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Heath Hotzler, Published April 22 2009

Nebraska-Omaha provides blueprint for upstart Division I hockey success

Minnesota State University Moorhead’s bid for Division I hockey seems, at first glance, like a long shot.

MSUM has struggled for years to raise funds for its existing Division II programs, and the school faces up to $9.2 million in budget cuts.

It seems far fetched to believe that the Dragons could get men’s and women’s hockey off the ground.

And they could likely never sustain success, right?

“There is nothing easy about it,” University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s hockey coach Mike Kemp said. “It is a tremendous challenge. But it is certainly a doable thing.”

Kemp should know.

He helped build the Mavericks from scratch in a little over a year when Nebraska-Omaha announced the addition of D-I men’s hockey in 1996.

And it wasn’t as difficult as you might think.

Nebraska-Omaha’s athletics teams were lingering in the shadow of Creighton’s Division I men’s basketball team in the mid-1990s. Both are located in Omaha. The Mavericks also took a back seat to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s successful sports teams, including a national powerhouse football program.

But some in Omaha –located about 50 miles northeast of Lincoln with a population of more than 400,000 – felt UNO could make a name for itself by tapping into the city’s rabid hockey fan base.

Omaha has been home to professional and minor pro hockey teams throughout the years, beginning in the 1930s.

The Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League have been one of the city’s hottest tickets, routinely selling out a 6,000-seat arena. The Lancers had a waiting list for season tickets when Mavericks hockey arrived.

“The Lancers demonstrated there could be success at that level,” said Gary Anderson, who was the sports information director at UNO for 29 years before retiring in 2008. “It got people thinking what if (UNO added hockey)? It made it a much easier decision. It wasn’t such a leap of faith.”

Don Leahy was hired as Omaha’s athletic director in 1996. He was given three tasks by then-chancellor Del Weber: Renovate the fieldhouse, revitalize fundraising and start Division I hockey.

Leahy, who retired in 2005, formed a blue ribbon committee and hired an in-house agency to do a feasibility study. Former University of North Dakota hockey coach Gino Gasparini also provided valuable information and encouragement, Leahy said.

Weber said the study showed a Division I men’s hockey team needed to average 4,500 fans a game to break even.

The startup costs for a program – which included coaches’ salaries and equipment – were about $900,000 in 1996, Weber said.

MSUM president Edna Szymanski has said the school wants to raise $10 million before it considers starting men’s and women’s hockey.

Nebraska-Omaha had to close down season-ticket sales after just four days. The Mavericks sold 6,389 tickets during that span without a team, coach, schedule or an arena.

“That guaranteed the first year was successful before we ever had a recruit,” Leahy said.

Leahy said Nebraska-Omaha’s biggest obstacle was getting into the Civic Auditorium.

The Mavericks needed an arena of their own to make it work, Leahy said. If the team had to share ice with the Omaha Lancers, it could have been a struggle for premium scheduling dates and ice time.

The Omaha city council’s 4-3 decision to put ice into the Civic Auditorium got the team off and running.

“No. 1, you have to get community leaders’ support,” Leahy said. “You have to get the (university) administration to support it and, of course, get your athletic department behind it.

“You’ve got to get your ducks in a row before you even publicly announce anything.”

Weber said Title IX was a major obstacle. Nebraska-Omaha eventually added four women’s programs from 1997-2000: swimming and diving, soccer, tennis and golf.

However, the hockey program’s profits help pay for the operation of those programs, Kemp said.

MSUM has announced it would add women’s hockey to comply with Title IX.

The Mavericks hockey team has consistently been in the top 10 in the country in attendance the last 12 years. The team moved into the Qwest Center in 2003. The second-largest college hockey arena in the nation holds 16,000 fans.

After lengthy talks with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and two years as an independent, UNO joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 1999-2000.

“We were led to believe if we were patient we would get into (the WCHA),” Weber said. “That didn’t happen. We knew we had to have more assurance. … To me, that is the tie-breaker. You can operate maybe a couple of years (as an independent). But you have to have a conference.”

Minnesota State Moorhead has announced that it needs admission into the WCHA to move forward with Division I hockey.

The Dragons would play in the 5,000-seat Urban Plains Center in southwest Fargo.

“I’m a big believer in it,” said Kemp of starting a Division I hockey program. “You have to be in the right area. And Fargo-Moorhead is in the right area. There is a great hockey tradition there. I would have to believe there is much more of a hockey base there that would get behind it than in an area like Omaha.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.

Hotzler’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com