The schtick never gets old.
It happens every time the University of Nebraska-Omaha men’s hockey team scores its first goal at a home game: Greg McVey comes rolling onto the ice driving what appears to be a miniature Zamboni, executes a wheelie or two, scoops up a frozen fish that’s been tossed onto the ice (as the opposing team’s goalie “fishes” the puck from the back of the net), then steers the quirky contraption back through an opening in the boards and disappears. The crowd at the CenturyLink Center Omaha roars its approval of the sideshow—and the UNO goal.
“Once the fish is thrown,” explains McVey, “I’ve got to get in and out of there fast, driving around four refs and 10 players, so I don’t hold up the game. Complicating matters, he adds that “I never know if the dang thing is going to steer right.”
The “dang thing,” designed and built by McVey, made its on-ice debut in January 2003 when the Mavs hosted Ohio State at the old Civic Auditorium under then-head coach Mike Kemp. Dubbed the “Mavboni” by McVey’s fellow Red Army hockey boosters, the nifty fish-retrieval vehicle quickly became part of the whole hockey experience.
Well, usually, that is.
“Four times in 236 home games the first goal never came,” says McVey, who lives in Lincoln. “They were shut out. Only four times. Impressive.”
The Mavboni demonstrates McVey’s evolution as a tinkerer. The Norfolk, Neb. native spent 14 years assembling and racing go-karts. He chased national and world championships all over the country, running on dirt tracks at 105 miles per hour. Later on, an episode of “Monster Garage” inspired McVey to build a motorized bar stool. “Just what everyone needs,” he deadpans, though he sold quite a few in two years. With motors, steel tracks, and tires filling his basement, the life-long hockey fan thought building a shrunken ice-resurfacing machine would bring a laugh at tailgate parties.
While McVey is a fan of all things “silly and meaningless,” Coach Kemp looked for gimmicks to lure fans to his young hockey program. In fact, it was Kemp who came up with the fish throw soon after the Mavs played their first game in 1997. He got the idea after he was hit in the head by a flying salmon during a hockey game in Anchorage, Alaska, while an assistant coach at Wisconsin.
Is there any doubt the two men would eventually team up?
“I was going to my weekly radio show at DJ’s Dugout in Miracle Hills around 2002 when I saw this really neat Zamboni thing racing around the parking lot,” recalls Kemp, now UNO’s associate athletic director. “I said to somebody, ‘we’ve got to get that out on the ice.’”
When UNO hockey moves to its new arena in Aksarben in October, the Mavboni will also make the move. “Even after all these years, every time I see it I smile,” says Kemp.
Thanks to Greg McVey, thousands of hockey fans can say the same thing.