Photo courtesy of Patrick Green
The No. 4 University of Denver Pioneers boast the lowest penalty in minutes (PIM) among arguably the toughest conference in college hockey, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). Averaging just 7.65 PIM per game and compiling a total of 75 penalties and 153 minutes served; Denver (17-7-6, NCHC 11-5-4-3) prides itself on its relentless, yet sharp-witted style of play. Following the departure of former captain Grant Arnold who graduated in 2016, the coaching staff began searching for a player that generated momentum through his physicality but remained composed thanks to intuitive hockey IQ. United States Hockey League (USHL) forward Jake Durflinger was the perfect mix.
“He wins a lot of battles and he never stops competing,” DU head coach Jim Montgomery said. “That’s what drew us to him and the fact that he has a really good brain. We think he thinks the game at a really high level. He’s someone that is in the mold between a Grant Arnold and an Evan Janssen [former forward – ‘17]. He has Grant Arnold’s bite and we think he has Evan Janssen’s ability to execute.”
Durflinger established a reputation in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers from 2014-16. He was traded to the Bloomington Thunder in 2015 where he played two seasons. Sized at just 5-foot-8, 170-pounds, Durflinger elevated his game to become a demanding and wearisome player to face.
“What he started doing was utilizing his reputation in the league,” former Bloomington Thunder head coach Dennis Williams said. “A lot of players didn’t like him and a lot of teams didn’t like him because of the way he played; he was hard-nosed. He competed hard. He started to clean up on undisciplined penalties quite quickly I thought. And then a lot of his penalties came because of his hard-nosed characteristic of playing. When you look at teams like the University of Denver and the top teams in the country, they’re successful because of guys like Jake.”
The Walnut Creek, Calif. native amassed 80 points on 32 goals and 48 assists and served a whopping 378 penalty minutes throughout his 165 career USHL games.
“I came into the USHL pretty young on a really, really talented team so I had to adjust my role,” Durflinger said. “That following year I got traded to Bloomington and I had to find a way to adjust my role again. Not necessarily having to be the fourth-line guy, but by being hard to play against. Not taking stupid penalties, challenging my game and creating offense as well.”
Durflinger was in his fourth year of the USHL and was recently promoted to captain of the Thunder when he began having promising discussions with Denver.
“Being from the west coast, Denver was always my dream school,” Durflinger said. “I think I maybe didn’t develop as quickly as some of the other guys. After a pretty long and successful career in the USHL I was able to talk to David Carle after my third year of juniors and after one year I was able to come here.”
DU’s assistant coaches David Carle and Tavis MacMillan were familiar with Durflinger. Besides his tenacity, Durflinger exhibited room for exceptional growth. After taking a trip to the 2016 USHL Fall Classic, the coaches initiated the pursuit.
“Everyone questions skating at every level, at midget, at the North American League, at the USHL,” Carle said. “Everyone always wondered how he would do at the next level. His brain and his competitiveness have allowed him to have success at every level. He had a track record of being able to take progressions, from midget hockey to junior hockey from the North American League to the USHL and he always transitioned fine. Those were the things that really stood out to us.
“He’s really good at what he is. That’s the role we saw that he could fill here.”
While the Pioneers’ roster is filled with flashy, hot-handed, intelligent players, Durflinger embodies the selfless mantra that Montgomery and the program emphasize daily.
“Durf was the ultimate team-guy first,” Williams said. “He’s not the biggest player, but one that doesn’t shy away from anybody out there. He plays with a lot of emotion.”
“He’s a really competitive kid, as you see out there,” Carle said. “We really felt like we needed that in our room. He’s the type of guy that you want to take into Duluth or North Dakota or CC, that isn’t going to get scared by the moment. He’s just going to go through a wall for you.”
Sporting the number 16, Durflinger has registered 11 points on four goals and seven assists in his 25 appearances of his rookie campaign. The right-shot winger has been skating on the third line and doesn’t fear the dirty areas or taking hits. Durflinger controls every inch of the ice with energy and pace.
“In the second-half, he has really started to assert himself here,” Montgomery said. “The key for him is that he’s a guy that plays with emotion and we love that, but he can’t be emotional. The five-minute penalty that he took at CC, that’s a learning moment for him. Things didn’t go his way early in the shift and he compounded by hitting someone from behind. That’s where he’s got to learn to play with emotion, but that’s not the time and place to do it.”
With two regular season matchups remaining, including a trip to No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State (20-6-4, NCHC 14-4-2-1) with the race for the Penrose Cup on the line, Durflinger has identified his role among DU’s lineup. His blend of stalwart spirit and stealth skill are elements needed to propel the Pioneers’ ambitious success.
“That’s the way he’s wired,” Montgomery said. “He’s wired to play that kind of role to help. That’s the kind of guy you win with.”