Mention Nebraska to a lot of folks, and the image evoked is, in the words of Derek Reynolds, a winger on the University of Nebraska-Omaha's fledgling hockey team and a native of Saskatchewan, "lots of corn, lots of football." These days, however, thanks to Reynolds and his Mavericks teammates—12 of whom come from that country up north where neither com nor pigskin is king—there's a new game in town, or at least in state.
On February 21, the Division I Mavs played in front of their 17th consecutive sellout crowd at the 8,314-seat Omaha Civic Auditorium and skated to a 4-0 win over Alabama- Huntsville. Against an ambitious schedule, Nebraska-Omaha did better than expected this season, finishing with a 12-17-2 record. More impressive, the Mavericks were second in the country in attendance, behind Minnesota, and will earn $2.5 million for Nebraska-Omaha this year. Not bad for a commuter school whose athletic program, which is Division II in all other sports, has always been obscured by the Big Red shadow cast from Lincoln, 50 miles to the southwest.
Pucks-on-the-prairie had been around since the early 1970s, when hockey started as a club sport at Nebraska-Omaha, but not until '95, when then chancellor Del Webster enlisted the financial help of Omaha business leaders, did hockey go varsity. By raising $6.5 million, the university was able to start a Division I hockey program and fulfill Title IX requirements by creating women's teams in golf, soccer, swimming and tennis.
After that it was only a matter of recruiting the players. Says coach Mike Kemp, a longtime assistant at Wisconsin, "We sold the program to them as their chance to be pioneers." Corny but evidently successful.