Photo courtesy of Patrick Green
Elements of adversity, character in question, and lack of urgency have threatened the reigning 2017 national champions, the University of Denver Pioneers, as they embarked on their quest to repeat. With hopes of mirroring recent second-half runs, it’s critical that players buy in to the Pioneer culture and detail-oriented process exhorted by head coach Jim Montgomery.
Junior forward Dylan Gambrell is no stranger to the system of play under Montgomery. Prior to DU, the Bonney Lake, Wash. native played for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League (USHL). During his last season as head coach and general manager, Montgomery led the Fighting Saints including Gambrell, to win the Clark Cup which is annually awarded to the winner of the USHL.
Throughout his collegiate career Gambrell has emerged as a living icon of the new era of Pioneer hockey.
“He’s always the guy who goes under the radar. He’s just a hockey player,” Montgomery said. “He does things right. He always produces. Some weekends like last weekend [against Miami University] he produced at an extremely high level [three goals and two assists], but he always is helping us win. Even when our team was playing poorly I thought Gambrell was really one of the players who was really playing the right way.”
As a freshman, Gambrell ascended to DU’s top line that powered the Pioneers to their 2016 Frozen Four run in Tampa, Fla. Dubbed the “Pacific Rim Line” Gambrell centered his west coast counterparts Danton Heinen (Langley, British Columbia) and Trevor Moore (Thousand Oaks, Calif.).
Together, the trio combined for 139 points before Heinen and Moore left DU prematurely in pursuit of professional careers. Heinen is currently playing in the NHL for the Boston Bruins and Moore is in his second season with the Toronto Marlies, the AHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The San Jose Sharks selected Gambrell 60th overall in the 2nd Round of the 2016 Entry Draft.
In his sophomore campaign, Gambrell faced trials and tribulations early on. He suffered an upper-body injury that required surgery during the Ice Breaker tournament the Pioneers’ hosted during the second weekend of October. The right-shot forward quickly overcame the obstacle and emulated the role he took on as a freshman to help propel Denver to claim its eighth national title in Chicago.
“He’s been a player that always gets better throughout the year,” Montgomery said. “Last year he was hurt a lot with his thumb and that affected his production. He came on and was unbelievable for us in our [national championship] run.”
After the championship win, Gambrell was the last of Denver’s drafted players to come to a conclusion about returning for his junior season or depart early to begin his professional career. Accompanying his decision to stay, Montgomery appointed Gambrell an alternate captain position alongside classmate Troy Terry, senior Adam Plant, and senior captain Tariq Hammond.
“I think he takes [being a captain] real serious. I don’t know if he’s yet evolved to the level where he’s really comfortable speaking to the team,” Montgomery said. “That element of pushing his teammates and holding teammates accountable, I think that’s a level of security that is starting to come. I don’t think it’s been there since the start of the year, but I don’t think it’s been there for our entire team.”
As the Pioneers struggled in the first half of the season posting an 11-5-4, 5-3-2 National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) record, Montgomery frequently and candidly questioned the players’ commitment to the culture and system of Denver hockey.
Gambrell, while not blatantly vocal, has risen to the expectations of his authority position through his on and off-ice actions.
“Just being in a leadership role, being one of the older guys now and trying to lead by example for the younger guys on the team is one of the things that’s been more different this year,” Gambrell said. “I think just the experience and being able to talk about what I’ve been through has helped out a bit. Having that experience and telling them [younger teammates] what it’s like and how to handle yourself in different situations is helpful for them.”
While less ostentatious on the puck than Denver’s other offensive threats like Henrik Borgstrom and Troy Terry, Gambrell thrives as a disciplined and versatile player across all 200 feet of ice. He’s perfected a precise, quick-release shot, utilizes his deceptive speed as a potent force on the forecheck, and has been an integral component of Denver’s top power play unit since he was a freshman.
With 101 career games under his belt and 27 points on nine goals and 18 assists already this year, Gambrell is heating up just as the Pioneers need it most.
“It’s continuing on the route we’re on now,” Gambrell said. “We’ve taken some good strides in the past few weekends, especially in the last three games. I think just continuing on that path and really drilling home the details and the process. If we continue that it’s going to give us more success to come.”