The 1949-50 Omaha University hockey team.
Courtesy: Omaha Athletics

The Omaha Hockey Story

Omaha Athletics | August 25, 2015
The road that brought NCAA Division I hockey to the University of Nebraska Omaha was a long and winding trail that actually began as early as the late 1940s when club hockey was first introduced.

Coached by Omaha Knight play-by-play broadcaster Jack Sandler and later by former Omaha Knight Fred Gibbons, the Omaha University club team competed in the Omaha Amateur Hockey League for two seasons and even toured in Colorado, losing twice to Colorado College in 1948. But the program faded away after four years without becoming a varsity sport.

Club hockey was reborn at UNO in 1974 when then-athletic director Don Leahy hired a young, former college defenseman from Gustavus Adolphus to direct the program with hopes that it could grow to varsity status.

After two years, the club team was dropped because of the inability to fund a Division I program at the time.

The young coach turned to his alma mater to continue his coaching career, eventually landing at Wisconsin, where he established himself as one of the top assistants in college hockey.

In June of 1995, several key people began discussions which would lead to the start of a hockey program. In August, Leahy returned as athletic director after a 10-year absence. His charge included starting hockey.

Leahy assembled a broad, influential and energetic committee of Omahans dedicated to one purpose: laying the solid foundation for college hockey. The board was chaired by Richard Jaros, president of Kiewit Diversified Group Inc., and included Dr. Rick Bruneteau, whose father, Ed, was a member of the Omaha Knights in 1939.

The mission was accomplished when, on May 1, 1996, UNO announced that it would field a team for 1997-98.

Fans gobbled up season ticket reservations for the first season and by May 16, sales were cut off at 6,389.

Also in May, the Omaha City Council, swayed by the outpouring of support for Maverick Hockey, voted to install ice in the Omaha Civic Auditorium, giving the Mavs an 8,200-seat home that was one of the largest in college hockey.

Re-enter the coach who had directed the club hockey program at UNO in 1975-76: Mike Kemp, who was a 14-year assistant coach at Wisconsin.

On June 27, Leahy re-hired Kemp, who won over the selection committee with his enthusiasm, intensity, background and sincerity.

A month later, Kemp hired his top assistant, David Quinn, a former NHL first-round draft choice and the top recruiter at Northeastern University.

The addition of Division I hockey to UNO’s then-Division II athletic program was accompanied by other changes. Women’s swimming and diving was added, beginning competition in the fall of 1997. Women’s soccer began play two years later, and women’s tennis and golf were eventually added in 2000. When UNO joined the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association in 2008, men’s tennis also was added, bringing UNO’s total compliment of teams to 15 (nine for women and six for men).

It was not long before hockey was not the only Division I sport at UNO. In March of 2011, UNO announced and later won approval from the Nebraska Board of Regents to reclassify to Division I in all sports and accept an invitation to join The Summit League. As part of the reclassification, UNO eliminated football and wrestling and added men’s golf and men’s soccer. The future of UNO athletics is now focused on improving training and competition facilities and taking steps to further strengthen its academic success programs for all student-athletes.

The Mavericks’ first hockey season took Omaha and college hockey by storm. Opening night, Oct. 17, 1997, was a media event of unparalleled proportions in Omaha with the first of 19 consecutive sellout crowds of 8,314 on hand at the Civic Auditorium. A 30-minute pregame ceremony honored the city’s hockey roots and those who had helped lay the foundation of the program from club hockey to the present day.

The final night of the season was almost as eventful as more than 1,500 fans took the ice to get autographs of the Mavericks following the final game of UNO’s 12-18-3 inaugural season. The Mavs ranked second in the nation in total and average attendance and could count wins over established programs such as Denver, Massachusetts-Amherst and Maine.

In June of 1998, the school applied for and was granted admission to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and began playing a full conference schedule in 1999-2000. Following 11 seasons in the CCHA including a trip to the championship game in its first season, UNO ended its affiliation with the league and prepared for a move to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association beginning with the 2010-11 season.

In July of 2011, UNO made a move to further strengthen its place in college hockey by joining together with five other like-minded schools to form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Several months later, UNO and the five others schools -- Colorado College, Denver, Miami, Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota -- agreed to admit St. Cloud State and Western Michigan. The eight schools began conference play in 2013-14.

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