When looking back at his 40-plus year career, now-retired hockey coach Dean Blais has seen and done almost everything in the sport. But when asked about his career, Blais specifically points out one thing he misses.
“The toughest thing about retiring was no longer getting to see the players mature,” Blais said. “I just loved a good practice that had high skill and high tempo. You could just see the players maturing and getting better.”
Blais’ passion for development was key to his success in coaching at all levels of hockey, whether it be high school, college or the National Hockey League. He helped grow the sport consistently during his career and is now being recognized as the 2018 USA Hockey Distinguished Achievement Award recipient.
This award was created in 1991 and is presented to the U.S. citizen who made hockey his or her profession and has made outstanding contributions on or off the ice. Past winners include longtime Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna (2017), Boston College head coach Jerry York (2016) and current Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley (2013).
Like many from his generation, Blais grew up playing hockey on the outdoor rinks. Since he grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, Blais had plenty of cold days to work on his craft on the frozen pond.
Eventually, Blais’ skill earned him a chance to play at the University of Minnesota. He was a part of the first freshman class that was eligible for varsity competition. After a four-year career, Blais spent time on the Chicago Blackhawks’ development team in Dallas before joining the coaching ranks in 1976.
Blais started out at his alma mater, working as an assistant under Herb Brooks for one season. From there, Blais bounced around jobs while working as a collegiate assistant and a high school coach.
In 1994, Blais finally had his chance to be a collegiate head coach. He was hired to lead the University of North Dakota and spent 10 years growing the program and maintaining its strong reputation nationally.
On the ice, Blais won a pair of national championships in 1997 and 2000. Off the ice, he helped revitalize the program by working with the Engelstad family to build Ralph Engelstad Arena. The arena opened in 2001 and is still highly regarded today as one of the best rinks in college hockey, and has also hosted top international events, including the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship and the 2016 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship.
“We flew all over the country looking at other arenas so we could figure out what we wanted to do,” Blais said. “They did a great job. There’s no other arena like it.”
In 2004, Blais left North Dakota to work as an assistant coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets. After three years in Ohio, Blais bounced around before landing as the head coach of the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2009.
During his eight-year tenure, Blais brought the Mavericks to new heights, including the program’s first-ever Frozen Four appearance in 2015. One of his final accomplishments was coaching Jake Guentzel, who played for Blais for four years before bursting onto the scene with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017.
“Seeing a kid have that kind of success gives you a special feeling,” Blais said. “It’s cool to see them come in as 18-year-olds and what they end up turning into and having the chance to sign an NHL contract.”
While Blais was molding collegiate and professional players, he also helped USA Hockey to success in international play. He played for Team USA at the 1973 Ice Hockey World Championship. As a coach, Blais was an assistant on the 1992 Men’s Olympic Team that took fourth in Albertville, France.
Perhaps Blais’ greatest international success came at the World Junior Championship. He was the head coach in 1994, 2010 and 2012. In 2010, Blais was behind the bench as Team USA won the gold medal in Saskatchewan, Canada. It was the first time any men’s national team had won gold on Canadian soil.
“Twenty-five years ago, we were probably seventh- or eighth-best in the world when it came to hockey,” Blais said. “The U.S. has done a great job of developing all these kids. We’re getting players from all over like St. Louis, California and Texas.”
Blais retired from coaching in 2017 and is back up in International Falls. But he is still reminded of his life in hockey, including with the chance to accept this award.
“I was honored to win this award,” Blais said. “Hockey has been so good for me. It was tough to retire and not be at the rink every day.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc