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.
“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.”