There have been a lot of great goalies at the University of Denver over the years, and one of the best of them, George Kirkwood, passed away last month at age 84 in his native Edmonton, Alberta.
Kirkwood’s passing is surely sad news for his surviving family, former teammates, friends, and associates. And the Pioneer Nation — even those younger Pio fans who never had the chance to know him personally or watch him play — will remember his name and exploits for as long as hockey players skate for the University of Denver.
Indeed, Kirkwood brought true glory to DU back in the early 1960s, backstopping the Pioneers to NCAA titles #2 and #3, the only DU goalie to win two National Titles for DU in his only two seasons playing for Denver’s varsity, making the NCAA all-tournament team twice, and rewriting the Denver goaltending record book in the process.
A small and plucky goalie standing only 5’8″ and weighing just 155 pounds, Kirkwood played in an era where the leather pads were tiny compared to today, and he played without shoulder pads or a facemask. There were no backup goaltenders back then either, as the team photos later in the article show. If those weren’t challenges enough, his DU career almost didn’t happen at all…
After his junior hockey career (Edmonton Oil Kings in Alberta) had ended due to his aging-out at age 20, Kirkwood had no pro or college hockey offers to continue his career. Thus, he was out of hockey for a full year in 1957-58. Meanwhile, DU had just won its first NCAA title in 1957-58 behind another Albertan goalie, Rodney Schneck. DU coaching legend Murray Armstrong, who knew the junior player talent pool very well in Western Canada, still remembered Kirkwood. Armstrong brought Kirkwood from Edmonton to Denver to replace Schneck, who would soon graduate from DU after the 1958-1959 season. After playing for DU’s Freshman team in 1958-59 (as all freshmen in NCAA hockey did back then when freshmen were ineligible), Kirkwood was ready to make an impact on the DU varsity squad as a rookie sophomore in 1959-60.
It would be a season to remember.
The 1959-60 campaign started out very well for Kirkwood and for DU, as the Pioneers raced out to a 12-4 record heading into the month of February. But Kirkwood would be even better in the second half of the season as his confidence grew.
In fact, he did not lose a single game the rest of the way.
And the Pios played some very impressive opponents that February, as the 1960 Winter Olympics were just about to happen in Squaw Valley, Calif. (since renamed Palisades Tahoe). Four national Olympic teams, wanting to get acclimated to the high altitude (Squaw Valley is 6,200 feet high at the base), decided to stop in Colorado on the way to California. They would play the Pioneers in Denver in a series of five pre-Olympic tune-up games at DU Arena in just 10 days. First, the Pios shocked the eventual gold medalist U.S. Olympic team, 7-5, followed by a 4-4 tie against the same Yanks the following night at the old DU Arena, proving the DU win was no fluke. Just two nights later, DU then tied the gold medal favorite Soviet Olympic Team, 2-2. There are about 30 minutes of silent film footage remaining from that 1960 DU vs. Soviet Olympic Game where you can see Kirkwood and the Pios in action. Click here to watch..
In the following week, Kirkwood and the Pioneers would go on to beat the West German Olympic team, 6-1, and the Swedish Olympic team, 5-3. In February 1960, a good case could be made that DU was actually the best amateur team in the world, and it was Kirkwood who did not lose a single game against any of the Olympians he faced in the Pioneer net.
DU then went on to beat all the collegiate teams the Pioneers would face for the rest of that season for a 12-game winning streak, including winning the WCHA title and the NCAA Championship in Boston in March. Kirkwood was named co-sophomore (Rookie, back then) of the Year and was also named to the all-WCHA First Team. He probably should have been an all-American, too, but some voters may have believed his rookie success was more a function of the DU team’s defensive dominance, rather than his own stellar play.
In that first-ever 1960 WCHA Tourney, Kirkwood gave up just three goals in the two games to help Denver become ‘co-champions’ — earning DU one of the only two western NCAA bids. The second WCHA win gave Kirkwood his 25th win of the season, breaking the then-NCAA record not only for first-year players but for any goaltender in one season. DU went on to win both NCAA Tournament games in Boston to capture the Pios’ second NCAA championship.
DU’s 1960 NCAA Championship Team. Kirkwood (1) is in goalie pads in the dead center of the first row, the only goaltender on the team. Photo: University of Denver Archives
For his encore the next season, Kirkwood led DU’s greatest-ever team — the 1960-61 team (30-1-1) — to another NCAA title, playing every minute of that season. He won 30 of the 32 games played, an astounding school record that still stands today. This time, the voters gave him his well-deserved all-American award for 1960-61.
How good was that DU team? In the six WCHA and NCAA post-season games played against the best opponents in the country, DU scored 35 goals to their opponents’ six goals. There have perfect NCAA teams (Cornell went 29-0 in 1970) and there have been NCAA Champs that won more games (Maine won 41 games in 1993), but a 35-6 post-season scoring rate, including a 12-2 NCAA title game win? For my money, it’s not only the best DU team that ever played, it is the best college hockey team of all time. And Kirkwood was a big reason why. He set then-program records with a GAA of 1.84 and had a saves percentage of .910, very rare in the days of much smaller goalie pads, no real defensive systems, and no video to scout opponents. He was a first-team All-WCHA player and was one of FIVE Pioneers to make the AHCA all-American team.
In the two-game WCHA Tournament, Denver won by the largest goal margin in history (17–3) and nearly accomplished the same in the national tournament. The Pios crushed Minnesota, 6–1 in the NCAA semifinal before obliterating St. Lawrence, 12–2 in the NCAA title game to delight the home sellout crowd at the host DU Arena. The 12-2 DU win over the Saints is the largest winning margin for any NCAA championship game to this day.
Kirkwood basically wrote the early goalie statistics record book at DU and to this day, still owns two of the top three winning percentages in a season in program history—.953 in 1960-61 (first) and .838 in 1959-60 (third). His 30 victories in 1960-61 are still a school record for a single season, as every DU win that year was his. His 1.84 goals-against average ranks tied for the second-best season mark in DU history with Tanner Jaillet’s 2017 season and behind Wade Dubielewicz’s 1.71 program record in 2002. Kirkwood’s 57 career wins still rank as the seventh-most all-time in school history, while his 2.20 career goals-against average is tied for sixth and his .904 save percentage is tied for 13th in the program annals.
Despite having a year of eligibility left for the 1961-62 season, Kirkwood decided to end his college hockey career after the 1961 season, perhaps knowing that he’d never play with a better team than the ’61 Pioneers.
He did stay at DU to earn his bachelor’s degree in engineering and would utilize those engineering skills, working in the oil industry in Alberta for 36 years. The last 15 of those 36 years were at a senior executive level, where he ultimately became President of the Edmonton Petroleum Club, no easy feat in a city economy dominated by the oil industry.
Kirkwood was inducted into the DU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006 for his exploits in Crimson and Gold.
Kirkwood is survived by his wife Kathleen (married in 1962), children Kori, Karen, and Greg, and six grandchildren, a couple of whom played hockey at David Carle’s prep school alma mater (and DU feeder), Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, with both grandchildren going on to play junior hockey in Canada.
George was happiest spending time with family and friends at the lake cottage, golfing, traveling, wintering in Palm Springs, and watching his grandsons play hockey.
Memorial donations may be made to the Canadian Alzheimer’s Society or to the Alzheimer’s Association in the United States.
A celebration of his life will be held on June 11 at 1 p.m. at Derrick Golf and Winter Club in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (3500 – 119 Street NW).
Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus.