Hours before Omaha’s 5-1 win over No. 7 Minnesota Duluth Saturday night, the Baxter Arena ice was full of Mavericks. No, it wasn’t for Omaha’s morning skate. Instead, an alumni game featured a group of more than 20 guys who wore the crimson and black during their college days.
A 45-minute-long pick-up game full of laughs, smiles, playful chirps and a ton of fun. At times, glimpses of the speed and skill that once made them all Division I athletes, a few of them professional hockey players, were on display. Come Sunday and Monday though, a few of those ‘old bulls’ admitted the groins and hamstrings were feeling it a little bit. But it was all worth it.
“The lungs were feeling it a little bit, but I think we all survived,” said a laughing David Brisson. “You feel a couple steps quicker when you’re playing at Baxter, but every year that goes by you might be half a step slower. Thankfully you can use your stick to hook and trip these younger guys.”
That alumni game was just 45 minutes out of what was a special weekend for so many throughout the program’s 25-year history.
Brisson put up 144 points in 159 career games for the Mavericks, which ranks third in program history. Scott Parse finished his decorated collegiate career with 79 goals and 197 points, both the most in program history, and was a two-time All-American. Alex Nikiforuk scored one of the program’s most iconic goals against Michigan in 2006 and six years prior, Jeff Hoggan lifted the roof off the Civic Auditorium on a Tuesday night against Bowling Green.
Andrew Wong is second in program history with 12 game-winning goals, Brandon Scero leads the program with 26 career power-play goals and John Faulkner recorded 54 wins between the pipes, also the most in program history.
However, none of those seven and most of the other former Mavericks who took part in that alumni game ever got the chance to play inside Baxter Arena during their playing days. An on-campus arena was a pipe dream when most of them even stepped foot on campus. Even when the conversation came up, very few would’ve imagined the place the program gets to call home today.
“Being in Omaha now for nearly 14 years, it’s absolutely incredible seeing what they’ve done with the area,” Faulkner said. “The Qwest Center had many perks and was a beautiful facility. I was lucky enough to experience a couple games at the Civic too and it was such an amazing atmosphere, but neither one was this.
“These guys are so fortunate to have the facility that they have today and we always heard about the possibility of (an on-campus rink) but I think this place exceeded a lot of expectations. So many different people have been involved over the years to get this program where it is today and it’s amazing to see how far it’s come in just 25 years.”
This past weekend, the Omaha hockey program celebrated its 25th anniversary season by celebrating those who have made the program what it is today. As the current team spent the weekend focused on a pivotal NCHC series against the Bulldogs, the old bulls were just as busy themselves.
A reception before the game Friday night, the alumni game Saturday afternoon, immediately followed by the family skate, and an event at Backlot Taphouse in Aksarben Village. That’s all before hustling back to watch their alma mater take down a top-10 opponent.
For some, it was the first time they’d seen each other in years. For others who still live in Omaha, it was just their weekly hangout. Either way, it was a chance to get together and celebrate the program they all were once a part of.
“It was great, and honestly, it was better than I expected,” Parse said. “I try to come up to Omaha at least once a year and see the guys that live in Omaha, but there were a few guys I hadn’t seen since I played in college with them. It was a lot of fun and it was special to see so many guys back together.”
The weekend culminated with an alumni night celebration during Saturday’s game, which saw 45 former Mavericks honored throughout the first and second periods. Nine of them were former coaches and staff members, who were honored during the first intermission as well.
That included a tribute video and an ovation from the 4,702 fans inside Baxter Arena for Mike Kemp, one of the biggest reasons all 45 even had the chance to call themselves a Maverick. Earlier in the day, Kemp sat at the top of section 118 watching the alumni game alongside his family with a smile from ear to ear.
It was hard enough for Kemp to remain seated as he chased one of his grandkids around the empty concourse, but he also had several former players coming up to say hello. At one point, Kemp joked that a few of the guys on the ice could still play, but he didn’t think any of his former players would be seeing much power-play time later that night.
The same person who helped get the program off the ground and running was as heavily involved as anyone in the planning for the weekend.
“This is one of the things we envisioned for this program when we started it 25 years ago,” Kemp said. “The connection between players from various years and we saw that this weekend. Players from the original team connecting with guys who played in 2005 and even with the current players. It’s the beauty of what we’ve been able to develop here and to me, that’s a point of pride.”
For many of those who were in town this weekend, the feeling is mutual. There was no sparkling building or spacious locker room full of amenities back in early the day. Today’s Omaha players don’t know the struggles of putting their gear on and driving across town for a practice at Motto McLean Ice Arena, as everything is now under one roof. There aren’t any more trips to Marquette or East Lansing either, as the CCHA and WCHA are in the rearview mirror.
But all of those past experiences have helped build the program over the past 25 years. Before any players ever stepped foot on campus, they were sold on a vision. Not only for a hockey program, but a community.
“Kemper always said he wanted us to come to Omaha to be part of something bigger than just a hockey team, and a lot of us have done that,” Wong said. “So this weekend was special to celebrate that with all of the guys. We all share a common bond going to UNO and most, if not all of us, came from elsewhere. But we’ve all laid down roots in Omaha.
“It’s unfortunate that this weekend happened during another spike in COVID, which put a damper on some travel plans, but I don’t think you had to twist anybody’s arm to come back. And you could see that on people’s faces this weekend. Faces certainly change over the years, but once you walk into that room it’s like you never missed a beat.”
James Chalmers scored the first goal in program history back in 1997 and made the trip to Omaha from Ontario. He would’ve been one of several players who made the trip down from Canada, but many had to cancel due to the pandemic. Over 100 former Mavericks were invited back for the weekend.
Chalmers was one of six players from the inaugural Omaha team in the house Saturday night, along with Rob Facca, Mike Hanson, Kendall Sidoruk, Colin Strom and current Omaha assistant Dave Noel-Bernier. On the other hand, players as recent as Travis Kothenbeutel, who played in two games last season, were part of the celebration.
No matter what era they played in though, there’s one thing all of them share — they’re all proud to be a Maverick.
“I think the one thing you quickly realize is even though guys might not live in Omaha and get back as much, they still follow the program really closely and want to see it succeed,” said former Maverick forward Dan Swanson. “When you look at the amount of people that came back and see the families that were here, it was so cool to see. It’s just a testament to Coach Kemp and the culture he built here. So to get everybody back, watch a couple games and talk about the program was a lot of fun.”
The theme of the weekend goes back to something Kemp has said repeatedly over the years: he didn’t come to Omaha to start a hockey team; he came to build a hockey program. And a family feel was at the forefront. If the man who coached 471 games behind the Omaha bench had any doubts, all he needed to do was look around the Baxter Arena ice during that family skate.
Maverick fans grew so accustomed to watching players such as Scero, Parse, Wong and Nikiforuk. Instead, those past players were now the ones watching as Duke Parse, Ryan Scero, Callen Wong and Knox Nikiforuk, along with several other kids, zipped around the Baxter Arena ice. The rink was full of children, wives, parents and other family members, along with hockey sticks and a bucket of pucks.
“Any time you get to spend time with some of your former teammates and the younger guys that you saw play after you, it’s always a good time,” Brisson said. “The one thing that most players miss after retiring is just the team atmosphere and being around the guys. So this weekend was a great opportunity to get back together.
“It’s fun to see how much their families have grown and I think that was one of the most amazing parts of the weekend. With the amount of kids that were part of the activities, especially during the family skate on Saturday, you see how much the Maverick family is growing and that’s special to see.”
That was the highlight of the weekend for many of the old bulls.
“To bring my kids up and have them skate and to see the other guys with their kids out there, that’s what this weekend is all about,” Parse said. “The game of hockey has been good to all of us and Omaha is a big part of that, so it was nice to share that with each other.”
Former Maverick defenseman and captain Mark Bernier echoed that. But there’s one more takeaway from the weekend — it’s crazy to think about how fast time has flown by.
“I saw a lot of people from the program that I hadn’t seen in a while and it makes you realize how quickly these years have gone by,” Bernier said. “A lot of the guys still live in town, but we’re not all in one spot like we were this weekend very often, so it was nice to get caught up, tell stories and especially see how much everyone’s family has grown.
“When you have a weekend like this, you really realize how much the program has grown too. My dad and I were talking (Sunday) night and just thinking back to when they announced they were building the rink, to the completion of it, and now what the whole Aksarben area is like. I know all of us are proud of where the program is today and it’s pretty crazy to think about it. When I was recruited the talk was always, we’re going to get a new arena. Obviously, I never got to play in it, but I think I speak for all of us and I feel like this is a home for all of us alumni. We’re excited and proud of where the program is heading.”
They’re excited about where the program is heading, and they’re excited for the next alumni event as well.
“You go to school for four years with these guys and you spend every day together with some of these guys,” Faulkner said. “You form life-long relationships and that’s the best part of it. Even right after the alumni game ended seeing how many kids are buzzing around the ice now, that’s really the cool part.
“During the recruiting process the one thing Mike Kemp always said was that it was a family here. He wanted to not only recruit good hockey players, but people that fit the Omaha culture, and there’s a great alumni base 25 years later because of it. I’m already looking forward to the next one of these events.”
Rest assured, planning for the 30th anniversary celebration has already started.
The following were honored during the game Saturday night. Players were grouped together by the year they arrived on campus:
1997-1999: James Chalmers, Rob Facca, David Graham, Mike Hanson, Dave Noel-Bernier, Kendall Sidoruk, Colin Strom, Jeff Hoggan and David Brisson.
2000-2003: Brett Davis, Dan Ellis, Andrew Wong, Ryan Bennett, Phil Angell, Mike Eickman, Chris Holt, Mike Gabinet, Dan Knapp, Alex Nikiforuk and Scott Parse.
Staff members: Dave Ahlers, Danny Gass, Terry Leahy, Justin May, Rusty McKune, Mark Pane, Sam Spomer and Shirley Fey.
2004-2009: Eric Aarnio, Brandon Scero, Adam Bartholomay, J.P. Platisha, Jerad Kaufmann, Mark Bernier, Kyle Ensign, John Faulkner, Matt Smith and Dan Swanson.
2010-2017: Zahn Raubenheimer, Alex Simonson, Michael Young, Grant Gallo, Riley Alferd, Ryan Galt and Travis Kothenbeutel.