Puck Swami: Thoughts on the Battle On Blake (Part 1 of 2)

Puck Swami, the Internet moniker of a longtime DU fan, offers a two-part article this week as a prelude to the Battle on Blake. Part One focuses some perspective on the ice and develops the history of the rivalry. Part Two focuses on some of the off-ice elements of the rivalry and puts the weekend into a larger context.

The “Battle on Blake” is almost here, and it promises to be the largest-attended DU-hosted sporting event since the University of Denver dropped football in 1961, as well as the largest attended DU hockey game of all time, with between 25,000-30,000 tickets sold as of Monday Feb 17. For that reason alone, it’s an event worth celebrating as a high water mark of spectator interest in DU sports in the modern era.

As I write this on Tuesday, Feb. 16th, the Denver weather forecast for Saturday’s game is looking amazing, sunny and clear with a daytime high of 69 degrees and a 6:00 pm face-off temperature of 58 degrees. Of course, weather can change between now and then, but such comfortable temperatures could help attendance go even higher. And if you are wondering about ice quality in warm temperatures, don’t worry. The National Hockey League (NHL) held an exhibition game outdoors in a Las Vegas Casino parking lot in 1991 with outside temperatures around 85 degrees, and the ice held up just fine. Today, ice technology is 25 years better than in 1991, and the best ice makers from the NHL are in Denver to make NHL-quality ice. This is going to be a spectacle, and while you may find watching the game to be more difficult given outdoor distances from the seats, there are still great memories to be made as the largest modern gathering of DU fans assembles that evening.

Some may say that outdoor hockey in large stadiums is little more than a gimmick, with attendance largely fueled by those who were either priced out or locked out of the NHL Stadium Series game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche scheduled for the same ice rink at Coors Field on Saturday, Feb. 27, and they would be right to some extent. Denver is getting in on what is probably the mid-to-tail end of the outdoor stadium hockey event phenomenon, which was first executed in large scale in the USA 15 years ago in the “Cold War” game between Michigan and Michigan State, and perfected as the Heritage Classic, Winter Classic and Stadium Series by the National Hockey League since 2003. College Hockey has also staged outdoor stadium games many times since then, all around the East and Midwest, but never before in Colorado.

This game is far more than mere spectacle or gimmick. The DU vs. CC rivalry is one of the most substantive athletic rivalries in the state, and one of the very best in the sport of college hockey. Separated geographically by only by an hour’s drive on I-25, DU and CC are the only two private schools in the NCHC, and sport the smallest undergraduate enrollments in the eight-team league. They are the only two private schools playing Division I hockey west of Indiana, and for over 65 years, these two schools have been beating on each other for Colorado bragging rights, along with Air Force.

As University of Denver fans, we enjoy most of the hockey superlatives in this rivalry. The Pioneers hold the all-time series advantage, winning 167 games and losing 116 with 17 ties. The Pios are also the current (2016) holders of the Gold Pan Trophy, which was created in the early 1990s to reward each season’s winner of the four games of regular season play between the two schools. Because the Pioneers also won the trophy in the 2014-2015 season, DU retains the Gold Pan this year by virtue of two Fall 2015 victories over CC that prevented CC from being able to win back the trophy. Additionally, DU also won the most important game ever played between the schools, the 2005 NCAA semi-final where the Pios scored six power-play goals to rout the Tigers en route to a 6-2 victory in Columbus. The Pioneers would go on to win the 2005 NCAA title two days later over North Dakota.

In a larger sense, DU also has had the more successful hockey program over the years, winning seven NCAA titles compared to only two wins by CC. Furthermore, all of DU’s titles — in 1958, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1969, 2004 and 2005 — occurred more recently than CC’s most recent title which occurred in 1957 (during the Eisenhower administration). Pioneer fans like to remind Tiger faithful of this with their well-worn taunt: “Fifty-Seven! Fifty-Seven!” DU fans also like to mock CC’s propensity to hang multiple banners at its arena for non-championship achievements — banners that DU fans derisively refer to as “participation banners”.

DU also leads CC in other important program measures such as NCAA tournament appearances (DU has 26 total, including 14 Frozen Four appearances vs CC’s 20 and five Frozen Four appearances), league championships (12 vs. 9), league tournament titles (16 vs. 1) and NHL players produced (75 vs 36). DU as a school is also older than CC by 10 years (1864 vs. 1874).

There are a still a few areas, however, where CC can claim superiority to DU. The CC hockey program has greater longevity (CC began hockey in 1938 vs. DU in 1949). CC also has more Hobey Baker Winners (the top NCAA player of the year) with two for CC vs. one for Denver. The Tigers also can claim a larger home arena and greater attendance.

This season, the Pioneers have been the better of the two teams in both head-to-head competition (DU is 2-0 vs CC) as well as in the NCHC and National standings, where DU is third in the NCHC and #8 nationally vs CC’s last place NCHC standing and #56 standing nationally. That said, CC is playing much better hockey now than it did in the early season, racking up some impressive wins in recent months against St.Cloud and Omaha and tying North Dakota in Grand Forks. DU, too, is playing its best hockey of the season, having lost only once in its last 12 games, including a magnificent sweep of North Dakota in Denver last weekend.

As for the game itself, both teams prefer a speedy, transition-oriented style. DU has the deeper and more talented roster, but that often means little when these rivals face each other. Expect both teams to give their all, and a close game is a likely result.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for Part II of Puck’s look at the Battle on Blake coming later this week.