70 Years of DU Hockey History Part II: A Temporary Decline – 1970-1994

Our own Puck Swami has authored a four-part historical retrospective for the 70th anniversary of the DU Hockey program. This is Part II. Part One can be found here, and Parts III and IV 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!

Given DU hockey’s successes in the program’s first 20 years, there was no reason to believe that the Pioneer hockey program was about to enter a 35-year period with no NCAA titles. After all, there was plenty of talent in the pipeline. In the early 1970s, DU leveraged its 1960s dominance to attract a number of star players who would move on the NHL — George Morrison, Peter McNab, Bruce Affleck, Rob Palmer, Mike Busniuk, Rich Preston, Mike Christie, Mike Lampman, Vic Venasky and Ron Grahame would all wear the Crimson and Gold in the early-to-mid 70s before moving on to the highest level.

But none of those NHL-bound players would have the good fortune to lift an NCAA Championship trophy on the ice in a Pioneer uniform.

The big reasons that Denver won no NCAA titles in the many years following 1969 was due to a combination of factors  – starting with some underpowered tournament performances in the early 1970s, followed by more serious NCAA problems in the mid 1970s that hurt recruiting and helped to speed the end of the career of DU’s greatest coach.  Flowing beneath the player misfires and coaching issues was the less visible, but always pernicious undercurrent of decline in the school’s hockey investment level. This financial decline, exacerbated by the poor financial position of the university overall from the mid-1970s into the early 1990s, forced a facilities decline and recruiting shortfalls.  Once facilities failed to keep pace, the perceptual lag became real. These mitigating factors, when added to the good fortune of other programs, spelled not only an end to DU’s 1960s dominance but also caused long periods of DU hockey stagnation in program relevance before the mid-1990s.

Let’s look back to 1969-1970. DU was coming off an NCAA title in 1969 and finished 21-10-1 — good for second in the WCHA. The Pioneers beat Michigan State in the first WCHA playoff game but lost to a relatively new, but ascending WCHA program with plenty of resources behind it — the University of Wisconsin. DU lost 3-2 to the upstart Badgers. The loss ended the Pioneers’ season, as DU was not quite good enough for one of the two Western NCAA selections.

DU was led that year by two-time all-American George Morrison, who fired in 30 goals and had 57 points. Morrison would take his game to the NHL level in the next season, and while he scored his share of goals there too, he is perhaps most fondly remembered for his NHL rookie-year misjudgment with the St. Louis Blues. Reportedly, Morrison was breaking an NHL custom by eating a hot dog on the players’ bench as a game was winding down. Afraid to being seen by his coach, and surprised at being sent out for a final on-ice shift, Morrison stuck the fully-laden hot dog in his glove cuff, only to find it dispersed around the rink after a hard body check from an opponent. Morrison died in 2008 of a brain tumor at age 59.

George Morrison was a two-time all-American at Denver. Photo: University of Denver

The next season in 1970-1971, led by all-Americans and future NHL’ers Mike Christie and Vic Venasky, the Pioneers finished second in the WCHA for the third consecutive year and were able to win another WCHA co-championship with WCHA playoff wins over CC and Minnesota-Duluth. The Pioneers received the top Western seed to their ninth NCAA Tournament, held that year at the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, N.Y. The Pioneers flew to Syracuse with high hopes but found themselves on the short end of a 4-2 score against eventual NCAA Champions Boston University in the NCAA semifinal. The Pioneers rebounded for a 1-0 shutout of Harvard to snag the NCAA third-place trophy, ending their season on a hopeful, yet bittersweet note.

Denver put together another superb regular season in 1971-72, going 19-9 in WCHA play, and winning both the conference regular-season title and WCHA tournament titles for the fifth time in program history. The Pioneers were exceptional down the stretch, losing just once in the final 11 games prior to the NCAA tournament, led by all-American Tom Peluso’s 69 points. The Pioneers were once again seeded first of the two NCAA Western teams and looking for another opportunity to hoist the NCAA Championship Trophy. However, when DU arrived at the tourney site, the Boston Garden, Cornell was there and waiting for its revenge against DU for the Pioneers’ winning of the 1969 NCAA Championship.  The Big Red horse-whipped DU 7-2 in that semifinal game. The Cornell NCAA loss was DU’s worst loss to a college team in over six years and DU’s biggest-ever margin of defeat in an NCAA game to this day.  To make matters worse, the Pioneers lost the NCAA consolation game, 5-2, to the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that Denver had beaten twice in that regular season.

