Our own Puck Swami has authored a four-part historical retrospective for the 70th anniversary of the DU Hockey program. This is Part III. Part One can be found here, Part II can be found here and Part IV can be found here. While these stories run far longer than our usual stories, remember that 70 years is a lot to cover. Enjoy!
When George Gwozdecky arrived on the DU campus from Oxford, Ohio, in 1994, Pioneer fans were excited. Gwozdecky had grown up in the great Canadian hockey town of Thunder Bay, Ontario, where his father had immigrated after World War II. Gwozdecky’s father’s inspiring story of hard work, excellence and commitment to sports certainly helped shape his son.
George’s father, also named George, was born in what is now Ukraine. Although he had earned his medical degree in Prague in 1945, and practiced medicine in a refugee camp hospital just after World War II, he had to work as a Canadian Pacific Railroad laborer after immigrating to Canada in 1948. Once he fulfilled his immigration requirements, he re-started his medical career in Canada, where he would become known in Thunder Bay as “Doc Gwoz”. He would practice medicine in Canada for over 55 years – the longest practicing physician in Ontario. He also was deeply involved in sports medicine and served as Chief Medical Officer, or as part of the medical staff, for several sports organizations, including the 1976 Canadian Olympic Team and the 1983 Pan American Games, as well working with as a variety of community sports organizations.
George (Jr.), one of three sons, would become a good student and hockey player, and was recruited to play on Bob Johnson’s University of Wisconsin team in the mid-1970s, winning an NCAA championship with the Badgers in 1977. Gwozdecky then began his coaching career at Wisconsin-River Falls in the NAIA where he earned his Master’s degree, before moving on to win an NCAA title at Michigan State as an assistant coach under coaching legend Ron Mason in 1985-1986. He was then hired by Miami of Ohio as a head coach, and guided Miami to the NCAA tournament in 1993, before taking the DU coaching job in 1994.
Gwozdecky was taking over a DU program that had won only 35% of its games under previous coach Frank Serratore, and Gwodecky’s first few DU games were something of a horror show, too. The Pios allowed 24 goals in the first five games that season and lost four of those games. Sitting at 1-4, few thought the 1994-95 Pioneer team would make anything of that season. But the Pioneers suddenly reeled off a major hot streak, winning 12 of the team’s next 13 games, including wins over Minnesota (2), North Dakota and Boston College. Based on the strength of that streak (and some good players left behind by Serratore), Gwozdecky guided the Pioneers to a second-place tie in the WCHA and beat Michigan Tech in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The Pioneers then advanced to the WCHA Final Five tournament in St. Paul, Minn., but lost to Wisconsin 5-4, and then fell in the third-place game to Minnesota, 5-4 in overtime.
While the Pioneers weren’t happy about the pair of 5-4 WCHA tourney losses in St. Paul, they were consoled by the NCAA, who selected the Pioneers with the final at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The 1995 NCAA Men’s Division I Ice Hockey Tournament had changed since DU was last involved in it in 1986. The 1995 format involved 12 schools playing in single-elimination play, with the top two seeds in each region receiving a bye into the tournament quarterfinals. The Pioneers were very happy to squeak into the 12-team NCAA tournament as the final team and were sent to Worcester, Mass., for the East Regional.
At the Worcester Centrum (today called the DCU Center), the Pioneers would face the third seed, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, playing only 90 minutes from the UNH campus. Playing in their first NCAA tourney action since 1986, the Pioneers shocked favored UNH by blasting the Wildcats, 9-2, in a beat-down in the tourney opener.
That confidence-building win earned DU a date with the Maine Black Bears in the East Regional Final the next day. However, the second-seeded Black Bears were a lot better than UNH, and they jumped out to a 3-0 second period lead on the Pioneers. Denver kept working and scored early in the second period as Antti Laaksonen, who would go on to an NHL career and an Olympic Silver medal for Finland in 2006, broke free around the Maine net and beat Maine goalie Blair Allison to make it 3-1. But Maine’s Reg Cardinal soon answered Laaksonen’s goal for Maine, to give Maine a 4-1 lead. DU answered when the Pioneers’ Petri Gunther tallied late in the third period, to cut the Maine lead to 4-2, but that was all the goals DU would score, as Maine hung on for the 4-2 win and the trip to the Frozen Four. The Pioneers, who outshot Maine, finished the year with a 25-15-2 record. DU goalie Sinuhe Wallinheimo, a wildly entertaining Finn who used to entertain fans during stoppages in play and today (in 2019) serves in the Finnish Parliament, saved 25 shots for Denver that game, while Maine goalie Blair Allison turned away 31.
DU could not repeat an NCAA caliber performance in 1995-1996. The Pioneers would finish third in the WCHA did not advance in the WCHA playoffs, losing to St. Cloud State at home in two of the three games, thus killing their numeric chances for an NCAA tourney invite. But the big highlight of that season was significant — the setting of a new Denver college hockey indoor attendance record with over 16,000 Colorado-based fans packed into the old city-run McNichols Arena (which would be demolished in 2000 to extend the parking lot at Mile High Stadium). Those fans saw a thriller in the 1995 Denver Cup final, as Denver edged arch-rival, and then top-ranked Colorado College, 3-2.
“I never thought McNichols Arena would be packed for college hockey,” Gwozdecky recalled in the Magness Mayhem blog earlier this year. “That was my first real initiation into how fierce this [DU vs CC] rivalry would become.”
By 1995, things were getting much better for the University of Denver as a whole, as enrollment and fund-raising were improving dramatically under the “Ritchie Renaissance.” Chancellor Daniel Ritchie had led DU out of its financial decline of the 1970s and 1980s by using his corporate experience to upgrade DU’s financial management. He then began to upgrade the campus by selling part of his Colorado cattle ranch in 1994 and donating the proceeds to DU. This $15 million gift would be Ritchie’s first large donation to DU, and he followed it with additional gifts over the next several years, totaling more than $50 million.
As important as Ritchie’s personal gifts were to DU, he was also skilled at getting his deep-pocketed friends to write large checks to DU. By the 1990s, Denver had become a national hub for the booming cable TV business, and real estate was booming, too. Ritchie’s inside connections with, and donations by, leaders in those industries fueled a building boom on campus. Indeed, the names that adorn many DU campus buildings including Daniels, Magness, Sie, Barton, Myhren, Nagel and Burns came from cable or real estate fortunes. Other major donors of that era came from oil (Hamilton), software (Newman) and banking (Sturm). The massive improvements to the campus, including a new athletic center, business school, performing arts center, residence buildings and a new law school building signified a new era in the history of the university. And as the new buildings went up, Denver also invested in faculty and support services, which helped raise academic standards. Ritchie retired as DU chancellor in 2005.
Soon after Gwozdecky arrived, he and Ritchie worked closely together to plan and build a new ice arena for the Pioneers. The old DU Arena, built the 1940s, had become increasingly antiquated, and enormous pressure for a new arena was also coming from DU’s competitors in the WCHA — schools who were planning, investing in and building new arenas in the mid-1990s, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado College, and Minnesota State. DU simply could not afford to wait any longer. DU Arena, the former WWII naval drill hall, would be imploded not long after DU’s final WCHA playoff victory over Minnesota Duluth after the 1996-1997 season.
