OMAHA, Neb. - Back in the NCAA Frozen Four with a different school, Dean Blais has recaptured the sense of contentment he couldn't find outside college hockey.
Blais had won two national championships and was coming off his fifth 30-win season in 10 years when he gave in to ambition and left North Dakota for the NHL in the summer of 2004. Three years in the Columbus Blue Jackets' organization brought Blais to the realization he missed not only his family in the upper Midwest but also the game at the college level.
"Life's too short. I realized it wasn't for me," he said.
Blais this week will be in his fourth Frozen Four as a head coach, this time with a Nebraska-Omaha team making its first appearance in the national semifinals.
The Mavericks (20-12-6) play Providence (24-13-2) in Boston on Thursday. Boston University (27-7-5) meets North Dakota (29-9-3), now coached by Blais successor Dave Hakstol, in the other semifinal. The title game is Saturday.
The 64-year-old Blais is in his sixth season leading a program that has never won even a conference championship in its 18-year history. Each of its three NCAA tournament bids, two under Blais, has been as an at-large selection.
This season might go down as Blais' best work. The Mavericks went into this season without 2014 National Collegiate Hockey Conference player of the year Josh Archibald, who turned professional, and two underclass defencemen who left.
Blais has seven NHL draft picks on his roster but the lineup regularly includes 14 freshmen and sophomores. When it was suggested the deep tournament run happened a year early, Blais said, "Or two."
"These guys, they all get along. They like each other. They work hard together. They have great attitudes. Good in the classroom," Blais said. "So it's a whole lot of fun coaching them every day."
Omaha athletic director Trev Alberts said the hiring of Blais in 2009 raised the profile of the hockey program and happened at a pivotal point. Except for hockey, all of the school's sports competed in Division II, and at the time the department was bleeding money and facing the prospect of shutting down.
Two years later, Alberts took a calculated risk by dropping football and wrestling and elevating all sports to Division I. That put more pressure than ever on hockey, the flagship sport, to generate revenue. Blais has not disappointed, with his team ranking among the national leaders in attendance, as it did under Kemp.
"UNO is pretty honoured he's our coach," Alberts said, "and grateful for it."
Blais'.679 winning percentage at North Dakota was best among active Division I coaches, and he went to the NCAA tournament in seven of his 10 seasons in Grand Forks. There were national championships in 1997 and 2000, and his team was runner-up in 2001.
When Alberts called in 2009, Blais was the highest-paid junior coach in the country with the Fargo (North Dakota) Force.
"I wasn't just going to apply for jobs and take any college job," Blais said. "Omaha intrigued me because it was kind of a new program, had the fan base and had some success in the past."
Alberts initially offered Blais $180,000 a year. Blais, who said he was making about the same salary in Fargo, told Alberts no. Undeterred, Alberts called back a few days later and asked Blais what it would take.
The answer: $250,000 a year and a new arena.
Alberts came up with the money to pay Blais with the help of donors. Next was muddling through the politics and fundraising that led to the 2013 announcement of a new 7,500-seat arena, which will open in October. The Mavericks have been playing at the oversized CenturyLink Center as co-tenants with the Creighton basketball team.
If the arena project had fallen through, Blais said, he probably wouldn't have signed a contract extension last June. Blais was locked up through 2017-18 with a deal worth $1.3 million, not including bonuses.
Blais said he would like to coach another three or four seasons "as long as I have good kids like I have this year."
Senior goalie Ryan Massa, who stopped 73 of 74 shots in regional wins over Harvard and RIT, will be the biggest loss from this year's team. All the top scorers are expected to return.
"It has nothing to do with winning and losing," Blais said. "It has everything to do with the players I'm coaching. They're a great bunch."