No more Blais as new Omaha coach comes to Grand Forks
GRAND FORKS — Dean Blais won’t be cracking jokes at today’s University of North Dakota fan luncheon.
He won’t be standing behind either bench.
He won’t be delivering an entertaining analysis to the media after the game.
After a long, decorated college hockey career as a head coach at both UND and Nebraska Omaha, Blais retired at the end of last season.
And with that, one of the most recognizable coaches in the country gave way to one of the most unknown coaches in the country.
Mike Gabinet, the youngest Division I college hockey coach in the country, will be behind Omaha’s bench when the teams begin their two-game series at 7:37 p.m. Friday night, Jan. 5, in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
It will be the first-ever meeting between the teams where Blais is not Omaha’s head coach, though he may be in the building as a fan.
Gabinet, 36, is not an unknown to Omaha.
He played defense for the program from 2000-04, serving as captain as a senior.
He started his coaching career at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where in 2014, he brought his team to Omaha and beat the Mavericks 4-0. Omaha went to the NCAA Frozen Four that season.
Gabinet returned to campus last season to be an associate coach under Blais.
“It’s been good,” Gabinet said after his team’s skate Thursday night in The Ralph. “A little bit of a whirlwind in the summer, hiring a new staff and getting everything organized for the season. It’s been busy, but it’s been great, too. We’ve had a lot of support from the athletic department.”
At 6-foot-3, Gabinet towers over many of his players and seems comfortable in his role of following Mike Kemp and Blais at the helm of the athletic department’s marquee program.
“Mike Kemp and Dean Blais are two guys who really helped the program get to where it is today,” Gabinet said. “I’m looking to continue that growth and build off of what they’ve established.”
Omaha enters this weekend at 9-8-1 overall, coming off of a two-game sweep of Union.
The Mavericks have been one of the country’s best offensive teams, led by a veteran group of forwards. Omaha is the only team in the nation that doesn’t have a goal from a freshman.
Defensively, however, the Mavericks have been porous, allowing a National Collegiate Hockey Conference-worst 3.78 goals per game.
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year, I probably would have said our goal scoring will be down and our defense would be up a little bit,” Gabinet said. “But that’s how it goes sometimes. That’s how it goes with the ebbs and flows of the season with players and personnel of your team. As a coach, you have to make sure you’re constantly evaluating, constantly looking at ways to get better.”
UND coach Brad Berry said there have only been minor changes in the way the team plays under Gabinet.
“They play fast and they are hard and tenacious,” Berry said. “And that’s reminiscent of the way Dean’s teams played. Those are most of Dean’s recruit. Mike Gabinet has added a couple of tweaks in the systems that we’ve seen in the pre-scout. But generally, it’s pretty consistent of what we saw in Omaha teams — and that’s a team that competes at a high level and they execute and finish plays.”
For the first time since the season’s opening weekend, UND is expected to have a full roster of players available to play.
That means Dixon Bowen, who has been out since Nov. 17, should return to the lineup. Bowen was injured blocking a shot with his foot against the University of Denver.
Bowen should be of big help on the penalty kill.
Prior to Bowen’s injury, UND had successfully killed 92.3 percent of opponent power plays (48 of 52). Since, UND is at 78.8 percent (26 of 33).
“We’ll have everyone available, so now it’s all about making those decisions for the lineup for Friday night,” Berry said.