One of the unique things about college hockey, college sports in general, really, is the importance of Senior Night. This event, which highlights the accomplishments and contributions of every year’s graduating class, is held in sacred regard by programs and colleges alike. The NCAA, unlike its professional counterpart, provides student-athletes just four years of eligibility. At the University of Denver, seemingly in every sport, it’s constantly astonishing what every class is able to achieve in just four years. More than anything, it’s the student-athletes who compete on the ice, courts, and fields that have built these programs into the powerhouses and developing contenders that DU boasts. It’s during Senior Night that the program and fans have the opportunity to thank those student-athletes for their blood, sweat, tears, and other sacrifices that they’ve made for them.
That’s why it’s a big deal that Denver Hockey junior captain and star defenseman Ian Mitchell – named an AHCA First-Team All-American over the weekend – signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Chicago Blackhawks over the weekend to forego his senior year and turn pro. As appreciative as the Crimson & Gold faithful are of Mitchell’s contributions over the past three years, they won’t get the traditional Senior Night opportunity to thank him and show their appreciation for what he’s done for the program.
Mitchell joined DU three years ago as a highly-touted recruit from the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, a burgeoning source of collegiate talent – 2019 Hobey Baker winner and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar played for the Brooks Bandits for three years before joining UMass-Amherst, for example – and the Calahoo, Alberta native didn’t disappoint in his freshman year for the Pioneers. He posted 30 points in 41 games and was named a finalist for the NCHC Rookie of the Year Award that was won by Scott Perunovich who was just named the 2020 Hobey Baker winner. Mitchell made an immediate impact in that 2017-2018 season even though the team itself underachieved, bowing out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after winning the NCHC Tournament. Mitchell’s contributions and style of play that year led to his earning an ‘A’ as an alternate captain in his sophomore year when he notched 27 points in 39 games and helped lead the Pioneers back to the Frozen Four in Buffalo.
Then, of course, this year, with another year of development under his belt and after his decision to return to Denver, he was named the next captain of the Pioneers, a designation no Pioneer has ever taken lightly. He returned to the Pioneers – after the Blackhawks made a big push to sign him after his sophomore year – with the goal of winning a national championship at the forefront of his mind. Mitchell scored 10 goals and tallied 32 points before the season was abruptly canceled after the regular season ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, his Pioneers were sitting at #5 in the Pairwise and had every intention of going to Detroit this past weekend and coming home with the program’s ninth national title.
Yes, he leaves the Pioneers without a national title, the ultimate barometer of success at DU. But in his final season, leading a team with very reasonable championship aspirations, his career will always have an asterisk next to it, only this time it’s meant in the best way. He didn’t even have that final chance to add a national championship to his resume.
Mitchell leaves the program in a great spot, though. In his three years at Denver, he embodied exactly what it means to be a Pioneer. He has all the talent in the world, but he was the ultimate star in a team game. Everything he did on and off the ice was done to help the program and help his team win games. Individual statistics and accolades paled in comparison to winning games. Joining the program the year after it had clinched its eighth national title, tied with North Dakota for second all-time, Mitchell has only helped to elevate the program’s status and sustain the program’s elite status by winning the 2018 NCHC Tournament championship and earning a berth in the 2019 Frozen Four. Denver has remained a national power thanks in large part to his contributions.
Being a captain of the University of Denver hockey team is a tremendous honor bestowed upon only the most deserving. From Grant Arnold – DU’s captain who helped engineer the post-Gwoz resurgence – to Will Butcher, Tariq Hammond, and Colin Staub, Denver’s captains just in recent history have been the heart and soul of the program. Ian Mitchell never took the honor lightly and added his name to a long list of legendary DU captains.
Whether you think he would benefit from another year of NCHC play or you believe that he’s ready for regular NHL minutes with the Blackhawks, one thing is clear: DU is going to miss Ian Mitchell. Sure, there is another highly-touted defenseman NHL prospect coming to Denver next year in Antti Tuomisto, drafted one spot behind Bobby Brink in the 2nd round by the Red Wings in last year’s draft. But you don’t just replace a captain like Mitchell.
He will not get a Senior Night sendoff next year but that should not minimize what Ian Mitchell has done as a Pioneer in three years. No matter how his career pans out at the NHL level, Denver Hockey is better off for having this All-American defenseman for three years and fans will be forever thankful for his contributions.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics