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Q&A with U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee Dean Blais

By Bob Reinert, 12/08/21, 8:30PM MST

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It was cold in International Falls, Minnesota, where Dean Blais spent his childhood. Darn cold.

But Blais and the kids with whom he grew up were always warmed by their love for hockey. His life in the game, carved into parts of six decades, will be celebrated Dec. 9 when he is inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

Blais is one of America’s most accomplished coaches, with his 40-year career behind the bench at the high school, junior and collegiate levels and internationally. His playing days included championships at the University of Minnesota, a brief stint in professional hockey and selection to the 1973 U.S. Men’s National Team.

Blais spent 19 seasons as a coach for the University of North Dakota. He was head coach of the men’s team for 10 seasons, leading North Dakota to two NCAA titles, seven NCAA tournament appearances — including three Frozen Fours — four Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season titles and two WCHA playoff championships. In his 10 seasons, Blais finished with a 262-115-33 record.

He earned the Spencer Penrose Award as the top men’s collegiate coach on two occasions, along with being awarded seven other Coach of the Year honors from the WCHA, the American College Hockey Coaches Association, the MSC Sports Salute Gala, and the Associated Press.

While at UND, Blais also played a major role in the development of the Ralph Engelstad Arena that opened in 2001 and remains one of the best hockey venues in the world.

Blais finished his coaching career with an eight-year stint as head coach of the University of Nebraska Omaha men’s team. He led the program to its first-ever NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2015 and two NCAA Tournament berths overall. He posted a 146-133-30 mark at UNO and is the school’s all-time winningest coach.

In his 18-year run as a college head coach, Blais finished 407-246-84 with 14 winning seasons.

In his two-year tenure as head coach for the Roseau High School boys’ hockey program, he led the Rams to the Minnesota State High School League championship in 1990, a year he was honored as the state’s hockey coach of the year. He later served as athletic director and head boys’ hockey coach at International Falls High School for two years, leading the Broncos to a conference title in 1993.

His first-ever head coaching job was a three-year stint leading the Minot (North Dakota) High School boys’ hockey program.

Serving as an assistant coach for one season for the University of Minnesota men’s team was Blais’ first stop. He later spent three years with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and two seasons as general manager and head coach for the USHL’s Fargo Force, guiding the team to the Clark Cup Final in 2009 and earning USHL coach of the year.

Internationally, Blais led the U.S. to its first-ever gold medal on Canadian soil in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship, served as head coach for the U.S. in the World Junior Championship in 1994 and 2012, and was an assistant coach for Team USA in the event in 1988 and 1989. He also served as an assistant coach for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team and the 2000 U.S. Men’s National Team.

Blais spent four seasons as a forward at the University of Minnesota, which went to the NCAA title game.

Following his senior campaign, he was selected to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the 1973 IIHF Men’s World Championship. Blais then spent the next three years with the Chicago Black Hawks’ minor league team in Dallas before embarking on his coaching career.

Ahead of his HOF induction, Blais took time for a Q&A session with USAHockey.com.

USAHockey.com: What does it mean to you to be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame?

Dean Blais: It means everything. It’s something you don’t even think about. You just have years and years of playing and coaching. And finally, when you retire, things happen. It’s great to see everyone here and certainly overwhelming at times.

USAH: What was the driving force behind your extensive coaching career?

DB: The same way playing, I just love the game. We’d skate outside. We didn’t have an indoor rink. We’d skate outside for sometimes 30, 40 hours a week. And then when I went into coaching, I knew I had to work hard as an assistant coach to keep my job. It was a combination of a lot of different things, but I think the biggest thing was just take the game as far as you can and do the best job you can.

USAH: How did you get into hockey, and how did that transition into a coaching career?

DB: We started skating at a young age up in International Falls. There wasn’t a whole lot else to do. We just loved it. I played with my two brothers, and my cousins all played. And then we watched the high school team, and we all wanted to be part of that whole culture. When I got hurt in Dallas, I went back and was a graduate assistant with Herb Brooks in Minnesota, and that’s when I really got serious about the coaching part of it.

USAH: Who were the biggest influences on your hockey career?

DB: I think Larry Ross, my high school coach, who’s in the Hall of Fame here, too. He went to the University of Minnesota, and I followed him. I’d say Larry Ross meant the most because it was a time where you had to make a decision on a lot of different things. And then certainly my dad and mother [said] do a good job in school and make sure that that’s first.

USAH: What was the best part of coaching college hockey?

DB: Going on the ice every day with the players. I liked recruiting. I didn’t mind any part of the job. I loved the job, running the arena and the hockey schools and all that. But I think going on the ice and see the players getting better every day … if you don’t see it every day, you certainly see it over the course of the year.

USAH: You represented Team USA on the ice and behind the bench. How special was it to represent the U.S. in those capacities?

DB: Putting on that jersey meant everything. You really knew what it meant when you put it on and represented your country. And you look across and there might be Russia or Canada, then you take it to another level of your game. And then when you’re coaching, it’s the same thing looking at the players and feeling the intensity when you walk in the locker room. And it’s electrifying, especially when you’re going to play for the gold medal, like we did in Saskatoon. It’s really special when you walk in that dressing room for a big game, and you can know that the players are ready and what they’re playing for.

USAH: What advice would you give to Dean Blais when he was first starting his career?

DB: Study more and practice less hockey. Just believe that you can do it. With believing, you certainly have to have the inner desire because I never made A teams at times when I had the opportunity, but I never quit thinking that someday I’m going to play Division I hockey, someday I’m going to get a chance to sign a pro contract. And you’ve got to put the work in for it. The biggest thing is you’ve got to believe. And it might be a little bit corny, but it was, in my case, certainly true.

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