In 1972-73 with another good team returning, Denver opened the season by hosting the Minnesota Gophers, who hadn’t appeared in Denver in a regular-season game since 1960, due to the coaches’ long-term feud over recruiting practices. The Pioneers, led by all-Americans Ron Grahame and Rob Palmer (who both would go on to NHL careers) enjoyed sweeping Minnesota that weekend and swept Notre Dame the weekend after. But soon after that, DU officials noticed that the DU arena roof had partially collapsed during the month of November. The DU Arena was quickly closed, and the Pioneers would be forced to play most of their remaining home games that season at the Denver Coliseum, a rodeo arena about 10 miles from the DU campus.

DU soon installed 14 large, seven-ton steel trusses to shore-up the DU Arena roof, a repair that, incredibly, would give the old barn 25 more years of useful life until the arena was razed in 1997. In December 1972, the Pioneers enjoyed a rare regular-season opportunity to play at the old Chicago Stadium, home of the Chicago Blackhawks, where they beat Notre Dame, 5-2. DU went on to finish the season with a 20-8 first-place record in WCHA play. That year, the WCHA instituted a two-game/total goals series playoff co-champion format with the two WCHA winners advancing to the NCAA Tournament. The Pioneers took advantage of it by beating Minnesota-Duluth 9-6 and Michigan Tech 7-3, to win a co-championship and secure the top western seed in the NCAA Tourney.

1973 WCHA Champs
The Pioneers skate around the Denver Coliseum after winning the 1973 McNaughton Cup, the WCHA’s regular-season trophy. DU goaltending legend Ron Grahame is at the center in goalie pads. Note the Denver Boone on the DU uniforms. DU played most of its games at the Coliseum that year due to roof repairs at DU Arena.  Photo: Denver Post File Photo.

Heavily favored, the Pioneer players were already familiar with the host Boston Garden, having lost to Cornell in NCAAs there the year before.  Looking to make amends for the previous year’s embarrassing loss, the Pioneers were fired-up in the NCAA semi-final against the second seed from the East, Boston College. The Pioneers exploded for 10 goals to thump the Eagles in that semi-final, advancing to the NCAA Championship game against their fellow league mate, the Wisconsin Badgers, under coach “Badger Bob” Johnson, who was quickly building the UW program behind Big 10 resources and fervent fan support. DU wanted revenge for 1970, but it didn’t happen for DU.

Denver Post Archives
Goalie Ron Grahame (in front) and Peter McNab (beside Grahame) not only were DU leaders in the 1970s, but became NHL regulars and important figures in the Denver hockey world long after their DU playing careers ended. Photo: Denver Post

While DU was the favorite in that 1973 NCAA Championship game, it was UW, playing in its first NCAA championship game, who jumped out to the lead just three minutes into the game, when UW’s Dave Pay beat DU goaltending legend Ron Grahame for the first goal of the contest. But the Pios stormed back just 50 seconds later when Peter McNab, who would go on to a long NHL career and is an NHL TV commentator today, set up winger Jim Miller for the equalizer. The Pioneers would move ahead just 54 seconds into the second period, when DU’s John Pearson scored a power-play goal on another McNab assist to give DU the 2-1 lead.  Sadly, the advantage would be DU’s only lead in the game. Feeling no fear, Wisconsin then tied the game on a Tim Dool power-play backhander at 4:17 of the second, and surged ahead 3-2 when Badger legend Dean Talafous would score the eventual game-winner from about 10 feet out less than four minutes later en route to a 4-2 final score and the first of six NCAA titles for the Badgers. You can see a brief clip of Wisconsin highlight film footage from that game here, starting at the 1:35 mark.

The Pioneers were relegated to NCAA runner-up for the first time since 1964, when DU lost to Michigan in Denver, 6-3. Even worse, DU’s participation in that 1973 NCAA tournament would later be vacated by the NCAA as part of a scandalous NCAA sanctions decision against DU — an outgrowth of the long-festering junior hockey recruiting feud between DU and Minnesota.

Indeed in 1974, the NCAA was being heavily influenced by the University of Minnesota’s 20 previous years of concerted agitation about Canadian major junior players, and DU’s continued reliance on them. The NCAA responded by creating a new plan that asked all Division I hockey schools that had signed major junior Canadian players to their rosters to suddenly declare those students to be ineligible. In return, those rostered players would have their NCAA eligibility “restored” by the NCAA through a grandfathering provision, while all future junior recruits would be ruled ineligible by the NCAA. While most other schools agreed to the NCAA’s whitewashing plan, Denver Chancellor Maurice Mitchell and DU Coach Murray Armstrong were furious with this NCAA edict and refused to call their own legally-recruited players ‘cheaters’. The NCAA responded by slapping DU with four years of NCAA sanctions, but more importantly, DU’s 25-year pipeline to recruiting the top level of Major Junior players from Canada was now effectively severed.

