He gives himself the label “Godfather of Nebraska hockey.”
From growing up on a small backyard Michigan rink to helping bring hockey arenas to Lincoln, Mark Champion has impacted hockey in Nebraska and at the university for nearly half a century.
Champion played a lot of hockey as a youngster in Detroit, but never had proper coaching and never played for a team. He learned in an unconventional way, but that did not stop him from falling in love with the game.
“My dad put a backyard rink. I just skated.”
Champion’s family moved to Minnesota where he began playing for a junior high team and then they moved again, this time to Chicago. He had no high school team to play on. Just three years after he graduated from high school, his school put in a rink and won two state championships.
“Just missed it,” he said. “It would have been fun to play high school hockey. I never actually played for a coach other than the years I was in Minnesota.”
When it was time to go to college, he made the 700-mile drive to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
When getting to UND, Champion tried to walk on but quickly realized playing college hockey was not something he would be able to do at North Dakota, which had been a national title contending program.
“I couldn’t play college hockey, not there,” he said.
That’s when Nebraska came into the picture.
When Champion arrived at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1971, he heard that there was a club hockey team in the works at the university and joined the team as a defenseman, becoming one of the original Nebraska hockey players.
“I dreamt of playing college hockey,” he said.
Playing with a bunch of college kids at Nebraska was a blast for Champion. The team had no coaches, just themselves. The original teams were small, just consisting of a few players, but that didn’t stop them from having a good team.
One game that stands out to him was playing against Kansas with an undermanned Husker team.
“We ended up beating them six to four,” Champion said. “We had seven players who could play and they had 20 who couldn’t.”
When his playing days came to an end at UNL, he went on to become an architect, starting his own firm in 1996. While he may no longer have been playing hockey at the university, his impact on hockey and Nebraska continued.
Champion was a leading voice in helping get the Ice Box, home of the Lincoln Stars, built. But even more importantly, he was instrumental in the building of the John Breslow Ice Hockey Center, home of the Nebraska men’s hockey team.
Larry Taylor, the head coach of the hockey program, said Champion has been an important person for Nebraska hockey and has been instrumental in helping them get to where the program is now.
“I would call him an ambassador,” Taylor said. “I mean that’s what he is to this program.”
Taylor says current and former players are always asking about “champ” and how he is doing and if he is still around the program.
Currently, Champion finds himself at most of the team’s practices helping in any way he can. On game days he mans the home penalty box and gets the pucks ready for each game. He can’t travel on the road as much anymore, but he loves being around the team and interacting with the players.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool to see players grow over four years,” he said.
While many titles are given to Champion, like the Godfather of Nebraska hockey or ambassador, his impact is clear and Nebraska hockey is better for it.
“They all know Mark Champion by ‘Champ’,” Taylor said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. They know how he is about our program, how he’ll promote our program at any given chance he can and how he’ll promote our rank. He’s just that guy.”