The Denver-North Dakota rivalry from between the pipes

Photo courtesy of Shannon Valerio

There are no shortage of similarities when comparing two of college hockey’s most renowned programs: the University of Denver (DU) Pioneers and the University of North Dakota (UND) Fighting Hawks. From the number of national championships [tied with eight] to Hobey Baker Award recipients [each have two] to program successes and line pairings, the two have paralleled and contested one another for decades. The earliest contention was when the Pioneers defeated the Fighting Hawks 6-2 in the 1958 national title game to claim the program’s first championship. The following season, UND returned to the championship game and edged Michigan State 4-3 in overtime. Beyond the undisputed legacy and traditions of excellence exemplified by each respective program, the rivalry has enriched the magnitude as two of college hockey’s finest and most decorated programs compete.

The recent congruences that have unfolded include each program’s man between the pipes. Denver’s Tanner Jaillet and North Dakota’s Cam Johnson, both seniors, have each accomplished extensive and identical success throughout their collegiate careers.

Both goaltenders earned their starting positions as sophomores, helped their team conclude a national championship drought, were nominated as finalists for the Mike Richter award and amassed similar career statistics.

“They’ve always been a rival of ours,” Johnson said. “Since my freshman year those weeks when we were playing Denver in the [upcoming] weekend, practice always ramped up. Right away I knew they were a rival. When we [Johnson and Jaillet] both became the solidified starting goalies our sophomore year, we began going back and forth for the past three years. We’ve always had great games. We’ve played in some big games in the Frozen Four and both have won a national championship. It’s been a good, friendly rivalry.”

During Johnson’s second season as starter, he led the Fighting Hawks to their eighth national title. En route to the championship game, Denver and North Dakota crossed paths after a 2-2-1 regular season result which included a tie in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) consolation game on March 19, 2016. Meeting in the semifinals of the 2016 Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., the winner would not only advance to college hockey’s grandest stage, but would also decide who won the season series.

“They beat us [4-2] in the Frozen Four in Tampa when they won their national championship,” Jaillet said. “Then we got ours [national championship] last year. Every time we play they are competitive games, they’re physical, it’s hard to gain any space and they’re usually pretty close [in score]. It’s fun playing them. We have a pretty good little rivalry going on.”

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Cam Johnson with the 2016 national championship trophy (photo courtesy of Russ Hons)

Prior to each program’s national championship victory, Johnson and Jaillet were one of five finalists for the annual Mike Richter Award, presented to the most outstanding goaltender of that season. Boston College’s Thatcher Demko won the accolade the year Johnson was nominated and the following year Jaillet earned the honors.

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Mike Richter presenting Tanner Jaillet with the award, Jaillet was the award’s fourth recipient (photo courtesy of Patrick Green)

Achieving such rare successes throughout their careers, while may seem extraordinary, was never deemed unobtainable.

“I guess it was never out of question,” Jaillet said. “You just come into each season hoping to work hard, work on the little things and do what you can to help your team win. I was fortunate enough to play on a pretty good team last year and everything turned out pretty good. The national championship was the one I really wanted, the Mike Richter was just icing on the cake. Obviously, you need experience for both.”

“Those are some things that you think about like, ‘Wow, it would be cool to do that.’ To experience it is a way different feeling,” Johnson said. “Once you experience it and then you don’t experience it the next year, it really sinks in at how crazy it was what we did and how special of an achievement it was.”

Jaillet, a Red Deer, Alberta native, played juniors for the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s (AJHL) Fort McMurray Oil Barrons. Sized at 5-foot-10, 185-pounds, the decision to attend DU didn’t require hesitation once the offer was extended.

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Tanner Jaillet (photo courtesy of Patrick Green)

“I chose Denver because of the coaching staff, the history of winning and the program’s success,” Jaillet said. “They play in such a good conference, obviously North Dakota is in there, Just being able to play competitive games all of the time, that was a selling point.”

Jaillet boasted a save percentage (SV%) of .926, a goals against average (GAA) of 2.02, a winning percentage (W%) of .750 and five shutouts during his ongoing career for the Crimson and Gold.

Voluntarily assuming a position that defends pucks that can reach a speed of over 100 miles per hour from stroking twine is not only physically taxing but is a complete test of mental fortitude. How the goaltender reacts to an imperfect game or costly mistake is a defining factor between the elite and the average players.

“It’s just focusing on the little details in practice, being consistent week-in and week-out, day-in and day-out, trying to get better each day,” Jaillet said. “Obviously, you’re not going to be at the top of your game all of the time. But when those lapses happen you have to be able to forget about them and move forward. Control what you can control and keep getting better.”

Similarly, Johnson attests to the challenge of defending the pipes.

“It’s a big mental position. There’s times where you don’t have it,” Johnson said. “There’s games where you struggle and there’s games where you’re unbelievable. It’s all about a balance of how you’re feeling it. If you’re having a rough game it’s all about having that quick memory to put it behind you, to look forward and worry about the challenge that’s ahead rather than dwelling on the past.”

Johnson, a Troy, Mich. native, didn’t envision continuing his career in North Dakota, of all places, until he was traded from the Waterloo Blackhawks (Waterloo, Iowa) to the Fargo Force (Fargo, ND) during the 2014-14 United States Hockey League (USHL) season.

“Coming out of high school I never would have thought in a million years that I would be at the University of North Dakota,” Johnson said. “Fortunately enough for me I had the opportunity to play in the USHL. I ended up getting traded to Fargo in the USHL. That’s really where I first learned what North Dakota was really all about because everybody there is all about the hockey team.”

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Cam Johnson (photo courtesy of Russ Hons)

With a 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame, Johnson posted an average SV% of 9.16, a GAA of 2.08, a W% of .705 and recorded nine shutouts throughout his career, to-date, for the Fighting Hawks.

The culture and fan support of North Dakota hockey are iconic among the college hockey sphere. UND’s Ralph Englestad Arena, referred to as “The Ralph,” simulates the atmosphere of an NHL organization.

“It’s really special,” Johnson said. “Our fans are unbelievable. We sell this place out almost every night. Even when we’re on the road our fans travel really well. Our fans are a big part of why this place is so special. They’ve been around and they’re knowledgeable when it comes to hockey. They hold us to a high standard, as they should. They’re what it’s all about.”

The days suiting up for Denver and North Dakota are numbered for Jaillet and Johnson. The programs split the first series of the 2017-18 season 5-4 (UND) and 4-1 (DU) on Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, 2017. This weekend, the No. 4-ranked Pioneers travel up to the iconic, rambunctious atmosphere, home to No. 11 UND.

“Playing at ‘The Ralph,’ there’s nothing better,” Jaillet said. “It’s fun to try and go in there and beat them or sweep them. We’re looking forward to it.”

While Johnson and Jaillet have registered resembling results, each has contributed and enhanced the unfinished storied rivalry between the Pioneers and the Fighting Hawks.