Puck Swami: Pioneer Hockey Needs to Win NCAA Title Now

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Like most of you, I can’t wait for Saturday’s game.

I’ve been following the DU Hockey program for more than 35 years, and I’ve seen a lot of great Denver hockey teams. In my opinion, the current Pioneer edition has the potential to walk forever among the best of them, should they find success in the next four games of this memorable season. And while we Pioneer fans hope they win it all every year, if any team has the senior-laden experience, quality and depth to win a NCAA Championship, it is this DU team.

There is also a sense of urgency being communicated to the team by DU head coach Jim Montgomery as he prepares his Pios for this tournament, likely related to his team’s lack of high-paced practices (coupled with the team’s rare losing performance against North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals last week). I see this renewed urgency to win it all as part of a larger sense of urgency around DU hockey in general, where some storm clouds are starting to gather on the edges of the team’s parade. I’ve said many times that we are living in a golden age of sports at DU, and while it’s tempting to think that these days will last forever, they likely won’t. DU needs to win now, because the next five years are likely going to get bumpy. Here’s why:

  • The growth of the Big 10 and its potential impact on the NCHC
  • The growth of Jim Montgomery as a coach
  • The twilight of Peg Bradley-Doppes and Ron Grahame’s careers at DU

Let’s face it – the Big 10 hockey conference stumbled badly out of the gate in 2013 (and some think it is still stumbling, due in large part to the very poorly-attended conference tournaments it has hosted), but now the conference is righting the ship and fixing its problems. The conference is jettisoning the neutral site conference tournament in favor of campus sites next year, reducing the unpopular Sunday afternoon TV games and also is actively expanding its membership.

As a result of these changes, when added to the quality improvements within the Big 10 programs themselves, I believe the Big 10 will likely dominate college hockey within the next five years. The Big 10 has always had more money, more big schools, more big arenas, more big NCAA brand names and more TV leverage. Now that the conference is starting to fix its self-inflicted startup mistakes, it won’t be long before the rest of college hockey may not be able to keep up.

The NCHC was created (led by DU and North Dakota) to combat the Big 10 in hockey, and the conference is riding high right now due to the hockey-first focus of most of its membership. Right now, many top recruits want to go NCHC schools, but if the Big 10 and its programs continue to the use the financial, legislative and size clout to advance as NCAA powers, the current NCHC dominance might not be sustainable.

This year, three Big 10 teams made the NCAA tournament – Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State, after only one Big 10 school made it in 2016 (Michigan). Minnesota is a #1 seed this year, ranked fourth in the country, and still a premier hockey program with a big fan base, a great tradition and a huge statewide recruiting advantage. Ohio State beat DU at Magness Arena this year and is something of a potential sleeping giant in hockey, with a rich, successful athletic department. And Penn State has successfully burst onto the college hockey scene and made the NCAA tournament in just its fifth year as a varsity program, with a new arena and an increasingly rabid fan base. Should any of those three programs step up and win the NCAAs this year, it will further validate the growth of the Big 10 conference for potential recruits.

But if you go deeper than just the three competing Big 10 NCAA tourney teams this season, you can see that the whole league is in the process of rapid quality improvement.

Coach Tony Granato’s Wisconsin program was very competitive this year (missing the NCAA tourney by a puck hitting a goalpost in overtime of the Big 10 Championship Game) and will be nationally relevant very shortly. We all know the Badgers can lead the country in attendance when that program is humming, a reality which may be soon to arrive and is important for the entire sport.

The University of Michigan is still the nation’s all-time top hockey program with nine NCAA hockey titles, and will likely soon be revived under a new coach, assuming 77-year old coaching legend Red Berenson exits gracefully, as many expect to happen soon. The Wolverines have one of the most active and impressive fan experiences in the country and a great school tradition to sell.

Michigan State, another strongly-pedigreed hockey brand, just pushed out its own coach, Tom Anastos, last week after six years of mediocrity, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see former DU coach George Gwozdecky get an interview in East Lansing, Mich., where Gwoz was once an assistant coach and where his wife, Bonnie, grew up. Gwoz could bring Sparty back to prominence in three years, and so could Danton Cole and some other top coaches that MSU could hire.

Notre Dame, an NCAA tournament team this year and one of America’s largest sports brands, is joining the Big 10 next season (from Hockey East) as an affiliate member. The Irish, who were slated to join the NCHC at its founding, but never joined due to television issues, brings the number of Big 10 hockey playing schools to seven, which will likely force the Big 10 to seek an eighth member to even out the scheduling and travel.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is probably the best Big 10 solution to get to eight hockey teams. NU could have varsity hockey tomorrow if it wanted, as the Huskers have already put ice-making capabilities into its new (2013) Pinnacle Bank basketball arena in Lincoln, and have already built a new (2015) Breslow practice rink on campus. Nebraska has plenty of athletic money to spend, and the Huskers’ Title IX issues could likely be solved by adding a women’s varsity hockey program at the same time.

Some have speculated that the Big 10 may even be interested in poaching NCHC co-founder North Dakota as an affiliate member, with its own great hockey tradition (eight NCAA titles, including last year’s) and the Fighting Hawks’ large fan base. UND would be stuck in an interesting pickle if it is asked to join the Big 10, as the UND fan base might be split between loyalties to NCHC and fellow hockey schools in the upper Midwest, and the new opportunity to go head-to-head with longtime rival Minnesota and play larger schools every weekend. The Big 10 would probably have to pay UND’s NCHC exit fee (likely $1-2 million) as the Fighting Hawks are now facing a $1 million+ sports deficit, but that kind of money is nothing for the Big 10, if it decides it wants UND. In fact, money has a funny way of clarifying a school’s ambitions, and the Big 10 has lots of it.

As the Big 10 gains prominence, the NCHC will be likely be affected adversely, and no school in it more so than DU, especially if UND does eventually leave the NCHC.  If North Dakota were to defect, I could see another realignment coming after that where DU could get stuck in a bad western conference with CC, Arizona State, and perhaps Alaska, as the non-Big 10 Midwestern schools would likely band together by geography and eliminate costly flights west. Such a fourth-tier western-only conference would stop DU’s national recruiting success, likely for good.

It is also well known that Jim Montgomery was close to becoming the head coach of the Calgary Flames of the NHL this past summer, and it would not surprise me at all to see Monty get an NHL head coaching offer in the next few years. As a former NHL player, he would have instant credibility in any NHL locker room, and the man’s amazing success at DU has not gone unnoticed by the world’s best hockey league.  Put it this way – I would be very surprised if Monty is still coaching DU five years from now. He’s just too good a coach.

Finally, I think we are in the sunset years of the best athletics management team DU has ever had. Athletic Director Peg Bradley-Doppes has been critical to growing DU’s success into multiple sports, but she’s been here since 2005 and is nearing age 60 now. At the same time, her deputy, former DU hockey great Ron Grahame will be 67 years old this June. I would be surprised if either of them are at DU five years from now.

Add it all up, and it means that DU needs to make hay while the proverbial sun shines. DU needs to win the next four hockey games to bring the big prize back to Denver, as the reality of an unsettled future awaits.

Go Pios!

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

 

6 thoughts on “Puck Swami: Pioneer Hockey Needs to Win NCAA Title Now”

  1. Great piece, Puck. While I agree the Big 10 will improve, I still think football can also act as a drag, too. The Big 10 focus will always be on football first. At most schools in the NCHC, hockey is THE sport. And, in the history of the NCAA, smaller schools can do well – just think Quinnipiac, Michigan Tech and little Union College to name two. As for Peg and Ron, it would be awesome to reward their fine work with a title. In my opinion, they have been the engine behind what you have titled “the golden era of DU sports.” Now is a unique time when everything has come together to give DU one of their best opportunities ever. It will be fun to see how it unfolds.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Tim.

    DU has been very strategic in its sports investments and coaching hires, and to an extent, is nationally relevant due to its decision to build the Ritchie Center and the hire of George Gwozdecky in the 1990s, and Jim Montgomery’s ability to build upon the existing success.

    Let’s hope they can keep it going…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Puck, very detailed analysis of what we have now and what could be. It is so much appreciated. I will not disagree with your major premises.
    Once again, Notre Dame is in the forefront of screwing things up for other schools. At best, if North Dakota leaves the NCHC, adding ASU would be the best avenue. Yes, the NCHC will not be as great, but we still might be a powerful conference. This weekend’s opponent, Michigan Tech, would be a welcome addition instead of ASU. In my day, they were more of a rival then North Dakota.
    The B1G can be pretty snobby. Not too sure how proud they would feel having the Sioux as their league’s dominant team.
    As to Monty leaving, it’s inevitable that he’ll be in the NHL sooner then later. No matter what happens this weekend, his hiring was a grand slam home run. We have studs committed to DU for the next few years who will probably not honor their commitment w/o Monty. Next hire needs to be a home run. Kevin Dineen needs to get his degree.
    As for Peg and Ron Graham, it’s true they will be gone soon. Peg is a heavyweight in the national scope of AD’s. Ron is our hockey man who also knows lacrosse. Peg loves DU and most likely will be on the search committee for her successor. What will be will be.
    So fans love what we have now. Cherish every moment by supporting all our teams. Now this is important: if things drop a bit in our successes or you feel it’s coming in the next year or 2, support our teams more then ever. MAKE STUDENT/ATHLETE RECRUITS WHO VISIT CAMPUS WANT TO BE AT DU. IF HIGH SCHOOL RECRUITS DON’T THINK DU STUDENTS CARE, THEY WILL SIGN LETTERS OF INTENT SOMEPLACE ELSE.

    GO PIOS

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  4. As an FYI, despite some chatter earlier this year suggesting that the Big 10 had all but decided to extend an invite to North Dakota to become its 8th member; most of the speculation out in the universe these days is pointing to Nebraska-Lincoln (most likely, as they have the facilities already built) or Northwestern as the likeliest options to fill that 8th slot.

    For what it’s worth, here’s an excerpt from an as-yet unpublished piece I wrote for The Hockey Writers on this (unpublished, mostly because they still don’t want to treat college hockey as legitimate…)

    …There is no way around it – the BTHC stumbled BADLY out of the gate. Poor performance on the ice and lackluster enthusiasm from the fans has turned what looked like a (relatively) sure thing into an utter mess. And then there was the ill-conceived attempt to rig the recruiting game in their favor last year – one that ultimately didn’t succeed AND managed to piss off the entire rest of the college hockey world. Honestly, after the dumpster fire that has been the first couple of years of it’s existence, adding Notre Dame and North Dakota in successive years would
    instantly add a huge amount of legitimacy to the BTHC.

    So. Yeah. North Dakota to the Big Ten. From the Big Ten’s perspective, hell yes! But from North Dakota’s perspective, what the hell for???

    See, the thing that many people forget is that hockey drives North Dakota’s athletic department bus. North Dakota plays in a hockey conference THAT IT (along with Denver) STARTED. Why would they leave it for an affiliation where hockey is squarely behind football, basketball, women’s basketball, and, recently, lacrosse in the pecking order?

    From a competitive standpoint, even a modicum of success in a given year of NCHC play basically guarantees NoDak an NCAA birth. The same cannot be said about a BTHC schedule….at least, not now.

    Additionally, NoDak plays in front of a packed house every night and gets pretty much any recruit they want. Their recruiting and attendance isn’t magically going to get BETTER in the BTHC – because, honestly, how much better can it get???

    In the end, Big Ten Hockey needs North Dakota WAY more than North Dakota needs the Big Ten. Let’s face it, North Dakota is North Dakota. They’re the single biggest brand in college hockey right now and, barring a prolonged period of absolute suck-titude, will continue to be the single biggest brand in college hockey. So, for the Big Ten, it’s a no-brainer. But from North Dakota’s perspective, unless a grossly unequal TV revenue sharing agreement can be worked out that benefits them at the expense of the other schools, why would they even consider it?

    And if you go down that road, would the Big Ten schools still be so hot on North Dakota’s trail – particularly with the (whether it’s real or perceived) lack of ‘institutional compatibility’ that’s often mentioned?

    Yes. Stranger things have happened. And, will continue to happen. However, I just can’t see how this would work to benefit anyone other than the Big Ten (and, even then, only in hockey)….and if North Dakota doesn’t get any tangible benefit out of it, why bother?

    Like

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