That year, DU had a decent but non-remarkable league season, tying for fourth in the WCHA. Two late-season sweeps at Wisconsin and North Dakota, followed by a WCHA playoff sweep of Minnesota Duluth (the final games at the old DU arena) provided some hope that DU would achieve a high enough pairwise ranking for an NCAA bid. Indeed, although the Pioneers fell to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five, they were rewarded again with the final NCAA sixth seed and another trip to Worcester, Mass., as an at-large team to play the third-seeded and favored Vermont Catamounts in the NCAA tournament. Just like in 1995, Gwozdecky’s Pioneers would lay an opening round beating on an eastern school, crushing Vermont, a 1996 Frozen Four school, 6-3.
This DU win over Vermont would set up a Pioneer showdown with second seed Boston University. BU is just 45 minutes from Worcester, which assured a large pro-BU crowd of nearly 9,000 fans for the Regional Final. The DU vs BU game was a back-and-forth thriller. BU had taken a 3-2 lead on Shawn Bates’ breakaway goal in the third period and time was running down. After the Pioneers pulled goalie Jim Mullin for the extra attacker with about a minute left, DU’s Travis Smith made a back-door feed to Erik Andersson, who was streaking into the slot. Andersson, who would later make it to the NHL with Calgary, made no mistake with his wrister, tying the game at three with 52 seconds left, stunning the heavily pro-BU crowd and sending the game to overtime. DU’s Paul Veres had a chance to win it for DU in overtime, but his shot hit the goalpost. Later in the OT, Boston University would advance to the Frozen Four when future Colorado Avalanche star Chris Drury pounced on a rebound that Mullin could not control, and fired the game-winner in from the crease to end the Pioneer season in an excruciating 4-3 heartbreaker. Game highlights are here if you can stand it.
Just as the Pioneers were regaining their edge on the ice under Gwozdecky, they had lost their home arena to implosion and would not have a home on campus for the next two seasons. DU games were played in four different arenas around the state according to availability — primarily McNichols Arena and the Denver Coliseum, with several games at the Air Force’s Cadet Ice Arena and Colorado College’s World Arena in Colorado Springs. Understandably, DU lost a large chunk of its fan base over this period, exacerbated by the fact that Denver now had four major pro teams and plenty of other diversions.
In 1997-98, the first season away from campus, DU was awful — finishing 11-25-2 good for an eighth-place league finish in a year that Denver did not sweep a single opponent. But the next year, DU was special again. Gwozdecky’s boys had a 26-13-2 season in 1998-1999, led by all-American forward Paul Comrie, who went on to play for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers — good for a third-place finish in the WCHA regular season. DU had won nine games in a row to get hot down the stretch, winning the first round league playoff series against Michigan Tech at Denver Coliseum. At the WCHA Final Five in Minneapolis, Minn., the Pioneers faced some drama, beating rival CC in overtime 3-2 in the semifinal and then upsetting top-ranked North Dakota with a 4-3 victory in overtime to win the Broadmoor Trophy.
Winning the WCHA tourney title guaranteed Denver yet another NCAA bid to the East Regional as a #4 seed, again at the Worcester Centrum, the same place where DU had played in the 1995 and 1997 NCAA tournaments. Here DU would face the 1998 defending NCAA Champion, Michigan — the CCHA tournament champ and 5th overall seed — for the first time since Michigan left the WCHA in 1980. The Pioneers jumped out to an amazing 3-0 second period lead on the Wolverines, on goals by Bjorn Engstrom, Joe Ritson, and Paul Veres. Then, Michigan coach Red Berenson called his only timeout to settle down his Wolverine team. They obviously took Berenson’s words to heart, because Michigan stormed back to out-shoot DU by a staggering 21-1 for the rest of the game, scoring five consecutive unanswered goals on DU goalie Stephen Wagner. The Pioneers had clearly suffered a meltdown of sorts, which some have suggested was caused by the repeated playing of “The Victors,” (the Michigan fight song) by the Michigan band after each goal. Michigan won, 5-3, ending DU’s season.
The good news for DU came later that fall. In 1999, in place of the old DU Arena, DU opened its new $75 million multi-purpose sports center named after Chancellor Ritchie, with the new 6,000 seat Magness Arena as its centerpiece for hockey and basketball (named after cable TV pioneer and $10 million donor Bob Magness). The Ritchie Center not only had the new hockey arena, but an Olympic-sized pool (named after the El Pomar Foundation), the 3,000 seat Hamilton gymnasium, Gates field house, and the huge Coors fitness center, as well as a 215-foot tall gold-leaf-covered Williams bell tower, complete with a 75-bell carillon imported from Holland. The 444,000 square foot sports complex was quite large, yet it had to be squeezed onto a fairly small footprint of DU-owned land. That small footprint was the key reason Magness Arena was designed with so many seats at both ends of the ice. More than the size, and the quality facilities with the building, the Williams Tower quickly become an iconic feature of both the campus and the south Denver skyline. With its golden steeple shining in the sun, it is DU’s most visible reminder to the rest of the Denver community about the private school’s importance to the region.
As part of this new sports investment, all Denver sports would transition to Division I in 1999 (only hockey and women’s gymnastics were already Division I through the 1990s — all the rest of DU sports had been NCAA Division II since 1992 and before that, NAIA, from 1979 to 1992.) The new arena commitment had been needed, as nearly all the WCHA schools had either built or were in the process of building new arenas. Moreover, it signified to everyone that the University of Denver was serious about committing the resources necessary to compete at the highest level of not only hockey but other college sports. DU finally now had a modern arena, and most importantly to some complainers, more than two sets of public bathrooms.
DU won the first official game at Magness Arena in October of 1999 over Union College, 4-1. But the 1999-2000 season didn’t go very well after the opening month. The Pioneers lost every game in November that year, on the way to a 9-18-1 season, a ninth-place WCHA finish and a first-round WCHA exit. The next season was certainly better at 19-15-4 with a 6th place league finish, but another first-round WCHA exit. During the first two seasons at Magness Arena (1999-2001), the Pioneers were struggling to win back their fan base, and unfortunately, those ninth and sixth place finishes meant there wasn’t a lot to cheer about.
What a lot of people didn’t realize, however, is that the opening of Magness Arena was enabling DU to recruit higher-level hockey players. The new arena bore its first major fruit in the 2001-2002 season, when the Pioneers would shock the college hockey world by winning 20 of their first 22 games en route to a 32-8-1 season, with a WCHA regular season and WCHA playoff championship, behind the 1-2 goaltending punch of all-American junior Wade Dubielewicz and sophomore Adam Berkhoel, both of whom would make it to the NHL after their Pioneer careers were over.
Defensively deep and offensively balanced, the Pioneers were the top-ranked team for most of the year, and expectations were high that this top-seeded team would finally break through to the Frozen Four. Unfortunately for DU, the NCAA dealt a crushing blow to the Pioneers when it decided to “regionalize” the NCAA tournament that year under the silly excuse of “post 9/11 travel restrictions”. This meant that all Western teams would be seeded in the Western Region, and all Eastern teams would be seeded in the Eastern Region until the Frozen Four, unlike today where opening round regional teams are seeded/placed for primarily competitive brackets rather than by pure geography (though geography is still taken into account, sometimes to the detriment of the opening rounds). The Pioneers were the top overall seed but were sent that year to Yost Arena on the campus of the University of Michigan. There, they would face the winner of #5 seed St. Cloud State and the lower, fourth-seeded host Michigan Wolverines, playing on their home ice. This fate for the Pioneers would likely have been avoided if the tournament had not been “regionalized”.
