Blackhawks prospects part of emerging Nebraska-Omaha hockey program

Blackhawks prospects part of emerging Nebraska-Omaha hockey program

When you think of college hockey programs, a few readily come to mind. North Dakota, the University of Minnesota and Boston University are among them.

And then there’s the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Wait, where?

“That’s what a lot of people say, but you’d be surprised,” said Omaha junior-to-be Jake Randolph, who was invited to the Blackhawks’ prospect camp this week. “Hockey’s been big in Omaha lately. We just got a new arena last year, and that took off, bringing all ages into hockey. It’s pretty cool what’s going on in Omaha.”

No, it doesn’t leap off the college hockey page like some of the others. But for Omaha players Randolph, Luc Snuggerud and Fredrik Olofsson, UNO is where they’ve been cutting their college hockey chops, and the school has gotten a taste of the national stage.

The Mavericks made their first NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2015, losing to Providence, the eventual title winner, in the semifinals. While Omaha struggled last season, players still feel the program, which began in the late 1990s, is headed in the right direction.

So what made these guys choose Omaha?

“I wanted to be a part of a hockey team that was up and coming, and I knew if I went there I would have a big role right away. That was a big part of it,” Snuggerud said on Monday. “We have a good group of guys down there; we work hard. We’re more blue-collar than white-collar guys. I kind of like that mentality, just working hard every day and getting better.”

Olofsson said the team is drawing interest and big crowds. The Mavericks started playing at their new home, Baxter Arena, prior to last season, and coach Dean Blais said the team is fourth in the country in attendance behind Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

“It’s getting pretty big out there,” Olofsson said. “When you think Nebraska-Omaha you don’t think too much hockey, but we’re on the rise. We’re looking to have a good team this next year and I’ll be going into my sophomore season, so it’ll be fun.”

Speaking of coaches, the Mavericks have a great one in Blais, who coached the University of North Dakota to titles in 1997 and 2000.

“We want to win championships like we did in North Dakota. There’s a way to do that. Omaha’s a good sized town. We’re in a good drawing area, but the staff and the commitment to the players help us get better,” Blais said. “A lot want to get drafted and get better. We want to make sure they get their education first and then develop hockey skills.”

The Blackhawks prospects, including Snuggerud, have done that. Snuggerud, who the Blackhawks selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, said he’s improved his defense over his past two seasons in Omaha. Blais concurred.

“Luc’s a lot like Duncan Keith. Obviously Keith’s in a league by himself, but (Luc) likes to get the puck in,” Blais said. “He’s a good passer, but he’s getting more confident in the offensive zone. He didn’t do that much his first year. He needed more time to get stronger, more confident, and he’s developed that. He’ll have a heck of a year with us. He’ll get a chance to put that Blackhawks jersey on in the next couple of years.”

Omaha had a tough 2015-16 — the Mavericks started off well but faltered in the second half, finishing 18-17-1. But the team still likes the direction in which it’s going and is looking to build off the success of their 2015 Frozen Four appearance. Blais said the Mavericks return 20 players for the 2016-17 season. The University of Nebraska-Omaha doesn’t have a long hockey tradition, but it’s starting to make its mark.

“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. We usually have a pretty young team, so it’ll be a good year. We have a good goalie coming in and some young players just picked up,” Snuggerud said. “We’re going to have a lot of talent, so hopefully it’ll all come together.”

Hawks Talk Podcast: Crawford's return, Saad's demotion and power play concerns


Hawks Talk Podcast: Crawford's return, Saad's demotion and power play concerns

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Charlie Roumeliotis and Slavko Bekovic provide their thoughts on the Blackhawks’ 3-0-2 start.

They also discuss Brandon Saad’s demotion and whether it could serve as a wake-up call, Corey Crawford’s potential return on Thursday vs. Arizona and what could happen with Anton Forsberg because of it, and address the power play concerns.

The guys wrap up the podcast by making a few bold predictions going forward.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!

10 years with 'Coach Q' anything but ordinary

10 years with 'Coach Q' anything but ordinary

Over the last 10 years, the words “ordinary” and "OK" have taken on a new meaning to Blackhawks players and fans alike. 

That’s “Coach Q” speak. 

A language where “ordinary” means awful and “just OK” means you were a non-factor. The good news is the last 10 seasons under Joel Quenneville have been anything but ordinary at the United Center. 

On Oct. 16th, 2008, the Blackhawks let go of fan-favorite Denis Savard after a 1-2-1 start to the season and named Quenneville as head coach in his place. Quenneville coached the Colorado Avalanche the previous season, but after another disappointing exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the two mutually parted ways. He had originally planned to stay away from the bench for at least a season, but the Blackhawks triumvirate of Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and then-GM Dale Tallon brought Quenneville on as a scout and then handed him the keys to the car shortly after.

“Dale’s obligation is to put together a winning team,” said McDonough at Quenneville’s introductory press conference. “At this point, Joel is the coach of that team.”

It was an emotional day at the Blackhawks offices. Savard – a Blackhawks legend on the ice and a coach the players held in high regard – was let go just as things started to turn upwards for the organization. The end of the 2007-2008 season saw the Blackhawks once again miss out on the playoffs, but the fans began to flock to the United Center once more, and the hype train around the young team built around Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane was gaining steam.

“Moving forward, if we want to be a championship-caliber organization, we have to make tough decisions,” said Tallon. “This was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.” 

Savard was 65-66-16 in parts of three seasons as head coach of the Blackhawks. Meanwhile, Quenneville had compiled eight 95+ point seasons behind the bench for the Blues and Avalanche in his 11 years as a head coach.

“We felt the experience and the track record of Joel would be a balance that we needed with a young, inexperienced team,” said Tallon. "Joel brings us a wealth of experience and a winning track record that will have an immediate and lasting impact."

The gamble paid off for the Blackhawks in a major way. Once Quenneville took over, the team got to the sought-after next level. 

They finished the 08-09 season with 104 points, third-most in the NHL’s Western Conference, had a franchise-record setting 9-game win streak in the month of December and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-2002 season. The “young and inexperienced” Blackhawks took the league by storm, dropping the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs in six games before taking down the rival Canucks in the next round.

They ultimately lost out to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals, but the bar was now set for the organization. From then on, the Blackhawks were Stanley Cup contenders. 

Quenneville currently ranks 2nd in franchise history with 449 wins, trailing only Billy Reay’s 516. 

But most importantly, Quenneville’s 76 playoff wins rank at the top in the organization’s long and storied history, and those three Stanley Cups that he’s raised over his head were anything but “ordinary.”