Boston -- It's been a long 14 years since Dean Blais last came to the Frozen Four as the head coach of North Dakota.
After a hiatus as an NHL assistant and a head coach in the USHL, Blais returned to the college game in hopes of leading the Nebraska-Omaha program to the same lofty heights he had brought North Dakota.
In his sixth season as the head coach in Omaha, Blais is finally back in the pinnacle event of the college hockey season, leading the Mavericks to their first Frozen Four in program history.
The game has changed quite a bit in the five years Blais was away from the college game and even the six years since he's been back at UNO. It's no secret that realignment has transformed the college game, but there are other differences that have affected the play on the ice.
"Some of the rules definitely have changed and the referees have to call the game the way [the NCAA] want it called right now," said Blais.
Despite the changes, there are constants that have remained the same in the way Blais prepares and manages his team.
Defense plays a larger role in college hockey than it did when Blais was winning multiple league and national championships at North Dakota, but he still likes to let his players have a large say in the outcome of the game.
"I still think things are a little more defensive now. There are a lot of coaches now who don't give their players the freedom to make decisions," said Blais.
"I think championships are made with creativity. I've always coached that when the players have the opportunity to either dump the puck in or make plays, make plays. Use your imagination," added Blais.
Blais has always been known for running up-tempo practices where he emphasizes skating and endurance. He backs off on that as the season goes along, but he still has his troops ready for the battle of a long playoff game.
"The last month we haven't done a whole lot of skating at the end. We usually spend 10-15 minutes doing sprints. We have high paced practices. We start out the year with two hours and cut it 15 minutes every month or so," said Blais. "Show up for practice and go like heck for 45 to 50 minutes and then you go home. We don't waste a lot of time on the ice."
Blais' players agreed that it is quality over quantity when it comes to time on the ice during practices. "Usually during the year we get some conditioning in. But even with shorter practices, he emphasizes hard and short. You don't want to slack off and get bad habits," said sophomore Austin Ortega, who leads the nation with 11 game-winning goals.
"We're not out there for long, but we want to make sure we're doing everything good, and if we don't, we're going to end up skating after all," added Ortega.
Blais' reputation as a coach who keeps practices high paced and emphasizes skating during workouts has followed him through the years, far and wide.
"It's like nothing else," said senior Dominic Zombo. "I remember in juniors when I first committed to UNO, [former USHL coach] Kevin Hartzell in Sioux Falls said 'you think we do a little skating here, wait until you get to college.'"
"We definitely put our work in and get enough skating in at the beginning of the year," Zombo added.
When Omaha hits the ice for the school's first game in the Frozen Four on Thursday afternoon, Blais hopes his team is ready to go and is ready for a possible matchup with his former team.
"It'd be nice to play them. That means we beat Providence," said Blais with a smile.