“If you can fault us for anything, it’s Denver perhaps having to play at Michigan,” said Jack McDonald to College Hockey News before the game. MacDonald, a former DU Athletic Director who was then AD at Quinnipiac University, was leading the NCAA selection committee that year. “We struggled with that. But there’s not much we could do. We need more [Western] schools to put in bids [to host].”
“No question that Michigan has the home-ice advantage in Ann Arbor,” DU coach George Gwozdecky told the Denver Post before the game. “But…this [DU] team is ready, prepared and excited, and no matter who we’ll play, we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”
DU was the top Western seed at the tournament, and NCAA guidelines said the highest seed should be given the best locker room at the venue — which happened to be Michigan’s regular, newly-renovated dressing room. That directive didn’t sit well with some at Michigan, who interpreted the locker-room appropriation as Denver-directed, as implied by Michigan coach Red Berenson, who later said: “Maybe they shouldn’t have taken our locker room away.”
In any event, the locker-room assignment controversy was said to have helped motivate the Wolverines and their fans even more. The Michigan fans were also whipped into a froth before the first game against St. Cloud over a different pre-game controversy and physical confrontation involving the hostile Michigan fans, the St. Cloud State Cheerleaders, the St. Cloud State mascot and the Michigan players. Michigan later won that game against the Huskies and would face the Pioneers the next day for a trip to the Frozen Four.
Yost Arena, originally built in 1923, was Michigan’s old basketball gym before it was converted to a hockey arena in the mid-1970s. The large Michigan student section was the most intimidating arena in college hockey at that time, and DU hadn’t played there since Michigan had become a great hockey program again in the 1990s. Added all up, it was the most hostile environment DU has ever played in, before or since. And according to several long-time Michigan fans, Yost was never louder than it was against DU that night in 2002, as the above-linked article details.
Just like at the 1999 NCAAs, the Pioneers jumped out to a lead on the Wolverines – going up 3-2 on freshman Luke Fulghum’s goal. But when Michigan began to tire in the third period, the 7,000 Michigan fans cramming Yost lifted the Wolverines to a come-from-behind victory, as Michigan first tied the game and then won it on an Eric Nystrom to Jed Ortmeyer goal with less than two minutes left in regulation, 4-3. The Pioneers’ season lay shattered. You can watch the whole game here if you can stomach it.
The egregiously unfair seeding decisions of that tournament, as well as other NCAA tourneys of that era where several high seeds fell at Yost to lower-seeded Michigan teams on Michigan’s home ice, would eventually force change in the NCAA tournament format. The NCAA now prefers that regionals not be held on campus sites, unless enough neutral sites don’t bid to host.
DU’s Michigan meltdown of 2002 may have had a deep psychological effect on the Pioneer squad that followed. Picked for first place in the WCHA for 2002-2003, with much of the talent coming back, the Pioneers struggled with the weight of expectation all season long. The Pioneers lost a number of games late and ended with a 21-14-6 overall record, a disappointing seventh-place WCHA finish, and a WCHA playoff exit in North Dakota on a pair of 3-2 overtime losses to the Sioux.
The DU program was ready for a fresh start as the 2003-2004 season dawned, but was only predicted to finish fifth in the WCHA. Despite some very promising road performances that season, the Pioneers struggled at home in league play for much of the season, and injuries would cut into Denver’s depth, especially on defense. But on the last night of January, the Pioneers tied North Dakota 1-1 in Grand Forks, allowing the team to believe in itself. In the final 16 games they played, the Pioneers would lose only twice more, sweeping Minnesota and Colorado College, and beating the best teams in college hockey to do it — Miami (Ohio), North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, and Maine. Ryan Caldwell, DU’s only all-American that year, would become the ideal Pioneer captain, with a laid-back-but-accountable leadership style that keyed to DU’s run to the NCAA title.
In a sweep of Colorado College for the Gold Pan Trophy in the final regular-season series, DU lost its second-leading scorer, Connor James, to a broken leg when James crashed into the boards awkwardly. DU limped into the WCHA playoffs against that same CC team and lost twice at home, knocking DU out of the WCHA playoffs. But that early WCHA playoff exit actually helped DU, as the week off that followed allowed the Pioneers to get healthy. An hour after losing to CC, DU Assistant Captain Greg Keith reportedly called his parents and told them, “We’ll be okay.” He would be right about that.
The NCAA tournament that year would find the second-seeded Pioneers placed in the West Regional just down the highway at the Colorado Springs World Arena (now called the Broadmoor World Arena), where a healthy contingent of Pioneer fans, as well as the Pioneer pep band, showed up to support the team. The Pioneers would play third-seeded Miami of Ohio, Gwozdecky’s former program, then playing in the CCHA. Gwozdecky and assistant coach Steve Miller had both coached at Miami before coming to DU, including coaching Miami’s coach, Enrico Blasi, when Blasi was a player for the RedHawks. Blasi also later served as an assistant coach at DU under Gwozdecky. DU held Miami to just 23 shots that day and won 3-2, setting up a showdown with top-ranked North Dakota for the regional crown.
North Dakota was loaded that season — the best and top-scoring team in the country for much of the year. The Fighting Sioux had pretty much wiped out DU in their previous games that year by a combined score of 21-6, except for that January 1-1 tie in Grand Forks. Led by Hobey Baker nominees Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski, along with NHL first round pick Drew Stafford, the Fighting Sioux were the top seed in the tournament and favored to go all the way. The faster and deeper Sioux peppered DU from the opening period, but Berkhoel made save after save for DU, piling up 23 of them after two periods, to only 13 saves for UND goalie Jordan Parise, Zach’s brother. That would set the stage for high drama, with the game still tied 0-0 in the third period. The Sioux would fire 10 more shots in the third to try to score, while DU would have only four shots on goal.
Fortunately for DU, one of those shots was a great one. Senior Max Bull, whose older brother Jesse won a national title at UND in 1997, would blast a scorching one-timer with 2:29 left in the game that would change the fate of the entire Denver hockey program. The shot would be ever-so-slightly tipped in front by DU’s Luke Fulghum, past UND goalie Jordan Parise, for the only goal of the game. The Pioneers would celebrate DU going to the Frozen Four for the first time in 18 years. (DU taking out the best UND team in years would also fire up UND in future games, and the rivalry between DU and UND would get even more heated over coming years.)
Once in Boston for the Frozen Four, the Pioneers had to play in a Thursday semifinal against fellow WCHA league-mate Minnesota Duluth, starting at noon Eastern time, just 10 AM on the Pioneers’ Mountain Time bodies. With only a few thousand people bothering to show up for the start of this early game at the Fleet Center with two western teams playing at the weird weekday hour, the whole affair seemed at the beginning like it would be a bit of a snooze-fest.
But the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, egged on by their pep band that had traveled by bus 18 hours overnight from Duluth, were fired up, scoring two goals on the Pioneers on their first four shots on goal. DU then held steady, scoring once in the second period, which was matched by UMD minutes later to go up 3-1 on the Pioneers. But facing elimination, DU suddenly took over the game and exploded for four straight goals in the early third period to win the game, 5-3. (UMD’s promising junior goalie Isaac Reichsmuth, who let in the four DU goals that period, was perhaps shell-shocked by the experience. He was never the same college goalie after that period, stumbling in his senior season to his lowest season save percentage of his UMD college career and only six wins.)
