For the University of Denver Pioneers, playing against the University of Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA Hockey Tournament has always seemed cursed, providing very painful memories for Pioneer Nation. For in all the proud history between these two of the three most successful programs ever (as measured by NCAA titles — Michigan’s nine and Denver’s eight NCAA crowns), the two schools have only met three times (2002, 1999 and 1964) in NCAA tourney play. And in all three games, Michigan was victorious. But it wasn’t just that Michigan won all three games — it was the especially painful manner in which they beat the Pioneers…
MICHIGAN PAIN PART 1 – 1964: DU LOSES FINAL ON HOME ICE
In 1964, there were no regionals and only four teams were picked for the whole NCAA Tourney — two western teams and two eastern teams. The WCHA second-place Pioneers had already beaten then-fellow WCHA league-mate and first place Michigan earlier for the WCHA playoff title, so hopes were very high that DU would repeat the win on home ice at the old DU Arena in the NCAAs. If the Pioneers could beat Michigan, DU would add a fourth banner to the Denver NCAA title banners won in 1958, 1960 and 1961. DU had breezed by RPI in the NCAA semifinal, 4-1, setting up the vaunted WCHA tourney rematch Michigan for all the NCAA marbles in the Championship game. Surprisingly, DU came out flat and Michigan scored the first three goals on DU’s home ice in that championship game, taking a 3-0 lead.
The Pioneers, stung by the deficit, then mounted a heroic comeback, starting in the second period, to cut the Michigan lead to 3-2, only to see the Wolverines go ahead again 4-2 in the third on a goal from Michigan’s Jack Cole with 15 minutes left in the game. The Pioneers dug-in once again and would cut the Michigan lead to just 4-3 with a goal from DU all-American Wayne Smith with about 10 minutes left, thrilling the sellout Denver crowd at DU Arena, who were on their feet, hoping for victory…
Alas, it was not to be.
Michigan scored a couple of late goals in the final four minutes to salt-away the 1964 NCAA title with a 6-3 win on DU’s home ice, as well as getting some revenge over DU for winning that year’s WCHA tournament title.
Here are the two team photos of the competing teams in 1964, with Denver above and Michigan, below.
In 1981, Michigan turned the page again on DU (and the WCHA) when Michigan athletic director Don Canham rocked the league by pulling out his Michigan team out (and cajoling Michigan State, Notre Dame and Michigan Tech out as well) to defect to the less prestigious CCHA. In large measure, this move was effectuated because of DU (and CC’s) Colorado location, as Canham was tired of paying to fly Michigan teams to Colorado for league games against DU and CC. Instead, Canham wanted Michigan to be in a bus league, and the CCHA was just that.
Here’s the kicker — After Michigan jumped ship, DU has never again played Michigan in the regular season in 41 years! Certainly, the Pioneers have tried many times to schedule Michigan, but alas it has never come to pass since Canham took his Michigan team and left the WCHA. More recently, a 2018 DU vs Michigan series tentatively scheduled for Magness Arena, the games was cancelled when Michigan opted not to sign the contract and decided to host Vermont at home instead…and lost 5-2.
MICHIGAN PAIN PART 2: THE 1999 WORCESTER MELTDOWN
Fast forward to 1999, when under legendary coach George Gwozdecky, DU had won the WCHA tourney title in St. Paul, Minn. This win guaranteed Denver an NCAA bid to the East Regional as a #4 seed at the Worcester (Mass.) Centrum (Now the DCU Center) , the same arena where DU had played in the 1995 and 1997 NCAA tournaments.
Here, DU would again face Michigan – the defending NCAA Champions, who had won it all the previous year with a young team in 1998. Michigan was the CCHA tournament champ and 5th overall seed in 1999 and again, DU hopes were high that the 1964 NCAA loss would be avenged.
In that 1999 NCAA quarterfinal game in Worcester, 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, the Michigan coach, Red Berenson, called his only timeout to settle down his Wolverine team. The Wolverines 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 shell-shocked DU goalie Stephen Wagner (Below, credit University of Denver).
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 in horrible fashion, cursed again.
MICHIGAN PAIN PART 3: 2002 YOST HOUSE OF HORRORS
Perhaps the worst Michigan-inflicted Pioneer pain of all time was in 2002, when Michigan knocked out a DU team that Gwozedecky called his “best DU team.”
In 2001-2002, Denver had posted 32 wins in the rugged WCHA that year, won the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season champions, and won the Broadmoor Trophy as WCHA Tourney Champions. DU was the top-ranked team in the nation, and was selected as the NCAA tourney’s top seed for the regionals. But that year, the NCAA also dealt a cruel (and crushing) blow to the Pioneers when it decided to further “regionalize” the NCAA tournament that year, under the silly excuse of “post 9/11 travel restrictions”. This decision meant that all Western teams would be seeded in the Western Region and play only western teams, and all Eastern teams would be seeded in the Eastern Region and would play only Eastern teams until the Frozen Four.