Denver Chancellor Maurice Mitchell stood up to the NCAA and DU paid the price.  Photo: University of Denver

With the NCAA sanctions in place, DU immediately began to tumble in the WCHA standings. In 1973-74, DU endured its first losing season since 1956 (Armstrong’s first year) and by the 1975-76 season, DU had fallen all the way to a ninth-place WCHA finish. DU would not make another NCAA tournament appearance until 1986.

DU did host the 1976 NCAA Tournament without playing in it, and that tourney is worth a mention for its historical role as a backdrop for a key moment in American hockey. That year in DU Arena, Herb Brooks’ Minnesota team participated in (or perhaps started) an all-out line brawl with Jack Parker’s Boston University Terriers just 70 seconds into the first semifinal in Denver. It took 30 minutes to sort out by the refs and officials. More importantly, the brawl codified the height of a regional East vs. West hatred that slowed the development of American hockey. This issue was well-explored in the 2004 movie “Miracle.”

While fighting in that era was more commonplace than today, the mid-1970s were also a time of relative laxity between colleges and their students, who were given much wider adult autonomy at that time. There was minimal arena security in that era and students took advantage. Streaking reached its zenith of popularity in the mid-1970s, and as the photo below shows, DU games had to contend with occasional naked students running on the ice.

Mid 70s Streakers
Streakers at a DU game, circa 1974-75. Photo: University of Denver

Also, with no netting separating the ice from the student section, many strange items found their way onto the ice from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when these practices died out thanks to increased security and arena netting. DU vs CC games were particularly susceptible to student-driven combinations of drunkenness, stupidity, hilarity and outright danger. Dead chickens were frequently thrown from the student section after goals; white mice were once released on the ice; a greased pig (with a referee’s name on it) also found its way onto the ice, as well as a live swan stolen from Broadmoor Lake in Colorado Springs, which unfortunately died on the ice. That era was colorful, to say the least.  Indeed, 1970s CC goaltender (and later coach) Scott Owens recalled on several occasions how he would “back into his own net to protect himself when DU students were throwing chickens.”

In 1977, disliking the NCAA sanctions on DU, Murray Armstrong decided to retire to Florida at age 61, after more than 20 years at the helm at DU and with 5 NCAA Championships in his 11 NCAA appearances. (He golfed well into his 90s, dying in 2010 at age 94.) Armstrong had a coaching succession plan in place, handing over the reins to Marshall Johnston, his primary DU assistant coach at that time, who had quite a hockey pedigree in his own right. Johnston was a former DU player who had played on DU’s 1961 NCAA Championship team, went on to play in two Olympics for Team Canada in 1964 and 1968, and played in over 250 NHL games from 1968 until 1974. Johnston then became an NHL head coach with the California Golden Seals for a couple of seasons in the mid-1970s, and so was well-prepared for the challenge of coaching the Pioneers.

Marshall Johnston was DU’s coach from 1977 to 1981. Photo: University of Denver

Johnston’s inaugural 1977-78 DU team exploded to 14 wins in its first 15 games, and finished the season with the best record in the nation with a 27-5 WCHA league record and 33 overall wins. The Pioneers were the unanimous #1 team in the national rankings. Denver, led by All-Americans Doug Berry and goalie Ernie Glanville, were prepping for the WCHA playoffs against Colorado College on March 14th, the afternoon of the first WCHA playoff game, when the team found out that the NCAA had denied DU’s appeal to end the 1974 NCAA sanctions in time for the NCAA playoffs that year. With little to play for, a distraught DU team took the news very hard, losing the first game of the WCHA series, 6-3 to CC. The Pioneers fought back on the second night of the series for a 4-3 win, but CC won the overall total goal series with nine total goals to DU’s seven. The Pioneers’ top-ranked season had ended with a terrible thud.

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Ernie Glanville was the goalie who led the 1978 DU team to the nation’s top-ranked position. That DU team never had a chance to win an NCAA title, due to sanctions. Photo: Denver Post

Then-Denver Post sports columnist Dick Connor humorously suggested that the top-ranked Pioneers DU should just challenge Boston University, the nation’s #2 ranked team, to play on a frozen runway in the Midwest to decide the real champion of college hockey. Instead, BU went on to win the 1978 NCAA title behind a goalie named Jim Craig, and some in Denver still lament the fact that the best team in the country that year was denied the chance to contend for the NCAA title.

