-18-6 in 2011-12, UNO was 9-6-3 to start the season.
Could difficult summer workouts have taken their toll in February? There’s no way to tell.
“It could be — among other things,” senior forward Johnnie Searfoss said.
In addition to spending more time at home, the players also did more hockey-specific workouts than in previous summers.
“I think we did better in our testing than we have in the past,” Young said. “Guys are fit. Guys are healthy — other than a few bumps and bruises. I think it was a great offseason.”
While UNO is hoping for a strong finish in the first season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, it wouldn’t mind another good start, too.
After the Bentley series, the Mavs play a two-game series at Northern Michigan, return home for two with Cornell, then play at Denver — where UNO has rarely played well. After that comes a six-game homestand with North Dakota, Michigan and Miami (Ohio) that could tell a lot about the team.
“The last two years haven’t worked out for us,” said Zombo, an assistant captain. “We didn’t finish strong. So let’s try something new and see how it goes. I like the way it looks so far.”
Before looking at the big picture, though, UNO is focusing on the smaller stuff.
“So far, I haven’t seen a whole lot of pulled groins or hamstrings or other muscles,” Blais said. “So that tells me our off-ice (program) is successful.”