On November 2 at Magness Arena, you could feel something powerful.
It was tradition — the glue that binds us all together as part of a special DU community.
Between the first and second periods of DU’s Saturday game against Niagara, the arena lights darkened, and the scoreboard began to show both still and video hockey images in rapid succession. Low violins introduced the montage, starting with ‘50s crew cuts, fedora hats, and leather equipment. There was grainy film footage of helmet-less Pioneers skating up-ice towards the goal and black-and-white photos from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with NCAA trophies held aloft and broad smiling faces. As the arena speakers pulsed and increased their intensity, and history moved toward into the 2000s, vivid color images showed still more goals, more team smiles and more NCAA trophies from DU’s recent trips to NCAA hockey’s promised land.
It was 70 years of DU hockey players, guided by great coaches, all shown in the prime of their hockey-playing lives. All of them had shared the same dream — to wear the Crimson and Gold.
Here is the video that opened the first intermission celebration Saturday night:
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) November 4, 2019
All were part of one Denver hockey family. And this night would celebrate their experiences and accomplishments.
As the scoreboard video came to a close, the near-sellout DU crowd rose to its feet in a thunderous welcome to the 170 DU alumni players who had bled for this school (and for each other) over 70 years of building one of the very best college hockey programs in the nation. Over the next five minutes, the 170 DU hockey alumni would emerge, by decade, from the tunnels onto the ice. All were wearing bright new throwback DU jerseys, inspired by the first DU hockey jersey of 1949, each jersey emblazoned with their last names and original DU numbers. It felt like they all could skate out and win that night — as did the current top-ranked Pioneer squad, who would shut out Niagara, 4-0, to stay undefeated at 8-0.
The first decade-group of alumni who appeared were the most recent ones from our current 2010s decade — led by 2017 alternate captain Evan Janssen and other members of the 2017 DU NCAA Champions. Carrying the 2017 NCAA trophy, Janssen led his cohort to the far end of the ice toward the student section, where they were loudly cheered on by some of the same students who had cheered that recent team to DU’s eighth national title in Chicago. While it would have been nice to see 2017-winning coach Jim Montgomery and team captain Will Butcher, both had NHL duties that took priority.
The current DU student section rose to the moment with style, instead of heading to the concourse or watching their phones as they often do between periods. On this night, they stood and cheered in honor of the players and unveiled their massive 25-foot long “Mega-Boone” banner. That banner, which has travelled all over the country in the last 10 years to support DU teams in several sports in NCAA tourney play, is emblazoned with the 50+ year old Disney-designed Denver Boone logo from 1968, which remained the proud mascot of DU into the late 1990s. Although the school abruptly removed Boone as the “official” mascot in 1998-99, each decade’s players would joyously gesture their approval for the familiar and beloved Pioneer logo spread across the student section.
Next came the hockey alumni from 2000-2010, led by Matt Carle who, in 2006, won DU’s first Hobey Baker Award. (Carle, who retired from a successful NHL career in 2016, is also the brother of current DU head coach David Carle.) Scott McConnell walked out carrying the 2004 NCAA championship trophy, while captain Matt Laatsch carried the 2005 NCAA championship trophy. The players who won those 2004 and 2005 NCAA crowns cemented DU’s return to the elite echelon of college hockey. If you looked hard, you could spot former DU Coach George Gwozdecky wearing a jersey, as he was also a part of this group, quietly walking out on the ice as if he were one of the 2000-era players himself. It was a wonderful gesture by Coach Gwoz, today a high school coach in the Denver area, to return to Magness for this event, and a great opportunity for DU to show him some of the honor he so richly deserves.
As this 2000s group of alumni crossed the ice, they looked toward the current top-ranked and undefeated Pioneer team — who whooped and banged their sticks on the ice in a return salute from the player’s bench. The 2000s alums then settled into an area of the ice next to the 2010s, also down by the student section in the south end, and the DU students roared again. The alumni, feeling the love, made their waving hands into shaking firsts in solidarity as they basked in the cheering approval of the DU fans. The players on the ice were becoming one with the fan family, and it was a sight to behold.
But this was only the proverbial appetizer, as the drama dialed up over the next few minutes.
The next groups to emerge from the tunnel were alumni from the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s. With balding heads and greying hair, they too wore their DU uniforms with pride. Although many of these players had played in NCAA tournaments, they did not get to enjoy the experience of winning NCAA titles as DU players and teams in other other decades did. Tonight though, the Magness Arena crowd roared in appreciation. The players waved to the cheering crowds, particularly on the west side, filled by season ticket holders who remembered their toils for DU years ago.
And more cheering followed for for the final groups of DU hockey alumni. The 1960s dynasty decade had brought Denver four NCAA titles, at the beginning and end of that decade. This was the largest alumni group of the night by far, emerging from a different tunnel near the DU players bench. The 1960s players were led by four NCAA trophy bearers: the 1969 NCAA trophy was carried by goalie Gerry Powers; the 1968 NCAA trophy was carried by Captain Cliff Korroll, a former Chicago Blackhawk; the 1961 NCAA trophy was carried by Ila Konik, who was wearing the jersey of her late Pioneer husband, all-American George Konik who died in 2016; and, finally, the 1960 trophy bearer was John MacMillan, who at 84 years old may have been the star alumnus of whole weekend.
MacMillan, whose late goal won the 1960 NCAA title for DU, and who later would win two Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maples Leafs, is the uncle of current assistant coach Tavis MacMillan. John MacMillan had skated very well in the Alumni Game earlier that day, and on this night, with a huge smile on his face, he would exchange sequential fist bumps with the current Pioneer team on their players bench, letting the present generation know exactly on whose great shoulders they are standing today. The DU players were well aware of MacMillan’s hockey deeds, and it was obvious that their return smiles were coming from a place of deep reverence.
There was a special awareness in the crowd as these DU heroes of the ‘60s poured out of the tunnel. Some of these players were now using canes or, with hockey-battered knees, were leaning on teammates as they came out on the ice. It was clear to all just how important it is to celebrate these reunions, as time waits for no one. On this night, with former captain and all-American Jim Wiste having passed in 2018, DU fans applauded his later-in-life partner, Joanie Cunningham, who wore a jersey with Jim’s name on it, while she walked with Jim’s teammate brother, fellow DU player Wayne Wiste, and NHL legend, Captain Craig Patrick. And Cliff Koroll later told the author that his DU and Chicago teammate, all-American Keith Magnuson, who died tragically in 2003, was there in spirit — “Maggie would have loved this event,” Korroll said.
Finally, the loudest cheers of the night were saved for three alumni who played for DU in the 1950s, the program’s first decade, now all in their 80s. First was goalie Rodney Schneck, class of 1959, who carried the first (1958) NCAA Championship trophy onto center ice. The second was defenseman Orville Off, class of 1957, the oldest DU player in attendance, who was the only Pioneer at the celebration to pre-date the Murray Armstrong coaching era. Finally, a special cheer and center-ice position was set aside for George Congrave, class of 1960, a player whose DU career was ended early by a brain injury suffered in a 1958 collision in practice. Congrave, who is well known to generations of DU students as he once ran the intramural program at DU, now gets around on an electric scooter. When Congrave, an Alberta native, initially didn’t want to come out on the ice in his scooter, his teammates cajoled him, and Congrave ended up all smiles and wheeling around the neutral zone to the delight of the nearly 6,000 fans at Magness.
With all the players still on the ice, former captain Rod Summers ’90, who helped organize this wildly-successful event from the alumni side, was fired-up, and raised his arms in the air to bring still more cheers from the crowds for the gathered hockey alumni. And while we’re on the subject of organizers, we need to praise Kelsey Bigham, DU Hockey’s new director of operations, who should be credited for her tireless effort in pulling the weekend together.
For any Pioneer fan in the arena, it was an event to remember — a night in which legends and DU tradition came to life before our eyes, and for some of us older alums, those eyes were often wet…
A number of other wonderful moments happened over the weekend that most of the public didn’t get to see. There were two alumni hockey games on Saturday afternoon and an Orange/Lemon shootout won by Brad Carefoot ’76 and lost by former NHLer and Altitude TV host Mark Rycroft. And there were locker room tours that had the alumni in awe of DU’s new $2 million hockey complex, a far nicer team environment than the bare stalls and wall hooks most DU players remembered from days gone by. Seeing the DU Alums looking at the old pictures, reviewing Orange/Lemon results and razzing each other was priceless.
The program also gave a special 70th Anniversary role to DU legend Ron Grahame, who came to DU in 1969 as a player, helped coach the Pioneers in the 1980s, and later became DU’s athletic director and program elder-statesman, retiring from DU in 2019 after nearly 50 years of award-winning service. Grahame was chosen to reveal the retro team jersey at a pre-game reception. He would also would drop the ceremonial first puck in the pre-game face-off — an honor he was told about only shortly before the game, as organizers feared Grahame would decline the honor since he always preferred that others be at the center of attention. Likely, Grahame agreed to the honor only when told his grandchildren could assist him in the puck drop, and we’re sure it will be a wonderful memory for them.
Mention should also be given to other special attendees at the momentous event. Besides former coach George Gwozdecky, two other former DU head coaches also attended the event. Marshall Johnston, who coached DU from 1977 to 1981, leading DU to a 33-8-1 record in 1978, also played for DU in the early 1960s, winning an NCAA title as a player before becoming a two-time Canadian Olympian, NHL player and NHL coach/executive. The other DU coach in attendance was Ralph Backstrom, an NHL all-Star player who was a six-time Stanley Cup Champion with Montreal, and was head coach of DU from 1981 to 1990. Backstrom is best remembered for taking the 1985-86 Pioneers to 34 wins and the WCHA regular season and tournament championships, an NCAA first round series win over Cornell, and a Frozen Four appearance. He was ACHA National Coach of the Year in 1986 for that special year.
In addition, Coach Carle paid special pre-game recognition to DU’s leaders and trustees including: Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie, Current Chancellor Jeremy Haefner, Board of Trustees Chair Denise O’Leary, Trustee Emerita Joy Burns, current trustees K.C. Gallagher and John Miller, former Vice Chancellor for Athletics Peg Bradley-Doppes and current Vice Chancellor for Athletics, Karlton Creech. All of these people play huge roles in keeping Pioneer hockey in the upper echelon.
After the hockey game, the victorious current DU team swaggered into Hamilton Gym, smiles beaming for a post-game celebration, determined to share their traditional after-sweep singing of the DU fight song with the 170 alumni assembled. The team formed a huddle, with the alumni gathered around them in a larger huddle, and for a moment, the entire DU hockey family in the room was one, singing the DU fight song at high speed and reveling in the sweep and being the number one team in the country. Later that evening, some 1980s alumni would teach members of the current team their own ‘sweep cheer’, a not-safe-for-families ditty that the wide-eyed younger players seemed to really enjoy learning — another special moment between the generations.
Here is the fight song cheer:
— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) November 3, 2019
All in all, it was an epic weekend for everyone associated with DU Hockey.
Let’s hope DU plans another big anniversary in 2024, when the 75th rolls around.
DU Hockey has so much to celebrate!
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He believes this 70th Anniversary weekend was one of the greatest events the DU hockey program has ever produced.