Unfortunately, the bad news for DU kept coming. The year 1979 brought a near disaster for DU athletics when the poor overall finances of the University at the time led DU to drop most of its sports programs from NCAA Division I level to much-lower NAIA status. While DU Hockey managed to stay in NCAA Division I, the school began to reduce its investment in the hockey program, too. That season saw DU slip to a mediocre 20-20-3 season and sixth place in the WCHA, a poor finish. To make matters worse, in 1979-80, DU fell even further to 13-22-1, with a last place (10th) finish in the WCHA, the Pioneers’ worst season since Murray Armstrong’s very first season in 1956-57. Perhaps the highlight of that season was the one-year stint of new winger Glenn Anderson from Burnaby, British Columbia, who led the Pioneers in scoring with a 55-point season. Anderson left DU after that one season to play for Team Canada in the 1980 Olympics, and would later go on to an incredible NHL Hall-of-Fame career, winning six Stanley cups as a part of the Edmonton Oilers mid-1980s dynasty, and still probably the most recognizable Pioneer name in NHL history, despite only one season in Crimson and Gold.

In 1980-81, Coach Johnston was able to right the DU ship to some extent when DU got out to strong start en route to a 23-15-2 overall record and a fourth-place WCHA finish. The big problem for that team, however, was a six-game losing streak that came at the end of the year, including losing a home two-game, total-goals WCHA playoff series to Michigan, 10-6.  Major change followed that DU playoff exit, when Johnston resigned as coach to stay in town for an assistant GM position with the NHL’s Colorado Rockies, prior to that franchise’s move to become the New Jersey Devils.

The Pioneers then turned to Los Angeles Kings assistant coach Ralph Backstrom, a six-time Stanley Cup winner as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, to take the helm of the Pioneers. Backstrom, a gold miner’s son from Kirkland Lake, Ontario, had been a Pioneer assistant for three seasons under Johnston before he went to the Kings as an assistant in 1980-81. Backstrom was the third straight former NHL player to head coach the Pioneers at that time, and his philosophy was to run the DU program in a manner similar to a professional team of the 1970s: light on the rah-rah and discipline, and heavy on allowing players to play to their creative strengths and desires.

Ralph Backstrom
Ralph Backstrom coached Denver for much of the 1980s. He won the National Coach of the Year Award in 1986 for leading DU to the first NCAA Championship weekend in 13 years. Photo: University of Denver.

In the 1980s, college hockey would become a very high scoring game, as defensive systems and goalie pads were still quite primitive compared to today’s college hockey. Backstrom loved freewheeling, offensive hockey and his tenure would be marked by high-scoring but mostly mediocre-to-poor defensive Pioneer teams.

Backstrom’s debut season at Denver would also see the WCHA adopt a whole new look. At the direction of then-University of Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham, four WCHA schools (Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Notre Dame) left the WCHA to bolster the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA). The reason for the defection was travel cost containment, as the move allowed the CCHA to become a bus league. The WCHA was left with only six schools and would be forced to adopt another new playoff format.

The Pioneers that year would rely on Eddy Beers as their star forward. Born in Zwaag, Holland in 1959 to a family of 10 children, Beers moved to Canada as a young child, growing up in Merritt, British Columbia. Beers’ 50 goals and 84 points led the entire NCAA that senior season, and he became a Hobey Baker finalist, but surprisingly, he was not selected as an all-American. Beers and his teammates created some hope in that first Backstrom season, fashioning a 21-19-3 record and a fourth-place league finish, but the Pioneers did not advance in the WCHA playoffs, losing a two-game total-goal WCHA playoff series at North Dakota. Beers would later sign as an NHL free agent in 1982, and went on to a very productive 250+ game NHL career (producing nearly a point per game) with Calgary and St. Louis in the 1980s before back problems ended his NHL career prematurely.

The next three seasons for DU were more grim, as DU floated toward the bottom of the WCHA, finishing 5th in each of those three years as DU’s goaltenders struggled. While the Pioneers of that era scored plenty of goals, defense was an issue, making for exciting but inconsistent performances. At least the Pioneers were better than Colorado College, who occupied last place in the WCHA in each of those three seasons.

