70 Years of DU Hockey History: The First 20 Years 1949-1969

Our own Puck Swami has authored a three-part historical retrospective for the 70th anniversary of the DU Hockey program. Part One begins today, and the other two parts will follow in the coming weeks. While these stories will run far longer than our usual stories, remember that 70 years is a lot to cover. Enjoy!

As we celebrate 70 years of Pioneer hockey this coming weekend (Nov. 1-2, 2019), it helps to know just how far the DU Hockey program has evolved in those 70 years. The first 20 formative years saw DU go from a terrible start-up program to the dominant program of the 1960s as a five-time NCAA Champion. Part One of this series reviews those first 20 years of DU Hockey.

It was 70 years ago, in December of 1949, that the very first DU hockey team laced up their collective skates. At that time, the pads were heavy leather, the sticks were wooden, and helmets were optional and carried no face masks. Incredibly, most goalies did not wear face masks in that era, either. With no natural ice, no local ice rinks and no youth hockey in Denver at that time, it could not have been predicted that DU would become one of the finest hockey programs in the history of the college game, winning eight NCAA titles by 2017, and sporting a #1 national ranking this week, here in the fall of 2019.

To begin to understand the context for the program’s founding, let’s turn back the clock to the late 1940s, just after World War II. In America, it was a time of optimism and economic explosion. The country was fresh from victory in Europe and the Pacific, and with America’s economic competitors lying mostly in war ruins, America’s domestic spending and manufacturing boomed. The DU campus was also booming. Temporary Quonset huts filled swaths of the DU campus to cope with an overflow of students on the GI bill, whereby the US government paid for its former soldiers’ educations. The university was larger than it had ever been before.

DU Campus 1940s
Some of the many Quonset huts that lined the DU campus after WWII. Photo: University of Denver

While DU football entertained the campus every fall, with a 30,000-seat stadium that stood where the soccer and lacrosse stadiums are today, DU’s winter on-campus entertainment was a virtual void, particularly since DU basketball played most of its games at the old Denver Auditorium downtown. DU’s tiny 1910-built Alumni Gym, which once stood where the Daniels College of Business building is today, did host some hoops games, but it was too small to accommodate spectators in any kind of comfort.

With the economic conditions just right for expansion of DU’s athletics program, then-DU Athletic Director Ellison Ketchum had a strategy to bring all DU sports back to the DU campus by building a new Arena and Fieldhouse complex (where today’s Ritchie Center now stands). Not only would DU basketball have a decent home on campus, but a new ice hockey program would create many more winter game nights on campus.

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Ellison Ketchum was the DU athletic director who brought hockey to DU in 1949. Photo: University of Denver Archives

While Ketchum knew his plan was ambitious, he’d also seen how popular ice hockey had become at Colorado College, which started its team in 1938. With the local rival already waiting to play DU, Ketchum went right to work, and found a new arena — for virtually free! At the time, the US government was getting rid of surplus buildings that had been rapidly erected on US military bases around the country during WWII. Ketchum found a US Naval drill hall (not an airplane hangar as commonly believed) that had been part of the Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho.

A naval base in landlocked Idaho you ask? Yep. Farragut was a huge navy training base built from scratch in the early 1940s on a deepwater lake in isolated northern Idaho, far enough away from US coastal waters to stay out of range of Japanese planes, post Pearl Harbor. Farragut was no longer needed after the war, and the US War Assets Administration paid for the dismantling of the drill hall, while DU paid for shipping it to Denver by truck in 1947, where Ketchum had it re-erected on campus as the University of Denver Arena and Fieldhouse in 1948-49. Ketchum built this 5,300 seat arena with a new ice rink inside, a three-story press box, mostly individual chair-back seating, and a student bleacher section at the south end of the arena. Two sets of bathrooms and two concession stands served the entire building. The DU Arena stood until 1997.