DU’s game-winner against the Bulldogs was scored by Lukas Dora, a slightly eccentric, but high-scoring Czech forward who was also known for his bilingual trash-talking that often confused opponents. Dora would commit a team rules violation the next day that would earn him a team-imposed suspension for the NCAA championship game on Saturday. For DU to suspend its third-leading scorer, a senior, for the biggest game in modern school history, showed the rest of the country about the ethics practiced by DU as a private school. “It’s the policy,” Dora later said. “I broke it, so I don’t play…People make mistakes in life.”
The Pioneers would step out on the ice that Saturday night in the NCAA Championship game against top-seeded Maine, in front of a Fleet Center record crowd of more than 18,000 roaring fans, most of whom were cheering for Maine. The Black Bears had been beaten by the Minnesota Gophers in the title game the year prior in 2003, and the 2004 Black Bear team wanted very badly to atone for that loss. There was a group of Boston College fans who, with their BC team previously eliminated by Maine in the other 2004 NCAA semifinal, cheered for the Pioneers. And most importantly to DU, there were perhaps 750 Denver fans in the house, led by a toga-clad Damien Goddard, DU’s Bleacher Creature leader from 1986, who reprised his role and led the spirited Denver cheering section.
The DU vs Maine game was tight from start to finish. Maine scored an apparent power play goal just four minutes into the first period by Derek Damon, but the goal was called back when Black Bear Mike Hamilton’s foot was found to be in the DU crease on replay review – at the time, an NCAA rule no-no. Then minutes later, Maine winger Ben Murphy had the puck, and was all alone on a breakaway, when he mysteriously tripped over the DU blue line. It was a moment that many Pioneer players, alumni, and fans still attribute to a ‘ghostly’ hip check from the late Pioneer defenseman legend Keith Magnuson, who may have been ‘watching the game from above’. Magnuson, DU’s fiery all-America captain who led DU to the 1968 and 1969 NCAA titles, had spoken to the spellbound 2003-2004 DU team earlier that season. He talked to them about “getting to the event.” Magnuson would die in a tragic car crash on a Canadian road in December that year, and the Pioneers wore his #2 as a patch on their jerseys. “Me and Berkie [Berkhoel] looked at each other [when Murphy tripped] and said ‘Maggie [Magnuson] tripped him,” said DU senior Greg Keith of Murphy’s fall. “It was like having a seventh guy on the ice.”
Later that first period, DU’s Connor James, playing on a broken leg suffered only five weeks earlier but feeling little pain, fed forward Gabe Gauthier for a power play marker that squeaked through the pads of Maine goalie Jimmy Howard. It was the only goal that DU would need. Gauthier’s goal would also turn out to be the most historic goal in DU’s NCAA tournament history since John MacMillan’s 1960 goal that lifted the Pioneers to the 1960 NCAA Tournament title in the final minutes.
The most memorable part of the game, and perhaps in NCAA Tournament history, were the final 90 seconds, when DU had to kill off a 5-on-3 Maine power play, coupled with an extra forward when Maine pulled Howard, for a rare 6-skaters-on-3 advantage – a situation that teams just don’t ever practice – with the NCAA trophy on the line (or at least overtime), as the clock ticked down. Adam Berkhoel made some clutch saves for DU and freshman Matt Carle was on the ice with captain Ryan Caldwell guiding the defense, while Maine controlled the puck and fired on DU as if in target practice. Berkhoel also got some extra help from the crossbar (Magnuson again?) on a John Jankus shot with just seconds left.
DU had the opportunity to call a timeout at one point to rest, but Caldwell told Gwozdecky not to call it. “I knew the guys we had on the ice were better than any guys that Maine could put out there,” Caldwell said later. Gwozdecky honored his captain’s advice. Finally, the puck came out of the DU zone, the clock hit all zeros and the Pioneers had won their sixth NCAA title. DU radio broadcaster Jay Stickney knew the history of the moment and intoned ‘DU has won its first NCAA title since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” referencing DU’s 1969 Magnuson-led NCAA title some 35 years prior. You can relive the tension-filled, but glorious ESPN version of the 2004 ending on video, here, starting at the 13:50 mark.
Later that Championship night at the Sheraton Boston Hotel Ballroom, the DU team, led by Captain Ryan Caldwell, in front of DU hockey parents, families, coaches and fans, dedicated the 2004 NCAA title to Chancellor Dan Ritchie, for having the vision, skills and funds to build Magness Arena and to hire George Gwozdecky.
Gwozdecky had rebuilt the Denver program to once again achieve the highest level and win the NCAA title, showing the hockey world that DU was back on top again after a 35-year absence. Moreover, that NCAA title showed the rest of the university that the pinnacle of national excellence was indeed possible and that the university’s long road back from near financial ruin in the 1980s was worth the journey. Gwozdecky would later say that DU’s NCAA title #6, despite the team’s fourth-place WCHA league finish and not-so-fabulous record of 27-12-5 was not a Cinderella story — that it was simply a talented, hard-working, relatively healthy team peaking at the right time, hammering home the best late-season record in college hockey over the final 16 games of the season.
The Pioneers would be the toast of Denver that spring, showing the trophy around town and being cheered by thousands at Rockies, Nuggets, and Avalanche games. The team even got a trip to the White House to meet President George W. Bush, who in turn, not only referenced the record three DU Pioneer alumni in his cabinet – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, but also joked about Lukas Dora’s confusing Czech trash-talking as being similar to Bush’s tendency to confuse reporters at press conferences. The 2004 DU team was the only one of the eight DU NCAA Championship hockey teams to ever get a White House visit.
The following season, 2004-2005, DU would have four all-Americans leading the way on more of an express train to the NCAA title. Three of those all-Americans — Carle, Gauthier, and Brett Skinner — already had NCAA rings from 2004, and the fourth was a talented freshman by the name of Paul Stastny. All of them would reach the NHL after their DU careers were over, and Stastny is still there, 15 years later. Additionally, DU would benefit from the NHL lockout which lasted an entire season, keeping key players from signing early and also filling the seats of Magness Arena with local NHL fans needing their hockey fix.
That season, DU reached top form in midseason, losing only once in a stretch of 19 games between mid-November and mid-February. DU finished the year by winning the final nine games of the season, en route to a 32-9-2 final record, their best since 1986. DU also racked up all the hardware it could possibly win that season — including the Gold Pan for beating CC, the Wells Fargo Denver Cup Tournament trophy, the McNaughton Cup for the WCHA regular season, the Broadmoor Trophy for winning the WCHA Final Five. And of course, the NCAA Championship Trophy was still to come…
Denver was the top western seed in 2004-2005 and was sent to the Northeast Regional at the Mullins Center on the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus in Amherst, Mass., where the Pioneers faced Bemidji (Minn.) State, playing in its very first NCAA Division I tournament game. DU would outshoot Bemidji by a 2-1 margin in the game, but Bemidji scored three times in 22 shots on struggling DU goalie Glenn Fisher, and the game headed to overtime, tied at 3-3. Fortunately for DU, with a draw in the offensive zone, Gabe Gauthier won the faceoff back to Brett Skinner at the point. DU winger Kevin Ulanski headed to the left side of the net and was in perfect position for Skinner’s shot to hit him in the right shin and bounce into the net for a 4-3 overtime Pioneer victory. The goal was reviewed by instant replay and was allowed to stand, as the deflection was ruled incidental. “I’m not too sure [how it went in],” said Ulanski in the post-game press conference. “We were fortunate enough to get the bounce.”
