Photo courtesy of Shannon Valerio/Denver Athletics
It’s no secret that the University of Denver Pioneers hockey program underwent some substantial changes during the offseason. Everything from the internals of the team makeup and positions within the coaching staff, to the literal gutting of the locker room to give way to luxurious renovations.
The Pioneers didn’t just lose five influential players who each embodied the very essence of the Denver hockey culture, but the program also lost the man who reinstated Denver’s tradition of excellence. The departures of former head coach Jim Montgomery and household names in Henrik Borgström, Dylan Gambrell, Blake Hillman, Logan O’Connor, and Troy Terry are perceivably devastating.
But like the locker room, the program trusts that throughout the messy construction and inevitable setbacks, there is an accomplished and methodically assembled product that will emerge.
“Nothing needs to change,” senior captain Colin Staub said. “Sure, the personnel changes. But at the end of the day, the guys we have in the locker room are the guys we want to play with and win a national championship with. Regardless of all the guys we lost, we know we filled those spots with great players and are excited for what those guys can bring.”
The five vacancies hurt, there’s no question, but it’s not as if the program was abandoned in utter shambles with no direction towards the next era. Montgomery was strategic in grooming his staff, returning players, and recruits with an extensive comprehension of the delicacies of the Denver hockey system. He ensured the program would be left to thrive under the reigns of his pupil, David Carle.
“What’s worked has worked,” Carle said. “For us and our staff, we don’t see a real reason to change. One of the great things our staff did over the last five years was we were constantly looking for ways to improve and to make tweaks within how we play. That will certainly continue with our new staff. We’ll always look for new ways to do things with our culture and new ways to get better.”
Denver’s iconic ‘proscess’ that Montgomery orchestrated, at its very core, emphasizes discipline and individual feats that contribute to incremental team achievements. It’s a process that the players and staff have bought into since his arrival on campus in 2013.
“What’s really important to me is making sure that our young guys get up to speed as quick as possible,” Staub said. “Not just our systems and our on-ice stuff. I really want to be a leader that instills the Denver culture and values. I want to make sure our sophomores and freshmen buy into those values so they can continue to pass those on through the next generation of Pios.”
While the changes are seemingly overwhelming, Staub and Lukosevicius have already experienced a similar situation. Following the 2016 season, top-line forwards Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore left prematurely to pursue their professional careers. Their absences were apparent, but the Pioneers adjusted. Younger guys like Staub and Lukosevicius were called upon to step-up. And they did. Subsequently, the Pioneers were crowned the 2017 kings of college hockey.
“We’ve obviously had the opportunity to see a lot of things over the course of our four years,” Staub said. “We’ve been under great leadership of [former captains] Grant Arnold, Will Butcher and Tariq Hammond. We’ve really sat back and learn from those guys. At the same time, we’ve already been through a lot of the changes we’re seeing this year. Going into Jarid[‘s and my] sophomore year we lost Trevor Moore and Danton Heinen. It’s really no different than what we’re going through this year.”
And so the process of sticking to the process remains. The main takeaways of Denver’s system include; three or less odd-man rushes, win the battle of the special teams, win 55-percent of faceoffs, take no bad penalties, and win the battles of the net fronts. By focusing on the foundations, the Pioneers look to excel shift-by-shift, period-by-period, and game-by-game.
“I think every year comes with its different challenges,” Carle said. “I think our challenges are in no way more difficult than they were last season, they’re just different. You have to try and work as a group to overcome them together to try and have ultimate success. I do believe that talent, speed, and skill are not an issue for our team.”
Denver has already embraced an early setback of losing probable freshman starting goaltender Filip Larsson indefinitely to a lower-body injury. Sophomore, Devin Cooley, rose to the occasion as he was called upon during Denver’s first two contests. DU trumped Air Force 4-1 and Alabama-Huntsville 6-1, respectively and Cooley was subsequently named the NCHC’s Goaltender of the Week.
“He had a great summer, arguably one of the better summer’s of our players,” Carle said. “He’s really given our team a lot of confidence with how he’s practiced, how he’s prepared on daily basis and how he’s obviously played on his two first career starts.”
In just two games, the Pioneers’ dynamic offense has seen a dominant presence in junior Liam Finlay and the orientation of newcomers including Mercyhurst University senior transfer d-man, Les Lancaster, and freshmen forwards, Cole Guttman, Emilio Petterson, and Brett Stapley.
Denver hockey didn’t become a national powerhouse overnight; its reputation is years, decades in the making. Like the previous generations of Pioneers, the talent is replenished. From there, the distinguished force is reconstructed and the winning culture continues to reproduce.
“We lost a ton of big name guys, that’s clear,” Staub said. “At the end of the day, a lot of people haven’t seen our freshmen and haven’t been able to see the way they can play yet. There’s a lot of potential in that locker room. We definitely don’t see this as a rebuilding year. We replace a lot of the talent with strong hockey players in our locker room. I think as people are sleeping on us, that’s their fault and we’re going to take advantage of it. We’re really excited to be able to prove some people wrong.”