Playing in third Frozen Four in four years, Pioneers on brink of becoming greatest of all time

BUFFALO, N.Y. – “Prove Them Wrong.” That has been the mantra of the 2018-19 Denver Pioneers. It’s on the shirts worn by players and staff and it’s on the faces of each and every one of the Pioneers players. “Prove Them Wrong” has galvanized a team that didn’t exactly have a surplus of believers outside of the offices and locker rooms at the Ritchie Center at the beginning of the season. Whether it was a tweet here, an article there, or a passing comment on campus, before the puck even dropped, it was a foregone conclusion that the Pioneers would have a down year. How foolish!

But let’s rewind. Let’s take a trip back to May. Jim Montgomery, Denver’s head coach that led the Pioneers back to the pinnacle of college hockey with two straight Frozen Fours and the program’s first national title in more than a decade, took the head job with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. And, to make matters worse, his departure was on the heels of an exodus of early departures that included Denver’s Big Three of Henrik Borgström, Dylan Gambrell, and Troy Terry. Outside of the locker room, you would have been forgiven for mentally preparing for a down year.

Now, 24 wins later, the Pioneers are back in the Frozen Four for the third time in the last four years with a chance to win the program’s ninth national title and tie Michigan for the most all-time. Is it a shock? Yes. What about to the players? Not in the slightest.

“Prove Them Wrong” has epitomized what makes Denver one of the best programs of all time. “Prove Them Wrong” may lead the Pioneers to that coveted ninth title and cement Denver’s status as the greatest college hockey program of all time.

“We’ve grown so much as a team so far,” junior alternate captain Tyson McLellan said. “We want to put our imprint with this team on a great legacy of Denver hockey. We think we can do that this weekend.”

Denver head coach David Carle directs practice at the Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y.

Denver has always been among college hockey’s bluebloods. Dating all the way back to the late 1950s, the Pioneers have seen college hockey powers like St. Lawrence, Michigan Tech, Cornell, and others rise and fall. Only programs like North Dakota, Minnesota, Boston College, Boston University, and Denver were able to sustain consistent national success as the game evolved over the decades.

Now, in the late 2010s, it seems college hockey is entering an era of unprecedented parity. And the 2019 NCAA Tournament seems to be part of the beginning of that trend. 15 of the 16 team NCAA Tournament field combined for just seven total national titles. And none of those 15 teams had more than two. That other team? That other program that brought the title count among the NCAA tournament from seven to 15? Denver.

In this era of parity, most of those bluebloods mentioned haven’t been able to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the sport. But Denver, playing in its 16th Frozen Four after earning its 12th-straight NCAA Tournament berth (top active streak), has and is the only blueblood mentioned that even made the 2019 NCAA Tournament. They’ve won titles in four different decades and been to Frozen Fours in six.

But if those accolades don’t do it for you, because hell, North Dakota has done that too, the Pioneers have “Proven Them Wrong” all the way back to the Frozen Four with a roster and coaching staff that wasn’t even supposed to win 20 games this year.

“You don’t know how many opportunities you get to do something of this magnitude,” sophomore alternate captain Ian Mitchell said. “You want to put your mark on the program and be able to go back 5, 10 years later with your teammates and talk about what a special thing you had going, what you were able to accomplish. It’s very important.”

Pioneers take a breather to talk Frozen Four semifinal gameplanning.

Yes, Denver is already one of the best programs of all time. Many other programs can only dream about the accolades that the Pioneers have earned. But to win the 2019 national championship with this roster, with a first-year head coach, the Pioneers will have cemented themselves as the greatest college hockey program of all time.

“The special part about Denver is every year we expect to be in these moments,” head coach David Carle said. “We believed we could be in this moment this year if we grew as much as we have. I think the fact that we’re here shows that they’ve grown a lot. We’ve grown a lot as a team. That was our mindset coming in. So did we expect to be here? Yes, we did.”

Go ahead and keep believing that this team can’t do it, though. Feel free to temper your expectations for this weekend like so many of us did for the entire season. The Pioneers have made it a habit of “Proving Them Wrong” and they’d love nothing more than to do it again twice this weekend.