DU then faced the University of New Hampshire Wildcats for the Northeast Regional title that Easter Sunday. DU blistered UNH 18-6 in first-period shots, but the game was tied 1-1 after one, with Gabe Gauthier scoring for Denver. In the second period, UNH won the shots battle 17-12 and went ahead 2-1 on a penalty shot, but the period ended 2-2, as a second goal by Gauthier tied the game late in the period. In the third period, DU had the better of the chances, and Ryan Dingle’s goal with less than four minutes left became the game-winner. Gauthier would add an empty netter to complete his hat trick in the final minute, and DU advanced to its second consecutive Frozen Four in Columbus, Ohio, 4-2.
That year, the Frozen Four would be comprised entirely of WCHA teams – Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota and North Dakota – which chafed many in the Eastern media. With the Frozen Four being played at Ohio State’s Value City Arena in Columbus, a city somewhat indifferent to college hockey, the tournament was quite a bit more of a subdued affair in contrast to the urban craziness of Boston the year prior. Still, 17,000+ fans gathered to watch DU’s 6-2 demolition of archival #2 overall seed Colorado College in the first semifinal (more on that game later, below), and DU would face its other big rival, North Dakota, in the NCAA championship game for all the marbles.
There was already a lot of bad blood between DU and UND, as DU had ended top-ranked North Dakota’s season the previous year in the Colorado Springs Regional. Additionally, Denver’s Geoff Paukovich had broken the neck of North Dakota’s Robbie Bina on an illegal hit in the WCHA Final Five that year. Paukovich was suspended by the league and by DU for a total of two games, while Bina would be out for the rest of the season and the next season. (Bina would later return to play for North Dakota in 2006 and 2007, and would play another 11 years of professional hockey following his graduation).
At the time in 2005 though, many North Dakota fans were still quite enraged over Bina’s injury and the Paukovich hit that created it. In Columbus that night, several grown men screamed death threats at Paukovich during the warm-up for the National Championship game. Other death threats had previously been made online and even sent to the Paukovich family home in Colorado. That night, UND would set the angry tone early in the game when Sioux forward Chris Porter blasted Denver’s Brett Skinner into the boards, separating Skinner’s shoulder. Skinner went off the ice to be injected with painkillers in the DU locker room but soon returned to the ice to play the rest of the game with the separated shoulder. Nothing was going to keep him off the ice.
DU would get on the board first as center Gabe Gauthier carried the puck into the UND end but lost control of it in the high slot. Kevin Ulanski gained control and sent a low shot toward the net that bounced off UND defenseman Matt Smaby’s skate. Goalie Jordan Parise, who had no chance to recover, had the angle on the shot until it changed direction off the skate and slid over the goal line for a 1-0 DU lead. Shortly after, North Dakota would tie it up at 1-1 as UND’s Nick Fuher sent a low shot from the point that Sioux center Travis Zajac tipped through Denver goalie Peter Mannino’s legs. Denver would then take the lead back 2-1 at 10:08 of the second period on a power play, as Kevin Ulanski’s slap shot was re-directed by Paul Stastny who was in the middle of the slot with a UND defender draped all over him. UND goalie Jordan Parise may not have seen the puck as it rose up, top shelf and inside the post on his glove side.
With UND pressing hard in the third period and dominating the shot chart by outworking Denver, DU’s Tourney MVP freshman goalie Peter Mannino was keeping the puck out for the Pioneers with save after save. The Sioux were getting frustrated, and things were getting testy in the DU zone. On a stoppage in play, UND tough guy Mike Prpich dared to take a drink from Mannino’s water bottle that was attached to Mannino’s net – a rather cardinal sin in hockey player culture and a clear provocation to try to get Mannino off his game. But Mannino and DU defenseman Chris Nutini were quick to get into Prpich’s face to remind him that his stunt was not at all amusing.
Denver would then get the ultimate last laugh when the Pioneers scored the “dagger goal” to make it 3-1 at 8:19 of the third period on a power play, as Matt Carle memorably carried the puck over the UND blueline and split the UND defense with a spectacular move. Before entering the slot, Carle flipped the puck over to the right circle where center Paul Stastny was moving in quickly. Stastny, with no defender near him, one-timed a shot from the faceoff dot, and the puck hit the back of the net behind Parise on the near side as the red goal light flashed. Denver fans erupted at the sight of those two generational players brilliantly working together to create an indelible memory for every Pioneer fan watching.
The Sioux tried valiantly to score on Mannino for the rest of the game, but the Pioneers absorbed the Sioux’s final press. With UND’s net empty for the extra attacker in the game’s final minute, Gabe Gauthier scored into the open net from just inside the UND blueline to kick off the DU celebration. The horn sounded, and for the third time in school history, the Pioneers had won back-to-back NCAA titles.
The North Dakota players were disconsolate, having dominated shots in the game, but coming up empty again — their season ended by the hated Pioneers for the second consecutive year. Later that night, the Pioneers would celebrate with the NCAA trophy, which was carried into the lobby of the Westin Hotel in Columbus by DU captain Matt Laatsch before the cheering DU fans, parents and family members. It was a proud moment for Laatsch, who had almost died from an infection back in 2003 that temporarily derailed his hockey career.
One of the other spectacular aspects of that 2004-2005 Championship season was DU’s mastery over its rivalry with Colorado College. The rivalry reached peak importance that season, as CC had also been ranked #1 at various points in the year, behind the nation’s two top scorers – Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling. In March, DU shut out the top-ranked Tigers twice, once in the season finale 5-0 to secure the Gold Pan, and again in the WCHC Final Five, when DU shut out the #1-ranked Tigers in the league title game in St. Paul. DU and CC had shared a charter flight from Denver on the way out, and it had to be a little awkward on the way back, with Denver asked to take off their championship hats on the way back by the coaching staff.
In the NCAA semifinals, Denver would score six power play goals against the Tigers, winning the game, 6-2. Good thing they didn’t share a flight after that game…
It must be noted here that CC last won an NCAA title in 1957, a full 62 years ago and counting, as of 2019.
Once again, the Pioneers later were showered with local honors and appearances around the city of Denver. You can watch Pioneer’s NCAA Tourney highlights from that season here.
Following the 2005 NCAA Championship, the Pioneers were picked for another great season in 2005-2006 and were thrilled at the prospect of having Matt Carle and Paul Stastny as returning all-Americans. Indeed, in 2005-2006, those two dynamic players would share the team lead in points with 53 each, the only time in DU history that the team point lead was shared.
The Pioneers struggled out of the gate, getting swept at Maine to open the year. The Pios then righted the ship, going 11-5-2 heading into the Denver Cup at the end of December. But losses to low-ranked Princeton and Ferris State at that tournament were head-scratchers, and hurt DU’s pairwise ranking. The Pioneers were able to rebound though, and the stretch drive included an inspired sweep of top-ranked Wisconsin in Madison as well as a six-game win streak in league play.
DU finished tied for second in the WCHA and hosted a home best-of-three WCHA playoff series with Minnesota Duluth. The Pioneers were upset in the first game 3-2 in overtime. As expected, DU clawed back and won the second game 3-2, setting up a Sunday showdown for the right to advance. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs thumped the Pioneers 5-2 in the third game. DU, suddenly on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, would have to wait a week to see if its NCAA qualification ranking would be high enough. As it turned out, the Pioneers were denied qualification, and their season was abruptly over.
