The Denver hockey community has been hit hard by the news that former University of Denver Pioneer, National Hockey League All-Star center, and Colorado Avalanche hockey broadcaster Peter McNab died of cancer last week at the age of 70.
“Heartbroken” was the term used by current DU coach David Carle to describe what McNab’s death means to the Denver Pioneer family.
Those lucky enough to know him a little bit (as I did) always felt privileged to talk with him. Unlike a lot of great former athletes, he’d almost always take an interest in you — and he’d ask how you were doing. And he’d often deflect any questions about how he was doing. That’s just who he was. But he was always ready to talk about his favorite sport with anyone he met.
Peter had an encyclopedic hockey mind and while many great hockey players (and a lot of TV color broadcasters) have played the game at a high level, most of them couldn’t articulate both the big picture and the detailed nuances of the game the way Peter could. He had the special gift of being able to see, translate, and explain the game of hockey to both expert and neophyte viewers at the same time, without pandering to either group. Moreover, he had the ultimate color broadcaster’s ability to lift out and identify not only the greater strategic context of the game but also the numbers underpinning it and the precise aspects of individual and team performances that were difference-makers.
How good a broadcaster was he? While he was a great local NHL broadcaster for the Devils and Avalanche fanbases, he was also elite enough to be selected as an Olympic broadcaster for NBC in 2006, sharing his skills with the entire nation.
And for the last 28 years or so, McNab helped Colorado Avalanche fans to transform from interested viewers into a passionate active fanbase. Here’s Altitude TV’s 45 minute remembrance of Peter:
Remembering Peter McNab – Full tribute here ⬇️https://t.co/qSOGN85nvT
— AltitudeTV (@AltitudeTV) November 11, 2022
Given his hockey bloodline, it was hardly surprising that he’d become a great hockey man. His father, Max McNab, was a towering (back then) 6-2 left-shooting center, who came from a village of 500 on the Saskatchewan prairies to win a Stanley Cup in 1950 with the Detroit Red Wings, centering a line with two future Hall-of-Famers, Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Two years later in 1952, when Max was playing in the minor leagues near Vancouver, his son Peter was born. The young Peter’s nickname would soon become “Maxy” in honor of his famous hockey dad.
Growing up near the Fraser River in the logging town of New Westminster, British Columbia, Peter showed hockey talent as a youth with the Burnaby (B.C.) Winter Club, and he was soon on the fast track for a Canadian junior hockey opportunity in Chilliwack, B.C. – an opportunity that his father had suggested young Peter had better choose if he wanted a future in hockey.
But Peter saw the world differently as a teen, turning down the Canadian juniors and choosing instead to accompany his father to San Diego, where Max had accepted the position of General Manager of the San Diego Gulls, a minor league hockey team. San Diego had only one other hockey rink at that time, and it wasn’t even full-sized. Peter soon grew into a strapping teenager, topping out as a 6-3 forward with a hard and accurate shot, but playing just 30 games a year in that tiny rink, instead of playing the far better competition in Canada to enhance his development.
Given that sunny San Diego was a world away from rainy British Columbia, Peter also found great satisfaction on the baseball field where he was an excellent young outfielder.
But San Diego had other distractions at that time too, and young Peter was known to enjoy the late ’60s music scene there, especially concerts at the old San Diego Arena. His dad, as GM of the local hockey team, helped Peter land backstage jobs helping the touring bands including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other music stars of the era, a time which he recently said “shaped” his personality.
When the time came for Peter to choose a college, Max contacted an old ex-NHLer friend of his – a fellow “Saskie” (native of Saskatchewan) by the name of Murray Armstrong, who was spending the late 1960s winning consecutive NCAA titles as coach at the University of Denver. Armstrong had a steady pipeline of excellent (and mostly Canadian recruits) arriving on the DU campus each year, and he did not have a full hockey scholarship to offer young McNab. But Armstrong did offer McNab a half-scholarship, and convinced Jack Rose, DU’s baseball coach at the time, to also offer McNab a half-scholarship to play baseball for DU.
McNab said yes to the combined offer, and arrived on the Denver campus in the fall of 1970, along with seven other DU hockey recruits. Of the eight new DU hockey faces, seven of them would go on to play in the NHL after DU, including players like Rich Preston, Mike Busniuk, and Rob Palmer. McNab became attached to his teammates and also went on to marry a fellow DU athlete, Canadian National Team skier Diana Gibson (his first wife). McNab would play a couple of seasons on the DU baseball diamond (which was where DU’s Peter Barton Lacrosse stadium stands today) playing with DU players who would play in the 1970 and 1973 College World Series. But McNab increasingly knew his pro future was in hockey.
He spent three seasons with the hockey Pioneers in the old DU Arena, getting progressively better as a forward with 33, 65, and 72- point seasons in succession, and earning three straight trips to what we have now dubbed the NCAA Frozen Four with the Pios. Not known as a great skater (some scouts called him “lumbering”) or even as a tough guy despite his 6-3, 205-lb. frame, McNab made up for it with hockey sense, an accurate shot, as well as the ability to dish the puck to his linemates as a center.
The Buffalo Sabres drafted McNab in the sixth round of the 1972 draft, with the 85th overall pick. To give a better sense of his talent level, today the 85th NHL draft pick would be a third-round pick, due to the NHL’s expansion since the early 1970s. McNab signed with Buffalo after his all-WCHA first-team junior DU season in 1973, soon after McNab led DU to the NCAA Championship Game, where they lost to the Wisconsin Badgers.
McNab made his NHL debut in Buffalo the next year. College players were still relatively rare in the NHL in the early 1970s, as NHL GMs were almost all Canadian at that time and preferred major junior players from Canada for their rosters over college players. McNab spent the next 14 years carving out his NHL career as a high-scoring, reliable center — a six-time 30-goal scorer, and making 10 NHL playoff appearances over his NHL career with Buffalo, Boston, Vancouver, and New Jersey.
He was also extremely disciplined, with only 179 career penalty minutes. This combination of smarts, size, shot accuracy, bloodlines, and discipline opened minds in NHL management and helped pave the way for more college players to go on to the NHL.
In 1986, at age 33, McNab, a dual citizen of Canada and the USA, accepted an invitation to play for Team USA at the World Championships in Moscow, where some of his future Hockey Hall of Fame teammates included Brett Hull and Phil Housley. The assistant general manager on that 1986 USA team was Peter’s younger brother, Dave McNab, a former University of Wisconsin goalie (and former DU Coach George Gwozdecky’s UW roommate) who became an NHL scout and team executive for 40 years. Peter McNab was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2022.
Peter McNab retired from the NHL in 1987 with 363 goals and 450 assists for 813 points in 954 NHL games, with his best years coming with the Boston Bruins in the mid-1970s, which included an All-Star Game appearance in 1977. He still remains in the top 10 all-time scorers in Bruins History.
After his NHL career was over in the 1980s, his dad, then GM of the New Jersey Devils, helped Peter move over to the Devils’ broadcast booth, where he learned the craft alongside broadcast legends Gary Thorne, Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, and Stan Fischler. McNab came back to Denver in 1995 as part of the Colorado Avalanche broadcast team, helping to explain the game to a new generation of Colorado hockey fans, where he remained until his death last week.
Looking back, McNab said he loved his time at DU, and he recently summed up those three wonderful college years in the 1970s to Denver journalist Terry Frei:
“We [Pioneers] stuck together. There was some hockey talent and we won games. It was a really fun, easy time of our life. It would have been impossible to enjoy the three years more than we did. We could not have had a better time. We didn’t win it but we went to the NCAA [final/frozen four] three times. I was getting an opportunity. (Laughs.) We were really good, but the discipline level … well, we were a little lacking there. We came [to DU] in 1970 and we looked around – the fraternity parties, the sorority parties? I mean, we were right in there. We had track shoes on.”
We will miss Peter McNab in Pioneer Nation.
Rest in peace, Peter.
Puck Swami is the Internet Moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus.
Top photo courtesy of Denver Athletics