This one-time only format was unlike today, where regional teams are seeded/placed by primarily competitive brackets rather than by pure geography. The Pioneers were thus slotted to ultimately play the lower seeded (#4) Wolverines at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor as host of the West regional– before a packed house of 6,000-plus Michigan fans – the loudest fans in the west — quite a terrible reward for a top seed, who is usually better protected by the committee.
DU knew it was going to be difficult that year, as in that era, lower-seeded Michigan would often beat higher-seeded teams from North Dakota, St. Cloud, DU and CC as well as the host, due in large measure to the ultra-rabid home rink crowd support at Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena, which was compounded by the lack of bids from other western cities to host.
“I don’t know in any one of those three years (1998, 2002, 2003) if we [Michigan] could have beat the teams we played against — either in a neutral site or definitely in their building,” current Michigan coach Mel Pearson told the Michigan Daily in 2010. “But because of the situation, the atmosphere, being in Yost, it really helped us get by those teams.”
The Michigan advantage of campus-site NCAA regionals would later be abandoned by the NCAA for the neutral site regionals we see today, in large measure because of the unfair competitive advantage often lower seeded Michigan enjoyed at Yost over higher-seeded teams that had outperformed the Wolverines during the season,
“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 2002 Yost regional. 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].”
As Pat Rooney wrote in a 2012 recap article in University of Denver magazine:
DU’s lineup had absolutely no holes that season. The Pioneers boasted the best goaltending tandem in the nation in Wade Dubielewicz and Adam Berkhoel. They had a rugged corps of veteran defensemen, led by captain Bryan Vines and junior Aaron MacKenzie. And they had offensive depth to spare, as six players from that squad eventually earned spots in DU’s Century Club for scoring at least 100 points in their career.
Michigan had also just renovated its old locker room that year at Yost, and when the NCAA assigned DU to use that Michigan locker room as a customary reward for a top seed, Michigan’s team (and its fans) were already incensed to have to move out of it, even though they were seeded fourth of the six teams hosted at that regional. As Michigan’s coach Red Berenson put it later, “Maybe they shouldn’t have taken our locker room away.”
To make matters even worse for Denver, in the previous NCAA game at Yost the day before, Michigan and St. Cloud got into a pre-game incident involving the St Cloud mascot and skating cheerleaders, whipping the already-boisterous Michigan fans into a froth. Michigan had also won the St. Cloud game to set up the Michgan Pioneer showdown. You can read the colourful Michigan side of the Yost student section history here in this 2010 recap.
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.
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 nearly 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 and ensured the win with an empty-netter to make the final score 5-3. The Pioneers’ season lay shattered. You can watch the whole game here if you can stomach it, or just the game winner, below:
DU’s top ranked team would go home to Denver empty-handed.
“That was the toughest loss I’ve ever had,” said DU forward Kevin Doell told writer Pat Rooney in 2012. Doell had led DU with 43 points for the season. “When we had the lead going into the third period, we were good at shutting the door. Once they got their first goal and their crowd got into it, it was a momentum boost for them. It’s still hard to swallow when I think about it.”
That loss, as painful as it was, provided plenty of motivation to improve. The young players on that team would build DU into an NCAA Champion in 2003-2004.
Rooney would go on to write that “The sophomores on that DU team – Adam Berkhoel, Ryan Caldwell, and Conner James delivered Denver’s first championship in 35 years in 2004. The freshmen on that team – Kevin Ulanski, Jeff Drummond and Luke Fulghum were part of a class that won more games during their careers than any other group in DU history.”
Additionally, DU does remain 46-36-1 all time vs Michigan today, and DU has won three national titles since Michigan won its last one in 1998, before most of the current Michigan players were even born. So, there is plenty of hope for the Pioneers!
When Michigan faces DU in Boston next week for a shot to play for the whole enchilada here in 2022, you can now see why it’s high time Denver lifted the curse and beat Michigan in the NCAA tourney. This will be the most pedigreed Frozen Four field in NCAA history in Boston – with 22 NCAA titles and 66 NCAA appearances between in the teams. Hopefully, the Pios will also go on to beat Minnesota or Minnesota State to tie the Wolverines with nine lifetime NCAA banners at the top of college hockey on April 9th.
Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a long-time Denver fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at LetsGoDU. Note: Portions of this article are taken from the author’s prior 2019 retrospective series on DU’s hockey history.