The silver lining that year was Matt Carle winning the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player – the first such winner in DU history since the award began in 1981. Carle went straight to the NHL once DU was knocked out, where he would enjoy a 10-year career with the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers, and Nashville Predators. Stastny also left DU for the NHL after that season, where he remains to this day (Stastny is currently playing for the Vegas Golden Knights).
The year 2006-2007 would be another frustrating one for Denver. Things were looking good in mid-season for the Pioneers, as they reeled off a 9-1 record from mid-December to mid-January to put themselves into contention in the WCHA and in the NCAA selection picture. A stirring 1-0 shutout of top-ranked Minnesota in Minneapolis on January 19th capped a wonderful run. However, after that January night in Minnesota, DU would win only three more games for the rest of the season, en route to a fourth-place finish with a 21-15-4 record, a first-round exit in the WCHA playoffs at home to Wisconsin and another barely-missed NCAA bid due to a pairwise ranking that was just short of the #16 seed cutoff. With DU hosting the NCAA regionals that season at Pepsi Center in downtown Denver, missing the NCAA tournament was a huge disappointment, especially because the Pioneers would likely have qualified had they won just one more game at any point in that season.
The Pioneers would make a bounce back the following season in 2007-2008, behind All-American Chris Butler’s defense, and a tremendous mid-season stretch of 17-3 hockey between late October and mid-January. The Pioneers hit a rough stretch in mid-January, going 2-6-1 into February before getting back to winning hockey as the season wound to a close.
Also in February, the North Dakota-Denver feud hit another boiling point after a multi-player on-ice brawl in Grand Forks at the end of a period. UND forward Kyle Radke, who had already left the ice for the period break, came back from the tunnel to charge at DU’s Brandon Vossberg and rained blows on Vossberg’s head while Vossberg was already down on the ice, cutting Vossberg for stitches. UND fans were roaring with delight at Radke’s beating of Vossberg, while Denver fans were outraged both that Radke did not follow the traditional hockey fighter’s code of stopping the punches when the player being beaten was already down on the ice, and that referee Marco Hunt failed to intervene in the fight while the linesmen were busy breaking up other fisticuffs.
DU would finish third in the WCHA that year, hosting Minnesota Duluth in the playoffs. The Pioneers dumped the Bulldogs in two straight, 6-3 and a 1-0 shutout, setting up a date with #4 North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul. Before a hostile crowd in St. Paul, the Pioneers took revenge on North Dakota, winning 3-1. They then faced #12-ranked Minnesota, playing at an arena full of Gopher fans in the WCHA Championship Game. DU played inspired hockey and would win that thriller 2-1, and the autobid to the NCAA Tournament that came with it. The DU fan base was fired up because DU was hosting the 2008 Frozen Four at Pepsi Center that year, and with the title win in the WCHA Tournament, DU appeared to have a good chance of making the Frozen Four before the NCAA tournament was selected.
However, a record six WCHA teams qualified for the 16-team NCAA Tournament that year, and the NCAA Committee had to disregard its usual rule about avoiding first-round matchups between teams from the same league. Not only was DU matched up with a team from its own league, DU as the higher (#2) seed was sent to Madison, Wisconsin to face the lower (#3) seeded host, University of Wisconsin Badgers, on Wisconsin’s home ice before 10,000 Wisconsin fans, another egregious seeding fate that had Denver fans angry, and for good reason.
“Somebody had to go to Madison,” said NCAA Committee Chair Joel Maturi said to College Hockey News at the time. Maturi, a former DU athletic director then at Minnesota, referred to the five WCHA teams in the 2-3 seed slots, which necessitated an NCAA first-round all-WCHA matchup. “We agonized over it, I can assure you that.”
In that game, the home ice and crowd certainly helped the Badgers, as Wisconsin jumped out to a 2-0 second period lead before DU cut the lead in half on a Dusty Jackson power-play goal with 3:20 left in the second period. With the game playing very tight about halfway through the third period, Wisconsin was able to break through for a 3-1 lead on Cody Golubef’s goal at 9:19, and the Pioneers crumbled, allowing the Badgers to score again one minute later, as John Mitchell beat Peter Mannino with a dagger goal at 10:19 to make it 4-1. Tom May responded for Denver with DU’s final goal of its season at 11:47, but the damage was already done. The Badger’s scored twice more in the waning minutes for a 6-2 final, ending Mannino’s DU career and crushing DU’s dream of playing for all the marbles at Pepsi Center. Mannino would go on play in the NHL and is head coach (2019) of the Des Moines Bucaneers in the USHL.
The next fall, in 2008-2009, the Pioneers had another strong team. They opened the season with a 5-2 thumping of #3-ranked Notre Dame in the US Hockey Hall of Fame Game in Denver, followed by a sweep of a ranked Wisconsin team before sellout crowds at Magness Arena.
But DU Chancellor Robert Coombe would rain on the Denver spirit that fall. On October 20th, he ruled that Denver Boone DU’s Disney-designed mascot from 1968 that had been axed by the school in 1999 was “polarizing”, and would not be allowed to return even after a student-led campaign to restore the mascot to official status. Coombe did, however, provide that DU students and alumni could use the character “as they choose” which resulted in a privately-funded unofficial mascot that would later appear at DU games in Denver and for the next 10 years until the character was banned from campus in 2018, and is still seen at big DU games around the country where the character is welcomed.
In mid-season, DU went on a 10-1-2 tear that helped vault the Pioneers into league and NCAA contention, and the Pioneers would ultimately finish 16-8-4 in league play, good for second place. Many fans will also remember Gwozdecky’s famous walk across the ice in Grand Forks after he was ejected by referee Todd Anderson for protesting a series of non-calls against the Pioneers. In typical cowardly fashion for the much-maligned official, Anderson delivered the news of Gwozdecky’s ejection via an on-ice conversation with DU captain JP Testwuide, instead of telling Gwozdecky to his face. Rather than leaving the DU bench and staying in the locker room, Gwozdecky crossed the ice to talk to an official directly about the decision, to the roaring of 12,000 incredulous UND fans. Gwozdecky then went to the press box rather than the locker room and donned a headset to help coach his team. He was later suspended further by the league and by DU for his conduct, the only time in his coaching career at DU that he had been suspended.
The Pioneers then swept Alaska Anchorage in the WCHA playoffs, earning a place in the WCHA Final Five, and then shut out 16th ranked Wisconsin for a berth in the WCHA Championship game for the second year in a row. Minnesota Duluth scored three times in that game, while the Pioneers came up empty. Even with the WCHA Championship Game loss, the Pioneers finished third overall in the national pairwise ranking, which guaranteed them a top seed in the West Regional, held that year at Mariucci Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota.
The Pioneers would face the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks in a rematch of the 2004 NCAA regional opener, in which DU beat Miami in Colorado Springs. This time, however, DU came out flat while Miami came out firing, going up 3-0 on the Pioneers before DU could finally score deep into the second period. NHL first-round draft pick Joe Colborne’s power-play goal, on assists from Tyler Bozak and Patrick Wiercioch, all three of whom would go on to NHL careers, would cut the Miami lead to 3-1 at 17:29 and give Pioneer fans some hope. That hope lasted not even two minutes, however, as Miami would score a back-breaker goal with a little over 30 seconds left in the period, when Andy Meile beat DU goalie Marc Cheverie to give Miami a commanding 4-1 lead.
