Puck Swami: A Pioneer Fan in Tampa

Photo Credit: Damien Goddard

TAMPA, Fla. – Right now, if you’re a Pioneer fan, you’re hurting today, even though it’s been more than 24 hours since the loss in the NCAA semifinal to the dreaded NCHC rival North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

And if you’re as big a DU fan as I am, you’re hurting a lot.

But the hurt we all may experience as fans is nothing compared to what the DU players, coaches and staff are probably going through right now. To work as hard as they did, only to come up a single puck-bounce short in the biggest game of their lives, on the biggest stage in college hockey, will likely fester in the pit of their collective stomachs as long as they breathe.

The fleeting image of UND’s Nick Schmaltz backhanding the puck into the open side of the DU net for a game-winning ‘dagger’ goal with 58 seconds left will go down as a horrible moment for everyone associated with Denver. The loss should inspire all the returning Pio players all summer long. After all, nothing motivates like quite the proverbial ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’…

My most lasting memory of the game will be bearded senior Grant Arnold, slowly skating over to the DU fan section to offer us his stick salute as the fans rose in post-game ovation for the Denver team. One of the proudest Pioneer captains to ever wear the “C” for DU, Arnold didn’t even want to take off his uniform last night after the game. His four-year DU career was over, and while he certainly wanted to win for himself, his family, his teammates, coaches and staffers — he also desperately wanted to win that game for all the 65+ years of DU hockey players who came before him, his fellow current DU students cheering in campus bars back in Denver and for all of us DU alumni and fans watching in Tampa and on their screens around the world. Arnold calls these people the “Denver Family.”

The Denver family made its mark in Tampa. We flew in from all corners of the country, and beyond, donned our Crimson and Gold and began our tournament weekend with an excellent pre-game patio party hosted by DU at the Tampa Hilton. The atmosphere was festive, upscale and reflected our excitement with the game to come. Former DU players from every era of DU hockey, parents of current players, alumni, fans and DU administrators all came together to share the bonds of being a Pioneer.

While the party was nice, DU certainly could have done more to support the hockey team. The other three schools at Frozen Four (Boston College, Quinnipiac and North Dakota) sent their pep bands, cheer squads and mascots to represent pride and tradition. I wish I could say that DU matched its peers in this regard, but alas, it did not. The Pioneer pep band and cheer squads were  left at home in Denver, presumably to save money.

Thus left largely to ourselves with no band or cheer team to support us, our small coterie of perhaps 500 Pioneer fans cheered our guts out in Tampa. While we spent much of the game drowned out by the thunderous noise of thousands of North Dakota fans (America’s largest college hockey fan base by far), the two third-period DU goals largely silenced the UND crowd and allowed our team to actually hear our cheers.

Since there was no band, cheer team or official mascot supplied by the school, some DU alumni and fans took it upon themselves to fly-in Denver Boone, the unofficial student mascot, as well as the huge “Mega-Boone” banner to shimmer over the DU fan section so that DU had something to actually offer the ESPN crowd cameras.

I’ve been fortunate to be a live witness for all four of DU’s Frozen Four appearances since 1986. I was there in Providence (R.I) Civic Center (1986), Boston’s Fleet Center (2004), Columbus’s Value City Arena (2005) and this year at Tampa’s Amalie Arena (2016). I’ve seen the proud Pioneer captains skate around with trophies in Boston and Columbus in magnificent victory, and I’ve also seen our Pios skate away behind the devastating tears of defeat in Providence and now, Tampa.

In all four of those Frozen Four games, the critical margin between DU winning and losing was a decisive moment in the third period – entire seasons turned on the ability (or not) to make a big play when it counted most.

These moments remain indelible years later. In 1986, Harvard’s Tim Smith scored the big goal en-route to his eventual hat trick to break open a close 2-2 third-period tie to send DU crashing out of the NCAA semifinal game, with a 5-2 final at the Providence Civic Center. As a young fan at his first Frozen Four, I thought DU would be back soon to avenge the loss, but it would be 18 years of waiting before the next DU Frozen Four. Interestingly, DU still hasn’t played Harvard in hockey since that night in 1986.

