Puck Swami: Goodbye, Campus Lounge

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-6-30-38-pmCampus Lounge Interior, Denver, Colorado – August 2016  – Photo by Jake Norris

The announcement that the Campus Lounge in Denver would be closing its doors this week hit us old-time Pio fans hard.

One fan said, “It’s the end of an era.”

Another told me that the loss “feels like losing your favorite Uncle.”

A third chum said, “It’s like getting your finger chopped off. You know you’re still going to live, but life will never be the same.”

And while the University Boulevard bar will soon reopen under a different name and owner, it truly will never be the same.

As I ponder my own 30+ years of patronage there, “sameness” was exactly what the Campus Lounge was all about.  Whether you walked in the door in 1986, 1996, 2006 or 2016, the place always felt familiar – it was the quintessential Denver neighborhood tavern. The 1960s-era neon sign beckoned out front to welcome you on a cold hockey night, and once inside, there was a simple classic u-shaped bar (with regulars on the fixed stools) and a few naugahyde booths surrounding it, a pool room in the back, lots of cold beer and several televisions showing hockey games as the dominant form of entertainment. It was a no-frills place and people liked it that way.

For many of us, “The Campus” was a second home of sorts — where you could not only watch a game, but talk with your adult friends, eat a decent meal (the Mexican food and T-bone steak specials back in the day were my faves) and almost certainly run into the many former Pioneer hockey players who hung out there. It was intimate, well-worn, and not the least bit pretentious — a far cry from the homogenized, antiseptic and soulless Applebees-style bars that populate the strip malls of today. And while it was just close enough to the DU campus to still be a DU hockey hangout, it was far enough away to never have been infected with the usual undergraduate shenanigans associated with DU-adjacent bars.

A big part of the Campus Lounge experience through the years was its owner, Jim Wiste, a former late ‘60s Pioneer all-American and later NHL hockey player, who has owned the bar for the last 40 years, but who is now ready to retire and “become a customer.”  Wiste, now age 70, ran the place with a smile, an open heart and a special fondness for the game of hockey and for those who played/loved the game — exactly what you’d expect from a guy who hailed from the perfectly-named hockey town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Indeed, Wiste is one of the most visible, but now fading, links to the 1960s era of Pioneer Hockey, the era that established DU as a national power. It was a time when so many Saskatchewan prairie boys like Wiste were recruited (in a steady pipeline) by the legendary DU coach Murray Armstrong (himself a Saskatchewan native) to make Denver their home. While it became a Denver fixture, the Campus Lounge is a bar that would not be out of place in Wiste’s Moose Jaw, where hockey rinks and small town taverns combine to fuel a Canadian cultural tradition that helps to bind the huge geography of the country together in a sense of shared community on cold winter nights.

Some of my own favorite hockey memories there include entertaining about 50 die hard college hockey fans from around the country, when Denver hosted the Frozen Four in 2008.  Or watching 50+ years of former Pioneers gathered there to trade hockey memories and tall tales during the “60 years of DU Hockey” celebration in 2010, as well as a similar gathering the night before last year’s “Battle on Blake” against Colorado College.  There were also those times when hockey players past and present from well beyond the DU program would find their way to the Campus with the sole purpose of sharing good times with their friends, as well as more than a few sad gatherings when the Pioneer family would toast a former member when he passed on to the great hockey rink in the sky.

There were also those times I wasn’t there, but wished I was, like the night DU won the 2004 NCAA hockey title. I was in Boston to watch the DU/Maine title game in person with about 1,000 other DU fans, as the Pios capped off a 35-year NCAA title drought with that memorable last 90 seconds as they staved-off a 6-on-3 Maine skater advantage to win, 1-0. And while I was 1700 miles from Denver that night, I still remember my wife screaming joyfully into her cell phone amid the thunderous post-game noise and excitement of the Campus Lounge, where she had watched the same game with Denver friends. The Campus Lounge cheers somehow warmed my heart even more than the DU cheers that surrounded me in Boston.

Still, all good things eventually must end.

But if you do get a chance to swing by the old place before last call this Sunday, Sept. 25, please hoist a cold one to Wiste, the patrons, and to the memory of the Campus Lounge, and all those good DU times that went with it.

It will always be there in our memories…

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically here at LetsGoDU.