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The DU Arena parts were dismantled from an Idaho Naval base and trucked to Denver after WWII. Photo: University of Denver Archives
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DU Arena under construction circa 1947-1948. Photo: University of Denver Archives
DU Arena 1966
This 1966 photo shows the DU Arena taken from Buchtel Boulevard. The DU Stadium (1926-1971) is at right. The Arena, a former WWII drill hall imported from Idaho, was DU’s home from 1949-1997, before being imploded to make way for today’s Ritchie Center. Photo: University of Denver Archives

But Ketchum needed a coach and a DU team to play in the new arena and looked south to Colorado Springs, where he hired the rink manager at the Broadmoor Ice Palace (CC’s former home arena). The man’s name was Vern Turner, DU’s first head hockey coach. Turner, a native of Stayner, Ontario, had once been a minor league goalie who had led the Duluth Hornets to the American Hockey Association Championship in 1926-27. Turner built DU’s first team, with only a 17-player roster, with 15 sophomores (freshmen were ineligible then) two juniors and no seniors. The first team was comprised of 11 Americans and six Canadians, hailing from Montreal to Tuscon, Arizona.  DU’s first captain was Doug McKinnon, who came to DU at age 21 as a former Royal Canadian Navy WWII veteran from Edmonton, Alberta.

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DU’s First Hockey Team in 1949. Coach Vern Turner stands at left; Captain Doug McKinnon stands in back, wearing #2. Photo: University of Denver

Turner’s first season as DU head coach was an embarrassment, to say the least. On December 19th, 1949, DU opened its newly-completed Arena with an inaugural hockey game against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. The Huskies, with a seasoned lineup of Canadians, blistered DU by a score of 17-0, and DU would go on to lose its next eight games by a combined score of 108-10. Ouch. The Pioneers won only four times in that 13-game season, with each of those wins coming over another newly-built varsity team — from the University of Wyoming, a hockey program that only lasted from 1948 to 1951.

But the next season, as all those DU sophomores became juniors, the DU Pioneers would finish a very respectable 11-11-1, including beating college powerhouses Minnesota and Michigan. In just two seasons, DU went from embarrassment to college hockey competence.

In 1951-52, after the first two seasons of play, DU was fortunate that the sport of college hockey was getting better organized in the west. DU was invited to join the other western schools in a move from independent status to the newly-formed Midwest College Hockey League (MCHL), with Colorado College, Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota and North Dakota. That league, which would be renamed the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League (WIHL) the following season, would eventually become the WCHA, DU’s home league until 2013, when DU helped form its current National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

DU's 1953 Zamboni
In 1953, DU bought this Zamboni ice-resurfacer, just the 11th ever made by the company and built over a WWII-era Jeep. Used by DU for many years, and sporting DU’s crimson color, the Zamboni Company bought the machine from a Colorado collector and restored it in 2012-2013.  Today, it can be seen at Iceland Skating Rink near the Zamboni Company headquarters in California. Photo: The Zamboni Company.

After Turner left DU in 1951, the Pioneers hired as their new coach 24-year old Neil “The Seal” Celley, a 1948 US Olympic forward who had just graduated from the University of Michigan that year. Celley, a native of Eveleth, Minn., who had scored a hat trick against Denver in 1950, was suddenly coaching the Pioneers against many of his former Michigan teammates. The Celley era started very well, as DU stormed out to 18-6-1 overall and a 9-3 league record in 1951-52, led by DU’s first all-American, Eddie Miller.  DU tied that year with Michigan for second place in the MCHL. However, in those days, the NCAA invited only two western teams and two eastern teams to the four-team NCAA tournament. Michigan was selected instead of DU for the second western spot, and the Wolverines ended-up winning the NCAA tournament that year. The NCAA snub seemed to hurt the Pioneers badly, as the team faded to fourth-place WIHL finishes in the next three seasons. While Celley racked-up an excellent .646 winning percentage over his five-year DU career as coach, his DU tenure came to a sudden end in the midseason of 1956. That season, after 14 games, Celley kicked four key DU players off the team for “training and conduct violations” including starting goalie Dave Broadbent, and DU’s leading scorer, senior Joe Kilbey. Shortly after that, Celley handed in his resignation at DU, and the Pioneers finished out the WIHL season in fifth place. Celley never coached again.

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Neil Celley was DU’s second coach, and was 24 years old when hired, right after his playing career at the University of Michigan ended. Photo: University of Michigan

Celley’s sudden departure from DU opened the door for the arrival of DU’s greatest coaching legend — ex-NHL player Murray Armstrong. Hailing from Regina, Saskatchewan, Armstrong had built the Regina Pats into an excellent Canadian Junior team as head coach there in the first half of the 1950s. Armstrong arrived on the DU campus in 1956, nattily-dressed and wearing his trademark Biltmore fedora. Murray was a natural salesman, and convinced Canadian junior hockey players to come to DU with the same verve he used to he sell those Biltmore fedoras as one of his side hustles. Armstrong boldly guaranteed that he’d build an NCAA champion for DU within three years. He backed up that guarantee in just two seasons. (It is notable that he had no assistant coaches for his first 11 years.)

Screen Shot 2019-10-27 at 8.10.36 PMWhile Murray’s first year in 1956-57 was nothing to write home about, he would win the first of his five NCAA titles with his 1957-58 DU team. The team, led by all-American Ed Zemrau and spark plug Con Collie, was comprised largely of players in their early 20s — Murray’s former Regina Pats players and other ex-Canadian juniors whom he brought to Denver after their junior hockey days were over. Denver co-won its first WIHL conference title that year (tied with North Dakota) and received the second western bid for its first NCAA tournament.

According to former Denver Post sports writer Dick Hilker, who covered the 1958 DU team and wrote about it again 50 years later for LetsGoDU back in 2008, DU played the entire season with a rotation of only three defensemen — Zemrau, senior Blair Livingstone and Wayne Klinck. Hilker also pointed out a six-game stretch between Dec. 17 and 31, 1957 that was a pivotal turning point in the season, as the Pioneers swept Michigan and Michigan State on the road, followed by a sweep at home of Michigan Tech. Hilker also pointed out that DU “attendance averaged only 2,756 (half of the arena capacity) in 1955-56 and was only slightly higher in Armstrong’s first season. But when all the ticket stubs were counted in 1957-58, the average crowd was just shy of 4,000. The significance of that was not lost on those of us who were hoping college hockey could be a profitable venture in Denver.”

That 1958 NCAA tournament was held in Minneapolis and was the first NCAA Championship tourney held outside Colorado Springs, site of the first 10 NCAA tournaments. DU whipped Clarkson University in the first semifinal, 6-2. In the NCAA championship game before nearly 8,000 fans, DU faced league rival North Dakota in a setting dominated by thousands of North Dakota fans in the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena. Perhaps initially awed by the big stage, the Pioneers had fallen behind UND 1-0 after the first period. DU got more comfortable as the game went on, however, and the Pioneers erupted for six goals over the next two periods, each scored by a different Pioneer, while holding UND to only one more. Winning 6-2, the Pioneers would bring their first NCAA trophy home to Denver. That 1958 NCAA Championship would start a DU dynasty that would dominate much of the next decade.

1958 DU NCAA Champs
DU’s 1958 NCAA Championship Team. Photo: University of Denver

Soon after, however, the WIHL fractured over recruiting disputes. At the time (and until the late 1970s), the NCAA said it was perfectly legal to recruit ex-major junior players from Canada to play NCAA hockey. Many of Armstrong’s Canadian players were older and more experienced than their US-born counterparts on other teams, who had mostly played only US high school hockey before college. Armstrong began his tenure at DU by bringing to Denver at least seven former Regina Pats players from his final junior team in Regina, two of whom became all-Americans (Grant Munro and Jerry Walker), as well as major junior players from other Canadian programs. This core of former Canadian junior players created a pipeline of talent from western Canada to Denver that still exists to this day (although, since 1980, Canadians on the DU team have played a lower level of junior hockey in Canada, as the NCAA today considers the top level of Canadian Junior hockey — now called Major Junior — to be professional hockey).

The University of Minnesota, under then-coach John Marriucci, vehemently disagreed with Armstrong on this recruiting issue. Marriucci mostly recruited 17- and 18-year-old Minnesotans from the state’s many hockey-playing high schools to feed his team, and wanted other NCAA teams to similarly recruit American high school players. At the time, however, DU didn’t have any hockey-playing high schools to recruit from within many hundreds of miles of Denver, and needed to recruit Canadian junior players just to be competitive. The feud between the two coaches got so heated that Minnesota, even though it was in the same league as DU, refused to play Denver during the regular season from 1959 until 1971. Even now, some old Minnesota fans still gripe about Denver’s “overage Canadians” who helped DU to later dominate the 1960s, while old time DU fans still gripe about Minnesota’s “selective scheduling” policy.

In 1958-59, the recruiting feud forced the whole WIHL league to collapse, leaving all of its schools to cobble together independent schedules on very short notice. Denver struggled to fill out its schedule with college teams, as CC and North Dakota were the only two college teams that would even schedule DU that year. DU was forced to fill out its season with home games against Canadian universities and non-NCAA senior amateur teams like the Warroad (Minn.) Lakers, Calgary Addersons, and the St. Boniface Seals, as well as US and Soviet National teams. DU had the best record of any western team (22–5–1) with only five away games that year, but since most of DU’s opponents were not NCAA college teams, the Pioneers were denied a trip to the NCAA tournament in favor of North Dakota, with Michigan State receiving the other NCAA western bid.

The highlight of that 1958-59 season for DU was perhaps DU’s biggest game ever played to that point, a very surprising 4-4 tie with the Soviet National team, then the world’s best ‘amateur’ team, in a game in Colorado Springs. You can read a more in-depth LetsGoDU story about that game here.  In short, the Pioneers led the Soviets 4-3 late in the third period, but the Soviets scored with a minute left to salvage a tie with DU. As Denver Post sportswriter Dick Hilker remembered: “The headline across the top of the front page in the Sunday morning Denver Post sports section, set in ‘war-declared’-sized type, said DU TIES RUSSIANS, 4-4.  “Hey, they tied us,” the [DU] players emphasized to me [in 1959]. Their anger with the headline writer said everything about how they had approached the game.”

In 1959-60, the WIHL league coaches came to their collective senses and reconstituted the old conference with the exact same WIHL schools, but under a new name (Western Collegiate Hockey Association). They also created an on-campus league playoff for the first time. But since the recruitment issue remained essentially unaddressed by the NCAA, Denver continued to use its major junior recruiting strategy to build an NCAA dynasty in the 1960s.

Denver rolled through that first WCHA season by winning both the regular season and WCHA tournament. In fact, that 1959-60 Denver team may have been the best amateur team in the world that year — a DU team so good that it beat and tied the eventual gold medal 1960 US Olympic team and also tied the vaunted Russian Olympic Team, 2-2, just a few weeks prior to the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympic Games. You can watch some footage from that 1960 DU vs Soviet Union game here.

A month later, in March of 1960, Denver flew to Boston, site of the 1960 NCAA tournament, to play Boston University in the NCAA semifinal on what was then BU’s home ice — the old Boston Arena, which served many Boston schools in that era (today, that same arena is known as Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena). DU crushed the Terriers, 6-3, to silence the packed house of about 5,000 Boston hometown fans in the semifinal.

In the NCAA Championship game the next night, DU fell behind fellow WCHA member Michigan Tech by a 3-2 score late in the second period. Fortunately for the Pioneers, DU scored early in the third to tie the game at three on a George Konik goal. Then, with a little over a minute left in the final period and time ticking down, perhaps Denver’s most dramatic game-winning goal in its NCAA championship history was scored by DU’s captain, John MacMillan, the uncle of current DU assistant coach, Tavis MacMillan. The Lethbridge, Alberta native skated into the Michigan Tech zone and got into a good position to tap in a critical rebound to give the Pioneers the game-winning lead at 4-3 at 18:57 of the third period. Michigan Tech then pulled its goaltender to try and send the game to overtime with the extra skater for the final minute, but DU’s speedy MacMillan would add an empty-netter just before the final buzzer for a 5-3 final score. DU had won its second NCAA crown and MacMillan would move on to an NHL career, winning two back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1962 and 1963.

1960 DU Champions
DU’s 1960 NCAA Champions. Photo: University of Denver

As good as the Olympic-calibre 1959-60 DU team was, the 1960-61 Pioneer squad was likely even better. Certainly one of the greatest NCAA teams of all time, DU won 30 games in 32 starts overall that year, and went 25 games in a row without a defeat, leading to a 30-1-1 record.  The 1960-61 Pioneers scored 242 goals in only 32 games, for an average of 7.5 goals per game. Additionally DU allowed just 59 goals against in that season (a 1.84 GAA) with a scoring differential of +5.72 — still an NCAA record.

DU was lucky enough to host the NCAA tournament that year at the old DU Arena. The Pioneers delighted the 5,300+ mostly home fans by destroying the University of Minnesota and its angry-at-DU coach John Mariucci, 6-1 in the NCAA semifinals. As an encore, DU demolished the St. Lawrence University Saints, 12-2 in a complete laugher of an NCAA title game. The 10-goal Denver margin of victory is still an NCAA record for a title game, almost 60 years later. The home fans celebrated DU’s NCAA title #3, and the Pioneers made their claim to what Armstrong termed “the greatest college hockey team to ever play the game.”

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DU’S 1961 NCAA Championship Team. Photo: University of Denver

While Cornell fans point to their “perfect” 29-0 1970 NCAA Championship team as the best college team of all time, Pioneer fans point to the fact that the Cornell team did not have to play a full slate of games in the best league in the country as DU’s ’60-61 team did. It is unlikely Cornell would have gone undefeated against a steady season-long diet of tough WCHA opponents. And when University of Maine fans point to their 1993 41-1-2 NCAA Champions as the best team ever, Pioneer fans can point to the incredible post-season of the 1961 30-1-1 Champs, who outscored their quality postseason opponents by a whopping 35-6 over the four WCHA and NCAA tourney games, something no NCAA team has ever done.

The Pioneers had six all-Americans in the lineup over their two years of NCAA dominance in ’59-60 and ’60-61 — a pair of two-time all-Americans in Marty Howe and Bill Masterton, and four one-time all-Americans: George Konik, Jerry Walker, Grant Munro and George Kirkwood, who tended the Pioneer goal. Three DU players from the 1961 team (Masterton, Konik and Marshall Johnston) also eventually played in the NHL, a very rare feat for NCAA teams at the time, as NHL management at that time preferred prospects with only Canadian junior backgrounds.

Masterton is perhaps best remembered nationally as the only player ever to die as a result of an on-ice hit in an NHL game when, in 1968, his helmet-less head hit the ice as a member of the Minnesota North Stars. The NHL still awards a trophy in Masterton’s name every year to the NHL player displaying the most courage, perseverance and dedication to hockey.

The two Pioneer NCAA titles in the early 1960s helped make DU hockey into Denver’s biggest sports attraction. In fact, in the early 1960s, there was very little local competition for the winter sports dollar. At the time, Denver had no major league professional sports — just the upstart (and terrible) AFL football Broncos (which debuted in Denver in 1960) and the minor league baseball Denver Bears, which played in the spring and summer. The ski areas were just getting started and were still largely a curiosity, and DU basketball wasn’t great back then.  Well-dressed fans came to experience DU hockey as an elegant social event.

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In the 1950s and early 1960s, DU Hockey was the biggest winter entertainment in the whole city. Fans dressed well, too. Photo: University of Denver Archives

Thus, by the early 1960s, the DU Arena would be packed with 5,300 fans for nearly every game, and this full house enabled DU Hockey to replace football as the flagship sport at the University. DU saw that big-time college football was becoming a money pit in which the University could not effectively compete. DU dropped its football program in 1961, ridding the DU athletic department of football’s yearly $100,000 deficits.

DU Hockey reigned supreme in the Denver sporting scene well into the 1960s, until the AFL’s Denver Broncos grew in popularity. The Broncos occasionally used the University of Denver’s old football stadium for games as, at the time, the Broncos had to share the old Mile High Stadium with minor league baseball’s Denver Bears, who had priority in the summer. In fact, the old DU Stadium was the site of the very first time an AFL team beat an NFL team, when the Broncos beat the Detroit Lions in an 1967 pre-season game.  Eventually the AFL merged with the NFL in the early 1970s, cementing the foundation for the NFL’s huge rise in national popularity and Denver as the football-centric city it is today.

In the middle years of the ’60s, DU hockey came close, but could not quite reach the NCAA Championship level the program had attained in 1958, ’60 and ’61. In the 1961-62 season, DU had lost many of its top players to graduation and finished 3rd in the WCHA, missing the postseason.  In 1962-63, led by all-American Billy Staub, DU won both the WCHA regular season and league tourney titles, making it back to the NCAA tournament. The NCAAs were played that year in Boston’s College’s 4,200-seat McHugh Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass., just outside of Boston. DU eased by Clarkson 6–2 in its NCAA semifinal, but in the 1963 Championship game, DU lost its very first NCAA tournament game, 6-5 to North Dakota, breaking DU’s NCAA record streak of seven consecutive tournament wins from DU’s first NCAA appearance in 1958. In that UND game, DU had fallen behind by a 6-2 score to the Fighting Sioux (as UND was nicknamed then) in the second period, but came storming back with three goals over the final two periods to get the game close at 6-5, but UND hung on for the 1963 title. Bob Hammill scored a three goal hat trick for the Pioneers in the title game loss.

In 1963-64, DU worked its way into a second-place WCHA regular season finish, and added the WCHA tournament championship over Michigan, earning DU the top seed of the two teams for the NCAAs . In the 1964 NCAA tournament, hosted by Denver in DU Arena, hopes were high for another NCAA title. DU breezed by Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in the semifinal, 4-1, setting up a WCHA tourney rematch with league rival Michigan for all the NCAA marbles.  Surprisingly, DU let Michigan score the first three goals on DU’s home ice in that championship game. DU then mounted a comeback starting in the second period, to cut the Michigan lead to 3-2, only to see the Wolverines go ahead 4-2 on the eventual game-winner from Michigan’s Jack Cole with 15 minutes left in the game. The Pioneers dug in again and would cut the Michigan lead to 4-3 with a goal from all-American Wayne Smith with about 10 minutes left, thrilling the Denver crowd at DU Arena, but that would be as far DU would go. Michigan scored a couple of late goals in the final four minutes to salt-away the 1964 NCAA title with a 6-3 win, as well as getting some revenge over DU for that year’s DU WCHA tournament title.

The next season, 1964-65, Denver finished with a record of 18–8–2, one of the best overall records in the country, but because the Pioneers played only 12 conference games (in those days, conference schedules were not equalized) and won only four of those 12 league games, DU finished a very disappointing sixth in the WCHA standings and were left well out of the playoffs. Injuries to forward Wayne Smith, center Lyle Bradley and defenseman Pete Bandowsky certainly hurt the Pioneers as well that year.

The following season, in 1965-66, DU and Colorado College faced each other, as they always do, in their fierce regular season rivalry dating back to 1949. As DU player Bob Peers recounted to the LetsGoDU blog back in 2009, he started a near-riot in the stands in Colorado Springs:

“At the end of the second period of this game, there was an incident between myself and another [CC] player named Davey Palm. I got penalized and [Palm] didn’t. I felt that he was laughing at me…So at the end of the period, I skated over and drilled him and he fell to the ice. I pummeled him and everything and then the crowd went crazy. They [Broadmoor Arena staff] brought out the fire hoses and pushed people back into their seats…Anyway, [in response to the incident] DU and CC didn’t play against each other [in the regular season] the following year. We did play them again in the [WCHA] playoffs and for that game, Davey Palm and myself weren’t allowed to play.”

In that WCHA first round playoff game, DU beat CC 8-2 in Colorado Springs — without fire hoses. DU was then supposed to travel to North Dakota to play UND in the WCHA tournament, but a large snowstorm in Grand Forks forced the game to be played in Denver, instead. Luckily for DU, the Pioneers edged North Dakota for the WCHA tournament championship in overtime, 5-4, gaining entry to the NCAA tournament in Minneapolis, on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Once in Minneapolis in the familiar confines of Williams Arena, Denver faced Clarkson for the third time in an NCAA semifinal. The Pioneers were hoping for their third straight NCAA victory over Clarkson, but this time it was the Golden Knights who eked-out a 4-3 decision over DU. The game was quite controversial because (in those days, before TV replays and goal reviews) an apparent Pioneer goal that flew straight over the Clarkson goal line and incredibly, straight through the back of the Clarkson net through a puck-sized hole in the netting, was not called a goal on the ice. While the Pioneers complained, the loss sent DU to its first NCAA third-place game. Denver did leave Minneapolis with some consolation, beating Boston University the next day, 4-3, for the NCAA third-place trophy.

After the near-misses of the mid-1960s, DU again repeated NCAA titles in the last two full seasons of the 1960s. In 1967-68, DU started terribly, losing three out of its first five games. Armstrong blasted his team, and the Pioneers responded by winning all 22 of its remaining college games, losing only in two non-college pre-Olympic games against the US and Soviet National teams prior to the 1968 Grenoble (France) Winter Olympics. Led by goalie Gerry Powers, Denver finished the season atop the WCHA with a 15-3 league record. Powers set new team records with seven shutouts that season, as well as 22 consecutive wins, which remain DU team records to this day. DU then blasted its way through the WCHA tournament to the league tourney title, scoring 27 goals across three games — a victory over Minnesota Duluth and two wins over Minnesota, securing the top Western seed for the NCAA tournament.

The 1968 NCAA Tournament was held in the newly-constructed Duluth Arena-Auditorium on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. DU started well in the semifinal, as the Pioneers’ Jim Shires scored twice in an easy 4–1 victory over Boston College, in which DU outshot BC, 33-10.

DU then found itself facing rival North Dakota once again in the NCAA Championship game. With North Dakota fans making up the majority of the standing-room-only crowd of 5,453 fans in Duluth, the contest was hard-fought and scoreless until the third period. DU suddenly exploded for four straight goals over a 15-minute span to win the team’s fourth NCAA title. Bob Trembecky led the way for Denver with the first two goals, including the power-play game-winner on assists from Keith Magnuson and 1968 all-American Jim Wiste, and his insurance goal, assisted by Craig Patrick, who would later become a Hockey Hall of Fame legend as an Olympic/NHL Coach & GM. Tom Gilmore and Alex Genovy added two more goals for DU for good measure late in garbage time, and Powers shut North Dakota out, earning the first championship shutout in NCAA history.  The junior netminder tied the NCAA record with a 0.50 goals against average, earning NCAA tourney MVP honors. Powers was helped by a dialed-in DU defense that only allowed 32 shots combined over the semifinal and final games.

Magnuson cited DU’s 8-1 loss to the Russian Olympic team in a pre-Olympic tune-up in Colorado Springs that December as a motivation for DU’s run to the title: “A lot of us had reached a plateau where we figured we knew quite a bit about hockey,” said Magnuson to the Duluth Tribune. “And then we saw what they [The Russians] could do and let me tell you, it opened our eyes.”

DU never lost again that season, winning NCAA title #4.

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DU’s 1968 National Championship Team. Photo: University of Denver

The Pioneers had a great nucleus of players returning for the 1968-69 season, and hopes were once again high as DU set out to defend its 1968 NCAA title. Denver got swept in the season opening series at North Dakota, but the Pioneers buckled down after that and lost only four more games during the entire season, en route to a 26-6 overall record. The Pioneers breezed through their WCHA playoff games over Minnesota-Duluth and Colorado College to once again win the top Western seed to the NCAA Tournament, held that year in Colorado Springs.

In the 1969 semifinal, the Pioneers were hitting on all cylinders, obliterating Harvard 9-2, behind a pair of goals by Bob Trembecky, which broke open a 2-2 game in the second period. DU’s win set up the NCAA Championship game versus Cornell (winners of the 1967 NCAA title), led by future NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden.

Thousands of DU fans made the trip down I-25 and helped stuff the old Broadmoor World Arena with over 4,600 fans, the largest crowd that the (later bulldozed) arena would ever see in its 55-year history, as there were only about 3,500 seats in the entire arena. It was a back-and-forth thriller of a title game. DU’s fiery all-American Keith Magnuson assisted on three of Denver’s four goals (all scored by different Pioneers) to lead Denver to a 4-3 nail-biter victory over Cornell for Denver’s fifth NCAA Crown.

The Pioneers had opened the scoring in the first period on a Tom Gilmore goal on assists from Magnuson and Lynn Powis at the 2:41 mark, only to see Cornell’s Dan Lodboa tie the game at 1-1 ten minutes later on a power-play deflection off a DU defenseman at 13:09.

In the middle of the second period, the Pioneer all-American George Morrison put DU back ahead 2-1, after converting power-play passes from Tom Miller and Magnuson as Morrison’s shot got through the pads of Dryden. Cornell pulled even at 2-2 three minutes later when the perfectly-named Brian Cornell beat Powers from eight feet out to set up high drama in the third period.

In that third stanza, the Pioneers went ahead on a Bob Trembecky power-play 10-footer to push DU ahead 3-2 with about 15 minutes to go on assists from Magnuson and Craig Patrick, and seven minutes later, Denver’s Tom Miller would bang in a Dale Zeman rebound inside the right post to beat Dryden for the eventual game-winner at 4-2. Cornell came charging back with a barrage of shots on Powers and cut the lead to 4-3 with 1:20 left in the game on a long slapshot from Gordon Lowe. For the final 80 seconds, with fans on their feet and roaring, DU held off Cornell’s extra skater advantage for Denver’s (and Murray Armstrong’s) fifth NCAA title.

Thus the Pioneers ended the 1960s just as they began it, as back-to-back NCAA Champions. Little did the glory-covered Denver program know that it would not hoist another NCAA Championship trophy for 35 more years…

Part II of the series will run Thursday, November 7th. 

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DU’s 1969 NCAA Championship Team; Photo: University of Denver

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus

9 thoughts on “70 Years of DU Hockey History: The First 20 Years 1949-1969”

  1. Fantastic work from Puck Swami. A blog is the perfect format for a long-form retrospective like this article. This should be required reading for any fan of Denver hockey. Looking forward to parts 2&3!

  2. Great work Puck and a fun read. I learned so much. I thought the old DU arena was a great hockey venue. Never did I think of it as having once been a reconstructed aircraft hanger.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Dunker. The airplane hangar myth still lives today. Denver Post story on the 70th anniversary perpetuated it as a fact in today’s edition, and it’s also mentioned in a few books about DU, too, one of which was published by the school! However, years ago, I spoke to two of the old-timer administrators at DU who sourced the place, and they confirmed that it was indeed, a U.S. Naval drill hall from Idaho.

  3. Thanks for the memories! I lived and breathed DU Hockey during the 68 and 69 years. The pictures and rosters really take me back. My folks attended the very first game as newlyweds.

  4. I heard that the players actually had to step “up” onto the ice from the benches. Is that true? I’ll also never forget the big rainbow painted at one end of the arena.

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