DU fans could also see some positive signs emerging under the captaincy of Kevin Dineen in 1982-83, who captained the Pioneers as just a sophomore, a very rare accomplishment. Dineen, who would leave DU after that season to join the 1983-84 Canadian Olympic program, would go on to a nearly 20-year playing career in the NHL, as well as a successful coaching career at the NHL and Olympic levels.

Another fabulously talented DU player, Craig Redmond, played for DU for just one season in 1982-83, arriving that September as a 16-year-old phenom. Redmond, from Langley, British Columbia, racked up a school-record 54 points as a defenseman, a record that still stands today (and was all the more amazing as it was accomplished by a 16-to-17-year-old freshman, playing against far older WCHA players). Like Dineen, Redmond also left DU for the 1983-84 Canadian Olympic Team. The next summer, he would be drafted sixth overall by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, the highest-ranked DU NHL draft selection of all time. Redmond also went on an NHL career with Los Angeles, until he was traded to Edmonton as a part of the landmark Wayne Gretzky trade in the summer of 1988.

By the end of 1984-85, Denver’s failing fortunes were leading to dwindling home crowds. DU’s declining fortunes on the ice were a consequence of the decline of DU’s overall finances at that time. Undergraduate enrollment had slipped to under 3,800 students, reducing DU’s revenue. With declining University funding from traditional sources in the 80s, DU had to be innovative to try and open new spigots of funding and exposure. The first DU corporate sponsorship program was started by DU assistant athletic director Diane Wendt that year, who pitched local companies with early sponsorship packages based primarily on the exposure promise of a DU arena wall banner printed with the sponsoring company’s logo — for $5,000. About 12 companies, many of them deeply skeptical (as college athletic sponsorships were new at the time), signed up that first year. Today, by contrast, DU earns about $2 million a year in sponsorship packages. The early 80s also saw DU hockey taking its first steps into a new broadcast medium — cable television — an important milestone in the program’s history.

Another innovation during this time period was the unique interlocking schedule between the WCHA and Hockey East, where not only would each Hockey East school play each WCHA school at least once a year (and later twice a year) either home or away, but the interlocking games would also count in each league’s standings. This interlocking schedule, which ran from the 1984-85 season to 1988-89, enabled fans across the country to see many new teams and stoked new rivalries. Coaches and players also learned from the experience by facing new opponents.

In the shadow of the overall decline of DU Hockey in that low-investment era, the 1985-1986 DU team would bring the pride back to Denver with a stunning 34-13-1 season, still a school record for wins. DU’s first-line center that year, senior Dallas Gaume, would chalk up the highest-scoring DU season of all time, with a 99-point effort that earned him all-American honors and Hobey Baker finalist status. He would become DU’s all-time career-high scorer with 266 career points, a school record that will likely never be broken, as defensive systems and better goalie coaching/equipment have made hockey more balanced today. Gaume’s linemate, junior sniper Dwight (Dewey) Mathiasen, would benefit from Gaume’s passing skills for a 40-goal all-American season himself that year, earning him a free agent offer from the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins to forgo his senior season. After graduating from DU, Gaume would also go on to a long professional hockey career, which included some NHL time with the Hartford Whalers.

Dallas Gaume
Dallas Gaume set the DU season points record with 99 points in 1985-86, on the way to a career record 266 points. These records may never broken, due to defensive and goaltending improvements in hockey. Photo: University of Denver

The 1985-86 DU team also had the services of all-American defenseman Jim Smith to carry the puck out of the zone and quarterback the power play, as well as all-American goalie Chris Olson, to keep the puck out of the DU net. Olson had alternated much of that season with fellow netminder Tom Allen to share each weekend’s starts until Olson took over the full starting job late that season with his outstanding play down the stretch.

There was also a foundational change in DU spectator interest that year, driven not only by the reality of fans responding to DU’s top-ranking but also by a new fan identity called the “Bleacher Creatures.” An undergraduate fan at the time, Damien Goddard started the Bleacher Creatures in the steep south-end balcony of the old DU Arena. Known for coordinated cheering and visual displays, Goddard had helped unleash a new level of school spirit at DU. Indeed, it was one of the first organized attempts to bring a unique student multi-sensory experience to Pioneer games and helped to make DU Arena into both a highly desirable place to be and a hard place to play for Denver’s opponents.

Bleacher Creatures
The “Bleacher Creatures” dominated the south end of the old DU Arena, starting in 1985-86. The fans became a big part of revived school spirit at DU. Photo: University of Denver.

