The largest crowd in Omaha history to see a hockey game will converge on the home of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, NE this Saturday in the Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice.
An estimated 20,000-25,000 fans will be in attendance to see first the Omaha Lancers of the USHL host bitter in-state rivals Lincoln Stars. Following that game, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks play host to budding rival North Dakota.
The Build Up
Preparations for the game have been going on for a week now and crews are fighting cold, wind and snow to make this long-anticipated and historic event happen for the city.
The Omaha Sports Commission, in conjunction the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority announced the event nearly a year ago.
“Outdoor hockey games have become extremely popular in cities around the country and we think games featuring UNO, the Omaha Lancers and their rivals will be a big hit in Omaha,” Omaha Sports Commission President Harold Cliff said in the release.
UNO Athletics Director Trev Alberts echoed those thoughts, saying “This will be a tremendous event both for our long-time fans and folks who may be relatively new to college hockey. As we attempt to grow our flagship sport, a game like this will showcase all that UNO hockey has going for it – a supportive community, great facilities, outstanding opponents and national exposure.”
Despite the adversity of Mother Nature, all seems to be going smoothly.
The Birth of a True Rival
A game like this on this stage can serve as a catalyst to a true rivalry, which the Maverick hockey program has sought for many years. The Yankees need the Red Sox, Michigan needs Ohio State, the Sharks need the Jets.
The Mavericks have had bitterness with various teams throughout their history. Of course we always got a kick out of Weasel Week against Michigan, which boiled over when they beat UNO in the NCAA’s in 2011, but we were never their rival. And there was always Bowling Green, the victim of “Tuesday Night”, but they were more whipping boy than rival as the Mavs went 13-2-1 in the last games played against the Tootsie Rolls.
Now we have North Dakota and the stars are aligning for this to be a long time, respectful rivalry. First thing is that we stole their coach. After spending 10 years at the helm in Grand Forks, winning national championships in 1997 and 2000, Dean Blais spent a few years in various jobs in the NHL and USHL before being coaxed by Alberts to come coach the Mavericks in 2009. Blais is 71-60-16 in 3-plus seasons in Omaha.
Despite the geographical relativity, the two teams never once played, in 13 seasons, until UNO joined the WCHA in 2010-2011. Since then the teams are deadlocked, going 3-3 against each other. The rivalry started in epic fashion in Omaha. In the opener, despite UNO taking a 2-0 lead, North Dakota won 6-5 in front of over 11,000 fans at the Century Link Center (back then it was the Qwest Center).
The following night grew the legacy of the rivalry, in what is one of the most talked about games in UNO lore. Alex Hudson scored the game’s only goal with less than one second left to give the Mavericks the series split.
Since then, UNO put a whipping on the Sioux in Grand Forks later that season winning 8-4, but came away with another split as NoDak won 4-2 the next night.
But the two teams haven’t played since last season’s early series in Grand forks where UNO won an overtime thriller 2-1 before dropping the next night in another 1-0 game.
Its now been 26 months since the Mavericks and Sioux last met, and it all culminates this weekend. The teams are not only fighting for position at the top of the WCHA, home ice in the conference playoffs, but this weekend also has major implications for the NCAA tournament. The prognosticators currently have the Sioux in and the Mavericks out of the 16-team field. The weekend will also feature Ryan Walters, Maverick forward who leads the nation in scoring (16 G, 24 A, 40 Pts.) and is up for the Hobey Baker award.
The Mavericks are in second place currently in the WCHA, North Dakota is third, just two points back, with four points on the line this weekend.
This is going to be the most important weekend of the season for both of these teams and with a stage like the one they are on, national exposure, in front of the biggest crowd either team has played against, this is the culmination of a beautiful relationship.
Add to all of this in the fact that this annual clash has a future. Despite all the re-shuffling of conferences next year, both Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota will join the newly forming National Collegiate Hockey Conference starting next season.
With both teams assuming to be toward the upper echelon of the game for the foreseeable future and the historic and geographic ties, this weekend should illuminate fans to the future of a true ice-cold rivalry.
Additional Treats for the Outdoor game
On top of all the above pageantry, reports have leaked that Jim Cornelison, national anthem singer for the Chicago Blackhawks since 1996 will be in the house to show his pipes.
If you need anymore motivation, here’s an old school UNO Hockey pump-up video.
Follow @mavpuck, @Omavs, @UNDMhockey or @bbrashaw this weekend on Twitter if you can’t be there. #UNoDak #BattleOnIce #OMavsHockey