Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Origins of UNO Hockey

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

One of the things that has fascinated me about UNO Hockey over the course of the past 22 years has been the nascent beginnings for the sport at the university in the 1970s. 

Before I go any further, I want to thank the talented team of archivists at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Criss Library for directing me to digitized yearbooks and providing rare photographs of UNO’s club hockey team during the 1970s. 

I touched on this topic a bit in a 2015 blog titled “The Arena Origin Story (Part 1).”

In that post, I talked about the Omaha Knights minor league team folding in the early 1970s. Fans of the sport were left to wonder if they’d get to watch high-level hockey in Omaha again. 

UNO Athletics was under the direction of Don Leahy at the time. 

The school had fielded a club team since 1972 (research from the Omaha World-Herald archives also uncovered that Omaha University played club hockey during the 1940s).

According to UNO’s 1975 yearbook, a student named Tim Rock decided to organize a club team in January 1972. 

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

The UNO Athletic Department took over some of the costs of fielding a team during that era — providing uniforms and ice time at Ak-Sar-Ben. 

The department’s business manager at the time, Russ Baldwin, said college hockey was a “growing sport” and that professional teams were relying “more and more on college students for talent.”

This image of UNO playing Creighton appeared in the school’s 1975 yearbook:

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

During my research for this article, I began to realize what a terrific opportunity the university had to fill the void left by the departed Knights organization (which played to packed houses at Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum).

A familiar face to UNO Hockey fans took over the fledgling club operation in the 1975-76 season — Duluth, Minnesota native Mike Kemp (who was only 23 at the time). 

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

(Kemp’s current title is “Associate Athletic Director — Events & Facilities” at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Prior to being elevated to an associate athletic director position, he coached the UNO Hockey program from 1996 thru 2009.)

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

Omaha World-Herald reporter Jerry Fricke addressed the state of hockey in Omaha in a column published on April 21, 1976: 

“Coach Kemp, whose club team finished with an 11-14-2 record, has been recruiting and arranging a schedule with the idea that UNO will go varsity. ‘If we don’t go varsity, I won’t be here,’ Kemp said. ‘Most of the games I’ve arranged are with varsity teams, and they won’t play us unless we have a varsity team.’”

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

Further research in the Omaha World-Herald shows that a non-profit group had been set up to help raise money for scholarships for the club players. 

A recent profile of Mike Kemp — written by Ryan Jaeckel for The Gateway on Oct. 30, 2018 — unearths a few more details about Kemp’s season with UNO’s club program in 1975-76. 

According to the article, Kemp had earned a degree in public relations from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1975. He was working in the family business in Duluth when he received a call from his old hockey coach informing him that UNO was “looking for a club hockey coach.”

Kemp told The Gateway that his experience coaching UNO's club team was “interesting.”

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

There were players from a variety of backgrounds, Jaeckel wrote. "A 38-year-old from North Dakota working at Kellogg’s. Another, from Michigan State, was in their mid-30s and worked as a salesman for a major corporation. There were Creighton Prep seniors. Even Kemp’s closest friend, who had just returned from Vietnam, joined in the fun.” 

According to Jaeckel's article, the "friend who had just returned from the Vietnam War" would eventually be involved in starting UNO's Division 1 program in 1996.

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

Kemp referred to that club team, "lovingly," as “the largest collection of human debris ever assembled.”

As I alluded to earlier, there was talk that UNO would move up to the varsity level for hockey in the 1976-77 season. “Kemp began recruiting immediately,” writes Jaeckel, “going as far north as Canada.” 

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

UNO ended its efforts early, citing financial constraints at the time. Kemp left the university shortly thereafter, and the school’s hockey prospects remained largely dormant for another two decades. 

There were other iterations of UNO’s club team between the 1970s era club teams and the NCAA Division I program started in 1996. 

For example, the 1981 flavor of club hockey at UNO was led by a player/coach named Tak Soto — who played on the Japanese Olympic hockey team (according to the March 4, 1981, issue of The Gateway):

Photo credit: UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections

When UNO Hockey finally took hold as a varsity sport in May 1996, Bridget and I (both newly-minted graduates of the university) put down our deposit on a pair of seats. I sent her over to Sapp Fieldhouse to wait in line the morning tickets first went on sale. 

The reason I did is because I liked the idea that UNO was doing something interesting as it regarded athletics, and because I thought it would help UNO build its own identity in the lexicon of local sports. 

But I’ve always wondered “what if?”

Had UNO started varsity-level hockey in the 1970s, would it have survived? Would it be a program with dozens of banners and hardware from decades of NCAA tournament appearances and championships? 

We’ll never know, but it is fun to think about. 

Like this blog post? Check out more photos from the UNO Libraries' Archives and Special Collections here.


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