The Pioneers spent much of that 85-86 season with a #1 ranking, clinching the WCHA regular-season title in Colorado Springs with a memorable win over CC on the last weekend of WCHA play, followed by a grueling three weekends of WCHA playoffs in Denver. The first-round game against Michigan Tech featured a postponement after a Zamboni broke the ice during the Saturday night game. Remarkably, about two-thirds of the fans returned Sunday morning for the final 25 minutes of the series, which DU eventually won. The second weekend featured a fantastic total-goals victory by DU over future NHL Hall-of-Famer Brett Hull and his Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (footage here). That series also featured Goddard leading his fellow band of Bleacher Creatures into a shocked UMD fan section, complete with a full-sized coffin, dredged up from Goddard’s fraternity basement!

The third and final WCHA Championship series that year featured a memorable DU 6-2 total-goals victory over visiting red hot Minnesota (footage here), a team that had won 10 games in a row prior to coming to Denver. The win over the Gophers set up a first-round NCAA series at DU Arena against Cornell, led by future NHL Hall-of-Famer Joe Nieuwendyk. In that memorable slugfest of a series, the Pioneers avenged their 1972 NCAA loss to the Big Red with a 7-6 two-game, total-goals victory. The Pioneers then provided a full-team curtain call for the 5,300 cheering Denver fans, some of whom had scaled the Plexiglass boards to join the DU team in celebration. That NCAA series first-round win stamped DU’s ticket to Providence, R.I. for the NCAA Championship weekend.

In Providence, top-ranked DU was distracted by NHL agents, who were coveting several key free agent DU players. The team was also hiding a number of important injuries that had reduced the Pioneers’ effectiveness. Before about 6,000 fans in Providence, DU would face a quality Harvard team that rolled four lines, and also had Hobey Baker winner Scott Fusco and future 1988 U.S. Olympians Lane McDonald and Allen Bourbeau. The favored Pioneers fought to keep the game tied at 2-2 heading into the final period, but Harvard’s Timmy Smith was playing on another level that night. His hat trick blew open the win for Harvard, 5-2 (You can watch video from that NCAA game at this link). DU has not played Harvard since that 1986 game. The closest they came was in the 2017 Frozen Four when Harvard lost to UMD before Denver beat Notre Dame to set up the first all-NCHC national title game. The exhausted and injury-laden Pioneers had only about 10 available forwards for the consolation game the following day. DU lost to Minnesota, 6-4, to end the Pioneers’ season. Still, DU’s regular season success saw Backstrom given the Spencer Penrose Award as the nation’s top coach.

1985 86 team
The 1985-1986 Pioneers set the DU record for season wins with 34. Photo: University of Denver

Unfortunately, the 1985-86 season quickly became just a memory, as DU’s senior-laden team lost several underclassmen to NHL contracts. Denver would not see the Frozen Four again for 18 years.

Over the following four seasons, Denver would return to being a middling team in the WCHA. DU highlights of the late 1980s included the all-American performances of forwards Daryn McBride in 1989 and Dave Shields in 1990, and the pure goal-scoring prowess of forward Rick Berens, who scored a school-record 94 career goals in his Pioneer career between 1987 and 1991. But once again, lack of defense and quality goaltending kept the Pioneers from winning.  But once again, some underlying factors were also severe.

By the late 1980s, the University was in a full-blown financial crisis. The campus was covered with mud parking lots it could not afford to pave, and most DU buildings did not even have names on them. DU had borrowed money to meet payroll and had ended 1989 with a working capital deficit of $12 million. Student applications were declining, and the campus had deferred maintenance then estimated at $45 million. Near rock bottom, DU’s fortunes started to change when a new Chancellor, ex-Westinghouse Broadcasting CEO (and Harvard MBA) Daniel Ritchie, was recruited from the DU Board of Trustees in 1989 and asked to literally save the school. Ritchie served without pay until 2005 and donated millions to the school from his own pocket. Ritchie also inspired his well-connected friends in the cable TV industry (as well as DU alumni) to further aid the university. As new resources accumulated in what was termed the “Ritchie Renaissance”, the University began to slowly turn around. In Part III of this series, the author will discuss Ritchie’s contributions in greater detail.

DU Chancellor Dan Ritchie at Magness Arena Photo: John Leyba/The Denver Post

In 1990, Ralph Backstrom resigned from DU to take a head coaching position in the International Hockey League (then the highest-level minor league) with the Phoenix Roadrunners. With Backstrom gone, DU wanted to shake up its hockey culture with new blood.