Eighteen years later in the 2004 NCAA Championship Game, before a then-record crowd of 18,000+ at Boston’s Fleet Center, DU survived the one of the most memorable finales in the history of NCAA tournament play.  Behind by a goal in the final 90 seconds of the game, Maine peppered DU goalie Adam Berkhoel (and his trusty crossbar) on a highly rare 6-on-3 skater advantage, taking advantage of two DU penalties and a pulled goalie. DU’s stellar defense proved to be the difference in preserving DU’s lone goal, scored earlier by Gabe Gauthier. DU’s 1-0 upset was the Pios’ first NCAA title since 1969, and has carved out a permanent place in the heart of every DU fan who saw it. That famous title enabled the Pioneers to become an elite program again.

A year later in 2005, in the Columbus Frozen Four, North Dakota took twice as many shots as the Pioneers. However, DU’s goaltender, Peter Mannino, held firm just long enough for the difference-making Pioneer duo of Matt Carle and Paul Stastny to provide the crucial dagger play of the game.  About midway through the third period. Carle, a mobile defenseman who would win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player the next year, took a pass from teammate Brett Skinner in his own zone. Then Carle danced through four UND players and found Paul Stastny to convert a perfect cross-ice pass for the dagger goal for the Pioneers.

Of course, the dagger play in Tampa this year was the Schmaltz’s backhander with less than a minute left to crush a furious third-period Pioneer comeback that had tied tie the game at two. The Schmaltz goal reversed a third-period otherwise dominated by the Pioneers, as the game appeared to be careening toward overtime. However, an icing (and the ensuing lost faceoff in the DU zone) set up DU to suffer the last-minute disaster.

And while these ‘dagger’ plays become the indelible memories of the Frozen Four games, it’s important to remember that hockey games consist of many near-dagger plays that don’t quite work out that way. Taken in totality, the game last night was mostly even. Shots were 23-23 – dead even on paper. But UND did block 20 shots, while DU blocked seven. That commitment to team defense was a big part of the difference in Fighting Hawks’ strategy and execution.

The other huge difference of the game was the performance of North Dakota’s CBS line, comprised to Drake Caggiula’s pair of goals, and fellow first round NHL draft picks Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz, who added the other scoring for UND.

In contrast, the Pioneers’ vaunted ‘Pacific Rim Line’ (comprised of players from the Pacific coast — Danton Heinen, Trevor Moore and Dylan Gambrell), scored no goals in the game. DU’s two goals were credited to defensemen Will Butcher and Matt VanVoorhis.

Additionally, the Pioneers enjoyed a 4-1 power play advantage over UND in the game, but could not score a power-play goal. Moreover, the Pioneers went 0-23 against North Dakota in power-plays over the entire season.

As I write this on the off-day between the semis and finals, Tampa has been an excellent host. The atmosphere in the state-of-the-art Amalie arena pulsed with crowd electricity both inside and on the surrounding plazas. Boston College and Quinnipiac fans were quick to offer condolences to their fellow private school brethren at DU.  Meanwhile, UND fans were having far too much fun to notice us.

And at our rented compound north of town, our group of DU alumni and fans are currently soothing our pains with tropical drinks consumed under sunny skies, warm temperatures and rustling palm trees. In fact, some of my fellow Pios refuse to go back into Tampa to watch the DU-less NCAA Championship Game between Quinnipiac and North Dakota on Saturday. This is largely because the prospect of watching North Dakota moving past DU into second place on the all-time NCAA Hockey title list (each school currently has seven NCAA titles as of April 8) with their thousands of green-clad fans cheering them on is just too much to bear.

And while the pain of the DU loss remains raw this day after, I suspect that the amazing quality of the game and the Pioneers’ incredible effort will someday morph into a much warmer memory of a great, great hockey game that the Pioneers were just not quite fortunate enough to win.

And the longer one follows sports, you realize that it’s the losses (and the lows that follow them) that really do fuel the incredible wonder and joy that comes with winning. After all, this overachieving DU team was picked for third place in the NCHC and went on a fantastic late-season run to make the Frozen Four. This is the highest level of hockey advancement for DU in 11 years and it took only three years for coach Jim Montgomery to reach it. This season helped elevate the DU hockey brand to a certified top five national program.

The memory of Schmaltz’s goal will sting for a while, but DU fans should remember this special Pioneer team for giving their all for the glory of our school, rather than the sad bounce of a puck.

Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus.