Sports

Omaha goes all in, and it’s paying off in Frozen Four

In this April 3, 2015 photo, Omaha's NCAA college hockey coach Dean Blais calls a drill during practice in Omaha, Neb. Blais is in his fourth NCAA Frozen Four, this time with a young Nebraska-Omaha team that’s making its first appearance in the program’s 18-year history. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Coach Dean Blais has led Nebraska-Omaha to the first Frozen Four in the program’s 18-year history. Blais has been here three times before, though, winning national titles with North Dakota in 1997 and 2000.

In the spring of 1996, Mike Kemp walked into his office at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for the first day of his new job as coach of the men’s hockey team and looked around. There was a desk and a telephone, and nothing more.

Kemp had no assistants. He had no equipment, no uniforms. He had no players!

But he had the support of the university and the community as the school began a journey to make hockey its signature sport.

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In the next 16 months, Kemp and his top assistant David Quinn (now head coach at Boston University) assembled a team and the Mavericks began their first season as a Division 1 independent.

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Eighteen years later, Omaha is making its first trip to the Frozen Four after the third-place finisher in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference claimed the Midwest Regional with victories over Harvard and RIT.

In two previous trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Mavericks had not won a game. Moreover, Omaha never has won a regular-season conference title or league playoff championship. Now it’s one of the top four teams in the nation; third-seeded Omaha (20-12-6) takes on No. 4 seed Providence (24-13-2) in the Frozen Four semifinals at TD Garden on Thursday at 5 p.m.

Kemp was there at the beginning. Now the associate athletic director at Omaha, he was first hired to coach a club hockey team in 1975, but the anticipated move to varsity status failed and Kemp left Omaha for a 20-year career as an assistant at Gustavus Adolphus and Wisconsin. In 1995, when the school was ready to start again with Division 1 hockey, it brought back Kemp to coach the team. This time, the Mavericks were all in.

The university wanted a marquee sport to boost the school’s profile and bring in revenue. The leadership envisioned hockey having the kind of status at Omaha enjoyed by football at Nebraska and basketball at Creighton.

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It was not a hard sell. Omaha, which hosted minor league hockey from 1939-75 and which has had a popular junior hockey team (the USHL’s Lancers) since 1986, was already a hockey town.

As Kemp tells the story, a 1939 roof collapse in Duluth was the start of Omaha hockey. When the roof fell in on the Duluth Amphitheater, the local semi-pro hockey team needed to find a new home and Omaha was the closest town with an available rink. Omaha adopted hockey.

“Hockey has been part of the fabric of the city since 1939,’’ said Kemp.

After the Duluth team, minor league professional hockey was always present in Omaha, said Kemp, with farm teams from numerous NHL organizations, including the Canadiens, Rangers, and Flames. Gordie Howe played his only minor league professional hockey with the Omaha Knights in 1945-46.

“In 1975, minor league hockey went away and it left a void,’‘ said Kemp. “Then the USHL came in with the Lancers, a junior team, and it really caught fire and became a big-time program in the community.’’

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So when the school created its Division 1 hockey program, it looked to the community for help. Chancellor Del Weber and athletic director Don Leahy put together a committee of more than 20 enthusiastic local businessmen who helped fund the team as it found its legs, greased the skids politically to get an ice sheet installed at the Civic Auditorium, and, were counted on, Kemp said, “to be the business minds to figure out if it was a good investment for the university. The result just kind of speaks for itself.”

In the spring of 1996, before there was a team, the season ticket allotment of 6,389 was sold out in two weeks. The Mavericks spent six years at the Civic Auditorium, selling out 131 consecutive games at the 8,314-seat arena.

“It was an incredible opportunity to be a part of something from the ground up,’’ BU’s Quinn said last week. “It’s a unique experience.”

In 2003, Omaha moved to the CenturyLink Center Omaha. While the larger facility was modern, it was not as cozy as the Civic Auditorium and attendance dropped. Furthermore, the university was losing money on its rental agreement. Omaha hopes to solve both problems this fall when a new on-campus, university-owned, 7,500-seat arena will open.

Building up hockey meant changes for the rest of the Omaha athletic program. Five women’s sports were added to meet Title IX balance requirements. Then in 2011, Omaha announced the reclassification of all its sports to Division 1 (and the Summit League), and dropped its football and seven-time Division 2 national champion wrestling programs while adding men’s soccer and golf. For hockey, the pressure was on.

In 2009, the Mavericks made another bold move, bringing in renowned coach Dean Blais. Blais was a two-time national championship winner (1997, 2000) during his 10 years at North Dakota, a Midwestern team with the kind of powerhouse program Omaha coveted.

Blais, who later spent time with the NHL’s Blue Jackets and the Fargo team in the USHL before returning to college hockey, led Omaha to a 20-16-6 record in his first year. In 2011, the Mavericks earned their second trip to the NCAA Tournament, falling to Michigan in the first round.

Now Blais has taken a young Mavericks team all the way to the Frozen Four.

“Without winning, you can advertise, promote, do whatever you want in a community, and not much happens,’’ said Blais. “But when you start winning . . . we’ve gotten unbelievable media attention this last month. It’s kind of like we’ve arrived.’’

It is just as it was imagined in 1995; in Nebraska, Omaha means hockey.

Barbara Matson can be reached at barbara.matson@globe.com