DU’s coaching search reportedly settled on then-Maine coach Shawn Walsh — who would later build Maine’s 1993 NCAA title with a 42-1-3 record, with that Black Bear team led in scoring by Jim Montgomery, who would later coach the Pioneers to glory many years later in 2017. After reportedly verbally agreeing on a contract offer with DU, Walsh reportedly turned back to Maine to see if it would beat Denver’s offer. The Black Bears did exceed DU’s offer, and Walsh stayed at Maine. He would later run into NCAA trouble in the middle of the decade with the Black Bears and died prematurely young of kidney cancer at age 46 in 2001.

Spurned by Walsh, DU turned to Frank Serratore, who was hired as DU head coach at only 33 years old, as the Pioneers’ first American head coach since Neil Celley, who left DU in 1956. Serratore, like Celley, grew-up on Minnesota’s Iron Range. He brought an incredible work ethic to the DU campus, honed through winning three USHL championships as a head coach of junior teams before being hired at DU.

Frank Serratore was just 33 years old when DU hired him as coach in 1990. His DU career as coach lasted until 1994, when he was fired with a .357 win percentage. Photo: University of Denver

Serratore’s energy and passion changed the entire intensity and tone of the DU program. His staff soon became legendary in coaching circles for wearing out rental cars on long road trips all over North America to recruit American, Canadian and (occasionally) European players. Serratore was also interested in trying to upgrade the poorly-aging DU Arena, which was now more than 40 years old. With DU in a big financial hole, Serratore was able to make only a few patchwork renovations to the arena.

Despite Serratore’s passion for the team, his rosters struggled on the ice, winning only six games in his first season, losing 30 of 38 games played and finishing ninth in the WCHA. It was DU’s worst season in program history since that awful four-win inaugural season in 1949-50. The following season brought only slight improvements at 9-25-3 and another ninth-place finish. The Pioneers rose just above .500 in 1992-1993 at 19-17-3 for Serratore’s best season at DU (sixth place), but the next season, DU surprisingly fell back to 9th in the WCHA. To add to that poor season finish and poor overall record, the DU administration is said to have had concerns about player treatment and fired Serratore after just four seasons — the shortest DU coaching tenure since Vern Turner’s two-season stint as DU’s first coach from 1949-51.

Serratore never got to finish what he started at DU with his very poor .357 winning percentage. But to his credit, Serratore had been stockpiling talent at DU, and the proverbial cupboard was pretty full when Serratore was fired in 1994. Serratore is also credited with starting the Denver Cup tournament, which was held during the holiday season for many years (into the 2000s) before DU stopped it due to a lack of opponent availability.  He and then-Colorado College head coach Don Lucia created the Gold Pan trophy in the early 1990s, to better codify a more tangible outcome for the long-standing DU rivalry with Colorado College. After leaving DU, Serratore coached in minor leagues before landing at Air Force, where he’s rebuilt the Falcon program since arriving there in 1997, leading them to seven NCAA tournaments between 2007 and 2018.

With Serratore gone, DU would set its sights on a new coach named George Gwozdecky. Gwozdecky had won an NCAA title as a player at Wisconsin in the 1970s, coached at Michigan State where he won a 1986 NCAA title as an assistant coach and was a two-time CCHA Coach of the Year at Miami University, where he was the head coach when DU hired him in 1994. Gwozdecky would become a Pioneer legend, beginning by taking Serratore’s recruits to the NCAA tournament in his first season.

We’ll profile the Gwozdecky, Montgomery, and Carle eras (to date) in the next installments of this Pioneer Hockey History Series, Part III and IV. Stay tuned!

Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus.

7 thoughts on “70 Years of DU Hockey History Part II: A Temporary Decline – 1970-1994”

  1. Puck Swami,

    I have loved reading these stories! I thought I knew a lot about DU hockey, but you’ve really helped fill in the gaps. Thanks!

  2. Swami, excellent piece! I absolutely love looking back at college hockey from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. A couple of questions/comments:

    1. Given the rich history of DU hockey, why isn’t there more representation of that in the concourse? If you go to Mariucci, The Ralph, Agganis Arena, and others, you find a plethora of pictures, murals, etc. It’s awfully fun walking around those concourses, soaking up memories and traditions. I’d like to see that with Magness

    2. Any consideration to bringing back the holiday New Year’s tournament format of the Gold Pan? Great memories and fun of seeing DU, CC, and two other non-WCHA schools each year.