DU would score once more in the third period when coach George Gwozdecky decided to add an extra attacker to a DU power play with under five minutes to play. Tyler Bozak would score his final goal in a DU uniform before signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, on assists from Wiercioch and Rhett Rakhshani, but the game would end 4-2 with Miami victorious. Miami would go on to later lose the NCAA championship game in horrendous fashion to Boston University, allowing BU to tie the game in the final seconds, before losing it in overtime. DU headed to the proverbial golf course, season over, heads hung in shame.
In 2010-2011, Denver would put together another excellent WCHA regular season, behind great performances from three all-Americans, goalie Marc Cheverie, forward Rhett Rakhshani and defenseman Patrick Wiercioch, winning the MacNaughton Cup by finishing first in the regular season. The Pioneers had been good all year, but became quite exceptional at the end of January, going 13-1 through to mid-March, into the first round of the WCHA playoffs, where DU took out Michigan Tech in two games. Another trip to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five ended badly for the Pioneers, including a 4-3 loss to North Dakota in the semi-finals, and a 6-3 loss to Wisconsin in the consolation game. Nevertheless, the Pioneers had piled up a strong enough record to get seeded in the NCAA tournament with the other top seeds.
DU was sent to the East Regional in Albany, N.Y, to play at the Times-Union Center, where the Pioneers would face the 20th ranked Tigers from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). While DU was the top seed, the game was certainly closer for the RIT fanbase, who made their way down the New York State Thruway by the thousands, compared to only a handful of Pioneer fans who flew into Albany. The Pioneers would outshoot RIT badly in this game, 40-25, but DU didn’t score until the 14:34 mark of the third period when Joe Colborne scored on a power play. The problem for DU was that RIT had scored a couple of earlier goals, and that was all they would need for a shocking 2-1 upset, as RIT’s Jared DeMichiel stopped 39 shots to beat #2/3 Denver. DU thus ended its season with a 27-10-4 record and lost its third consecutive playoff game and the third straight in the NCAA tournament since claiming the national title in 2005. Denver fans were stunned at this third straight exit, but RIT would eventually move on to the Frozen Four that season.
In 2010-2011, the Pioneers were smarting from three straight NCAA first-round exits, some of them more embarrassing than others. But a much bigger story would dominate that season – one that would transcend sports. As previously discussed, the North Dakota-Denver rivalry had been at a full boil for several seasons. Besides the typical heated games between the schools, often for high stakes, there were high profile incidents that kept the rivalry even more front-and-center. In 2005, there was the Paukovich/Bina incident in St. Paul. The next season, there would be vigilante retribution against Paukovich by the Sioux’s Mike Prpich (also remembered from the Peter Mannino water bottle incident in Columbus in 2005), who intentionally speared Paukovich in his groin during a face-off.
In October of 2005, there was also a bloody incident when UND defenseman Matt Smaby unintentionally ended the season of DU’s Brock Trotter, who was leading the Pioneers in scoring in his rookie season at DU, when Smaby’s skate blade cut more than an inch into Trotter’s leg, severing several muscles in addition to Trotter’s Achilles tendon. In 2008, there was the Kyle Radke/Brandon Vossberg brawl, followed in 2009 by Gwozdecky’s ejection and crazy walk across the ice, and then also in 2009, Sioux fan harassment of Denver TV reporter Alana Rizzo.
This was the climate on Oct 28, 2010 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when DU forward Jesse Martin was gathering the puck in the defensive zone and UND’s Brad Malone, a 212-lb rival forward for the UND Fighting Sioux, charged down his wing at full speed and plowed into Martin while Martin’s head was down, leading with his right elbow into Martin’s head – an illegal charge. Malone’s hit broke Martin’s C-2 neck vertebrae in three places – an injury so dangerous that 99% of those who suffer it will die from it, and of those who survive it, 98% percent will be quadriplegics. Miraculously, only a small bone fragment from one of the broken vertebra fell into the space between Martin’s vertebrae, which saved Martin’s spinal cord from severance and certain death. Martin, who never played hockey again, was through groundbreaking surgery and expert rehab, able to avoid permanent paralysis, and graduated from DU in 2011. Today in 2019, he is a lawyer in Calgary. Martin recalled the incident and his recovery in a 2011 Ted Talk at DU.
The Pioneers took inspiration from Martin’s rehab and played some high-level hockey that season, including the Pioneers’ almost patented mid-season double-digit win streak, going 10-1 in November and December to help them to a second-place in the WCHA at 17-8-3 in league play. The Pios squeaked by Minnesota State 4-3 and 3-2 in the home first-round WCHA series, earning a ticket to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five. There, the Pioneers whomped Bemidji State in the semi-final, 6-2, setting up yet another showdown with North Dakota for the Broadmoor Trophy.
Top seed North Dakota led DU 2-1 late in the game until Denver’s Beau Bennett found Anthony Maiani for the game-tying goal at 17:47 of the third period. But North Dakota would get the game-winner in the second overtime on a Matt Frattin rebound conversion, shot past DU goalie Sam Brittain, to win 3-2. Still, the Pioneers high pairwise advanced to the NCAA Tournament and were selected to the Midwest Regional in the Resch Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The NCAA selection committee sent Denver to the Midwest regional, unfortunately in North Dakota’s bracket. The NCAA could have switched Denver with Union, for example. While that would have created a conflict with Denver/Minnesota Duluth, UMD could have been flipped to the Northeast to play Merrimack, with Notre Dame sent to Bridgeport, Conn. to play Denver. Union would then be out west playing Western Michigan, and the problem would have solved, but the NCAA committee stuck to a more rigid 1-16 interpretation of the pairwise rankings.
In the first round, Denver would play the Western Michigan Broncos – then a CCHA member. The Broncos jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the DU. By the third period, it was looking like doom for the Pioneers – a fourth straight first-round NCAA loss. But with less than five minutes remaining in the game, the Pioneers came storming back behind the leadership of freshman Jason Zucker, who currently plays in the NHL for the Minnesota Wild. Zucker assisted on Denver’s first goal, a power-play goal by Kyle Ostrow at 15:31. Then Zucker set up all-American Matt Donovan’s long-slapshot goal at 17:31 to tie the game at two, sending it to overtime. The first overtime settled nothing, and it took more than half of the second overtime before Zucker won the game with a goal for Denver at 11:31 – an extra 31 minutes of play.
That extra playing time for Denver would play a big factor the following day, as Denver would again face rival North Dakota in the regional final, this time on tired legs. DU kept the game close through the first and second periods. The shots were about even at 21-20, and UND was clinging to a 2-1 lead after 39 minutes of play, with Denver’s lone goal coming from…who else but Zucker. But the Sioux would get a power-play goal from Brett Hextall with less than a minute left in the second period that sent UND up 3-1, and the Sioux would never look back. In the third period, DU was completely gassed from the long overtime the day before, and the Sioux scored three more times to end DU’s season, 6-1.
That summer, a lot was going on behind the scenes in college hockey. DU Athletic Director Peg Bradley-Doppes, formerly a volleyball coach and assistant AD at the University of Michigan, knew that the long-rumored Big 10 hockey conference was about to become a reality. Penn State had secured a $75 million arena donation to start a Division I hockey program. As PSU would become the sixth Big 10 team playing hockey, Big 10 conference bylaws would kick in to force all the other Big 10 schools that sponsored hockey to pull out of their existing conferences (the WCHA and CCHA) to create a new Big 10 hockey conference.
