GLENDALE, Ariz. — So the score lines from DU’s first-ever foray into the Arizona desert for hockey weren’t very pretty – #20 Arizona State 4, #4 DU 1 in the first game and ASU 2, DU 2 in overtime in the second game.
I’m sure many die-hard DU fans are concerned about the slump the Pioneers have been enduring in recent weeks. And so they should be. The Pioneers have not been winning many hockey games of late, and that’s always a concern for DU fans. Players play and we fans worry, as that’s about all we can control.
However, after spending many recent weeks researching and writing my long four-part series on the history of DU Hockey, I noticed some common threads, namely that almost all of DU’s great teams, especially in the modern era, had slumping periods, many of them around mid-season. It’s just part of the long six-month season grind and the Pioneers do usually pull out of them and play better in the second half of the year.
In these slumping periods, DU often struggles with lower ranked non-league teams coming off bye weeks in the November/December/January timeframe. Pio fans can remember the Dartmouth and Merrimack struggles in December of 2017, the poor weekend at Providence in December of 2016, and the early January tie against Brown in 2015 coming off Christmas in 2014, just to name a few. All those DU teams eventually went deep in the NCAA tournament.
That said, hats off to ASU for the way the Sun Devils played this weekend. They are a ranked program for a reason, and they played smart hockey, keeping DU on the perimeter on Friday and riding superlative goaltending on Saturday to a winning weekend. I am hoping they can soon build their planned 5,000 seat on campus arena and that the NCHC will eventually add them to the league. ASU, with 50,000 undergrads alone, is a strong athletic brand, and the Phoenix area is warm, relatively close and an affordable winter getaway for Pioneer fans.
This weekend, an estimated 200-300 Pioneer fans were part of the crowd of nearly 3,000 at the Arizona Coyotes’ Gila River Arena for the DU vs. ASU game on Saturday afternoon. The University of Denver, with its new regional advancement office in Los Angeles, sponsored a terrific pre-game BBQ tailgate for DU fans from all over the West, and the attending DU fans got to meet and hear a few words from DU athletic director Karlton Creech.
In the future, it would not be hard to imagine crowds of 500 or more DU fans supporting the team in Phoenix, assuming ASU plays DU in a large enough arena to accommodate them and that DU puts more effort into promoting the events. This time, even with just a low key e-mail promotion to Phoenix-area alumni, the DU ticket supply was quickly exhausted. Even Denver Boone flew into Arizona for the occasion, and as always around the country, the character was welcomed with open arms, posing for photos with Denver fans, opposing fans and being featured on the enormous video scoreboard in the Gila River Arena. It’s still too bad, and rather ironic, that Boone isn’t welcome at home in Denver, where the silly and debunked DU campus ‘mask ban’ still stands.
Friday’s game was at at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, ASU’s primary rink — a low- ceiling, poor ice conditions embarrassment to the game of college hockey, played before 750 die-hards in crude bleachers. The Pioneers were clearly uncomfortable in these kinds of conditions, and their performance showed on the ice, as they were outplayed in a 4-1 loss.
On Saturday, the game conditions changed 180 degrees as DU and ASU faced-off in a modern NHL arena with excellent amenities, and with plenty of room for everyone. DU plays pretty well in these kinds of conditions, with a record of 16-12-2 since 2000 in NHL arenas, with multiple wins in St. Paul, Chicago, and Boston, and ties in Denver (exhibition) and now in Arizona.
The Pioneers played very well to their identity on Saturday afternoon — controlling the puck, attacking with pressure and peppering ASU goalie Evan DeBrouwer with 46 shots on the afternoon, many of them requiring his great saves. Against most goalies, DU would have come away with a comfortable 5-2 or 6-2 victory, but this day, because of DeBrouwer’s excellence in the ASU net, the Pioneers required a late goal from Cole Guttman with 40 seconds left just to tie the game.
As DU coach David Carle said after the game: “I didn’t think there were any passengers and we played with a high level of urgency. Their [ASU] goalie played great, he made all the saves he should and a lot that he shouldn’t have. If we generate like that most nights, we’re going to end up with more than the other team.”
Should Saturday’s excellent level of DU play carry over into the Colorado College series this weekend, the Pioneers should be getting a good start toward retaking the Gold Pan Trophy.
Puck Swami is a longtime DU fan and alumnus.