    3. I don’t know all the details but from an outside observer, I thought it was crap the shenanigans Minnesota pulled in the 60’s regarding DU and other schools recruiting Canadian players. Minnesota too had the right to recruit similar players but chose not to. Unfortunately for every college team not located in Minnesota, Michigan, or Massachusetts, schools like DU, CC, and North Dakota simply didn’t have the population base of youth hockey to recruit to the caliber of states like Minnesota. Finally, you mentioned that the Gophers didn’t play at Denver until the 1972-1973 season. My question is, how was that even possible if they were both members of the same conference? Did they simply not schedule one another?

    4. I’d like to buy you a beer (or two or three) sometime and sit down and talk college hockey with you. You’ve probably forgotten more about the game than most people ever know! Thanks for the great history lesson on DU hockey!

  3. Another fantastic read, Swami. I moved to California in 1978, so the ,’80s and ’90s were a blank for DU hockey, (Fortunately I missed the worst of times) Really the internet, especially “Lets Go DU”, brought DU hockey back to life for me.

  4. Dan:

    Thanks for the kind words! Watching anything for 35 years or more can give anyone some expertise 🙂 I’ll try to answer your questions:

    1) Great point about the Magness concourse and its lack of DU history. From a historical perspective, it’s quite underwhelming for such a proud program. DU’s biggest concourse shrine is used to immortalize a big golf donor who gave DU a full golf course. And the full size statue of Coach Murray Armstrong is currently hidden behind a fruit kabob stand on game nights! Yikes.

    The large photo historical graphic displays you would expect to see in Magness actually do already exist – NCAA trophies, Great players, coaches, DU’s Championships, All Americans, Olympians, NHL players, etc. The issue is that those wall-size graphics now decorate the new $2 million DU locker room complex in the basement of Magness for the benefit of players, prospects and hockey alums, and are not able to be seen by the public, let alone be seen in the main concourse. Sad.

    I’ve had some conversations with DU athletic leadership about repeating these same graphics in the public concourse of Magness, but have had little success in getting much traction, even though we could likely raise the money for it There is some historical stuff on the concourse now, but not as much as there should be…DU’s new concourse priorities seem to be investing in new bars and concession stand renovation, rather than commemorating DU’s history.

    2) I would love to see DU and CC stage a holiday tourney, even if hosting rotated each year between campuses. Back in the day, they did tend to draw pretty well even if the students were on break. The challenge is getting decent opponents to come out here is much harder than you would expect. Top opponents just don’t want to play at that time of year, especially those programs who often have players assigned to the World Juniors in December. You might be able to do a tourney around Thanksgiving, but again, it’s opponent availability that just isn’t there as it used to be. Good programs want more home games now for added revenue, not long road trips.

    3) Minnesota simply would not schedule DU for 12 years between 1959 and 1971 for regular season games, and the WCHA league schedules were simply unbalanced in that era. Minnesota’s John Maruicci called it “selective scheduling” and the other WCHA schools allowed him to do it, because Minnesota was once a meal-ticket school for the rest of the league.

    As much as I respect Minnesota’s “Pride on Ice” home state recruiting philosophy in that era (and later) because it worked so well for the Gophers, I am also disappointed that Marriucci expected everyone else to abide by his same philosophy, too. Pride on Ice just couldn’t work for programs that didn’t have native talent pools or natural ice to develop talent as Minnesota can. Mariucci could have recruited those same players Denver did if he wanted to, but he chose not to. All schools need to do what works for them, as context varies greatly.

    The Gophers also saved tons of money by recruiting many locals and splitting up the scholarship money among them (UM as a public school with already low tuition vs privates, with in-state tuition making it even more of a steal). The Gophers’ MSP-area based talent could also live at home to save even more money. Even now, Colorado only provides a handful of players to DU’s (and CC’s) team, and all those guys still need to play junior somewhere else before signing. DU and CC have always needed to use full rides to get most players to choose us without the benefit big native talent pools or in-state tuition benefits.

    4) Send your contact info to letsgodu@gmail.com and the staff here will forward it to me privately.

  5. Swami… Splendid! Thanks for more memories… Many good, some not so much, and a few we would simply like to forget.

    1. Hey anonymous, I hear ya! As a lifelong UND fan, there’ve been some tough, painful losses over the years but also many great memories along the way too! I’ve enjoyed learning more cool tidbits about DU that I wasn’t aware of before. Hats off to Swami for his time and effort put into this series.

      I know DU and UND are heated rivals but I’m so glad we’re in the same conference. We definitely have the best rivalry in the NCHC IMO; DU has definitely taken over as the fan favorite rival over the Gophers the past several years. Looking forward to a fun, exciting series next weekend against the #1 ranked Pios!

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