OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — In nearly four decades of coaching hockey, Dean Blais never had to make a game plan while taking the position of the sun into account.
That changed this week as he and his Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks prepare for Saturday’s outdoor game against North Dakota at TD Ameritrade Park.
The rink sits between what would be first and third bases at the baseball stadium where the College World Series is played each June. Partly cloudy skies are forecast, and the late-afternoon sun could be a factor in the first period for the team defending the goal on the northeast end.
“We’ll take the other end,” Blais said, smiling.
The home team wants any advantage it can get in what figures to be a key Western Collegiate Hockey Association game.
The Mavericks (16-10-2, 12-6-2), ranked Nos. 14 and 15 in the major polls, go into the last eight games of the regular season in second place, three points behind St. Cloud State. Seventh-ranked North Dakota (14-8-6, 9-5-6) is in a three-way tie for third, two points behind the Mavs.
The teams will also play Friday night on the Mavs’ usual home ice, across the street from the ballpark in the CenturyLink Center.
North Dakota practiced on an outdoor rink in Grand Forks, N.D., for about 45 minutes on Monday. The Mavs won’t go outdoors until their Saturday morning skate at TD Ameritrade.
“You’re going to have to take the pre-game skate pretty seriously that day,” UNO goalie John Faulkner said. “You have to adjust to the lighting, angles and stuff like that. It’s going to be all new. As a goalie, you have to find little landmark points to line yourself up.”
This will be the 12th Division I men’s game played outdoors since 2001 and the first since Ohio State and Michigan squared off at Cleveland’s Progressive Field in front of 25,864 fans in January 2012. Chicago’s Soldier Field will host two games Feb. 17, with Notre Dame playing Miami (Ohio) and Minnesota meeting Wisconsin.
A junior-level game between the Omaha Lancers and Lincoln Stars will be the warm-up act for North Dakota-UNO in an event billed as the “Battles on Ice.” The games were put together by UNO and the Lancers to promote hockey in the area.
Officials said about 12,000 tickets have been sold, with many purchased by a North Dakota fanbase known for traveling in large numbers to road games. A strong walk-up is expected if the weather is good. Temperatures are expected to be in the upper-40s.
“I think the guys are looking forward to it,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “It’s fun for a lot of guys to go back to their roots and get outdoors. I’m sure it brings back memories of playing on the backyard pond.”
UNO and North Dakota feature two of the nation’s top offenses.
The Mavs are second nationally in goals per game (3.57) and Ryan Walters is the NCAA’s top scorer (16 goals, 24 assists, 40 points). North Dakota averages 3.18 goals. Danny Kristo, who leads active Division I players with 144 career points, and linemate Corban Knight are the nation’s highest-scoring pair of teammates with a total of 28 goals and 71 points.
Knight said the teams’ skills could be mitigated if ice conditions are rough.
“It might be a thing where you see more dumping of the puck and some chipping,” he said. “Surely the puck is going to bounce around a little bit. That’s something we have to take into consideration for our game plan.”
Adding intrigue is that Blais led North Dakota to two of its seven national championships and was either an assistant or head coach at the school for 19 years. He’s in his fourth season at UNO.
The Mavs’ Matt White, who grew up in Whittier, Calif., is one of the few players for UNO and North Dakota who didn’t play outdoor hockey as a youngster.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “It’s just a different atmosphere, so I think I’m going to keep everything the same.”
White said he enjoys watching the NHL Winter Classic, but never imagined he’d get to play in an outdoor game himself.
“I’m glad it’s finally made its way to Omaha,” he said. “Just playing a powerhouse like North Dakota, it’s great for our program and a step in the right direction for Omaha hockey.”
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