Accordingly, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the two largest D-I schools in the WCHA, would soon be leaving for the Big 10. DU and other remaining WCHA schools would be left behind without the financial windfall of two of the largest fanbases, who provided much of the league’s revenue through the buying of tickets to the annual WCHA Final Five, as well as generating Big 10-sized interest levels of sponsors and media. At the same time, the WCHA’s then-Commissioner, Bruce MacLeod, seemed content to stand pat with no expansion or revenue plans to replace Wisconsin and Minnesota’s loss to the conference. With the smaller schools seeking more cost controls rather than countering the Big 10 with increased investment, the remaining larger budget schools in the WCHA and CCHA were getting very concerned.
Bradley-Doppes initiated a meeting privately with Brad Bates, the athletic director at Miami of Ohio to share her concerns. Before long, other key large hockey budget athletic directors were invited to join the group of ‘like-minded’ schools, including North Dakota’s athletic director Brian Faison. North Dakota, with the largest remaining fan base in the WCHA, would be critical to this new group. The ADs met in secret several times, discussing a range of options including merging the WCHA with the CCHA, as well as forming their own conference. When the small schools in the WCHA, who dominated the league’s Executive Council at that time, decided to extend WCHA Commissioner Bruce MacLeod’s contract without the consent of the larger-budget schools, the WCHA instantly fractured, led by Denver and North Dakota, whose leaders were furious with the backdoor MacLeod contract offer.
Soon afterward, the ‘like-minded’ larger-budget schools – Denver, North Dakota, Miami, Omaha, Minnesota Duluth, and Colorado College – decided definitively to form their own six-team conference, breaking away from the rest of the WCHA and CCHA. While Notre Dame was also in on the meetings as a potential additional school, they were noncommittal at first. The Irish eventually decided not to join the new conference over television contract concerns and chose instead to join Hockey East before eventually joining the Big 10 in 2017. St. Cloud State, which had initially balked at the new conference, changed its tune and, along with Western Michigan (whose candidacy was helped along by fellow CCHA and MAC conference mate Miami) were soon added to replace Notre Dame to set the new league as an eight-team league.
By the late fall of 2011, the National College Hockey Conference (NCHC) was born, with the intention that play would begin in 2013, two seasons away. Reaction at the time was positive for most NCHC fan bases, who could see the necessity for the new conference, aided by the fact that the new conference would largely be comprised of former WCHA rivals, or at least those schools committed to big-budget hockey. Gone would be the yearly mandatory trips to Alaska, as well as to the difficult-to-reach upper peninsula of Michigan. Gone too would be the “small budget thinking” in the lower budget WCHA schools. Naturally, some WCHA fans were angry at the move though, as some school fan bases felt abandoned. That feeling would dissipate somewhat in future years as some of the then-lagging WCHA schools such as Michigan Tech and Minnesota State found instant success (and NCAA bids) in the new WCHA, as those programs no longer had to play league games against the better-capitalized programs that had moved to the NCHC.
That next season, 2011-12, would find DU once again in the thick of the WCHA race with a mediocre start to the year, followed by a 14-4-1 stretch after Christmas paced by all-American Jason Zucker. In the WCHA playoffs, the Pioneers lost the opener to the Wisconsin Badgers 1-0 but bounced back to win the next two games 3-1 and 3-2 in overtime in the third game. The Pioneers found themselves needing to beat Michigan Tech in the opening game of the WCHA Final Five, which they did, 3-2 in overtime on a Zucker goal. That earned DU a shot at #2-ranked Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA semi-final, and that game went to two overtimes before DU was able to beat the Bulldogs, 4-3 on a Zac Larraza backhander. DU goalie Sam Brittain made a school-record 67 saves in that game. The Pioneers were understandably physically spent for the next day’s WCHA Championship game, losing 4-0 to a better-rested North Dakota team.
Nevertheless, the ninth-ranked Pioneers earned an NCAA at-large bid, again returning to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the Midwest Regional at the Resch Center. Denver would be the underdog as a #3 seed, facing #2 seed Ferris (Mich.) State from the CCHA, in a first-round game. Ferris State outshot the Pioneers, 34-26 and ended up edging the Pioneers in the game, by a 2-1 final score. Ferris scored the game’s first two goals, and Drew Shore’s third-period backhander would be the only Denver goal of the game, ending the season with another DU NCAA regional first-round flameout.
“I want to congratulate the Ferris State University Bulldogs.” said Gwozdecky “They played a very good game, took advantage of our miscues and their goaltender was really good. [DU goalie] Sam Brittain really kept us in there. He did a terrific job in goal for us. You have to be a little lucky at this time of year to be healthy, and this team has battled through a lot of challenges this year, including a lot of lengthy injuries. I’m really proud of our team. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”
The 2012-2013 season would be a pivotal year in the history of Denver hockey, as it would be the final season for DU in the WCHA, and also, as it turned out, a stunning final DU season for the 19-season DU coaching career of George Gwozdecky as the Pioneers’ head coach. DU started that year hot out of the gate, jetting out to a 9-1 record in the fall, but after DU lost to Yale 3-2 in overtime in late November, the Pioneers went into a funk, going the next eight games without a win. The Pioneers, led by all-American goalie Juho Olkinuoura, were able to right the ship with four straight wins after Christmas over Boston University, Cornell (2) and Omaha, but the rest of the season was a mixed bag, with no winning or losing streaks beyond three games. DU would finish fourth in the WCHA, and hosted fifth-place Colorado College in the WCHA playoffs first round. DU won the first game, 5-3, but lost the next two games to CC, 2-1 and 4-3, missing the WCHA Final Five altogether, but having a high enough national pairwise ranking (#9) to make the NCAA tournament once again.
The 2013 NCAA Tournament had #12th ranked Denver seeded #9 overall (in the #3 seed band) and was sent to face the 10th ranked New Hampshire Wildcats in Manchester, N.H. before over 8,000 fans at Verizon Wireless Arena (today SNHU Arena), just a short distance from the UNH campus in Durham, N.H. The Wildcats had suffered season-ending losses to Denver in the 1995 and 2005 NCAA tournaments, and the ‘Cats were hoping for revenge this time in New Hampshire. The Pioneers came out of the gate buzzing, piling up 19 shots on goal in the first period alone, going up 1-0 just 2:24 into the game on a Dan Doremus goal. But UNH countered just three minutes later to tie the game at 1-1. The Pioneers went ahead 2-1 in the final minutes of the first period, as Nick Shore fed brother Quentin Shore for a brother-to-brother goal for the Pioneers. Little did they know it would be the last goal of DU’s season. In the second period, UNH tied the game 2-2 at 14:34 on the power play and went ahead 3-2 in the final seconds of the second period. The ‘Cats would score twice more in the third to take a 5-2 victory over DU and created another bitter playoff ending for the Pioneers.
“It’s been a roller-coaster year for us — just kind of like this game was — where we play very well at times and at times we really struggle,” Gwozdecky told the Associated Press after the game.
The Pioneers returned to Denver on March 30, 2013. Then, on April Fools’ Day, April 1, DU dropped a bombshell.
George Gwozdecky, the architect of sixteen 20-win seasons, twelve NCAA appearances and two NCAA titles for DU in 2004 and 2005, was no longer the head coach of the Pioneers…
We will explore Gwozdecky’s departure, the Jim Montgomery era and the early David Carle era in the next and final installment — Part IV 2013-2019. Stay tuned.
Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus.