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.