Without hesitation, I can proclaim last Friday night’s DU 2-0 shutout of Colorado College before nearly 18,000 fans, packed to the rafters at Denver’s Ball Arena as one of the most magnificent nights in my 40+ years of following Pioneer hockey.
And I imagine that virtually all of the Pioneer fans who were there would agree that last Friday night was magical.
From a pure hockey standpoint, the game was a big rivalry win and Denver regained first place in the NCHC race thanks to UMD’s upset sweep of St. Cloud State. But a hockey game just begins to scratch the surface of what this game really was – a DU spectacle!
Beyond the game on the ice, there was the added drama of the surroundings – an essentially full NHL arena three times the capacity of Magness Arena, with about 80% of the crowd cheering for Denver.
This was a destination event, with plenty of locals and further filled with DU alumni and fans flying and driving in from all over North America to attend, from places like California, Portland, Montreal, Minnesota, Texas, and New York, and that was just one group of Pioneer alumni that I had the pleasure of cheering with in our section. I can only imagine how many other out-of-town alumni and DU fans traveled to Denver to celebrate this rare DU game downtown. DU Hockey did of course play at Coors Field before a school and hometown record 35,000 people in 2016, and also played downtown hockey in 2012 in Ball Arena (when it was named Pepsi Center) for a pre-season exhibition. And there were also downtown DU games in the 1990s and 1970s, mostly during campus arena constructions and renovations.
The bigger stage of Ball Arena afforded the opportunity for DU hockey to expose its excellence to a much larger audience – far larger than the 6,000 people who normally see DU hockey play on campus. This game saw DU and CC showcase the sport of college hockey in Colorado before a national record crowd for indoor college hockey this season – and the largest indoor hockey crowd in the NCAA since 2018 – not bad for a private school with fewer than 6,000 undergrads. The record crowd and larger media coverage also enabled DU to carve out an elevated, deeper presence in the ever-crowded local Denver sports cosmos. DU also further enhanced its hockey association with the Colorado Avalanche, accentuating the shared hockey excellence between the reigning 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Champions and the 2022 NCAA Champion Pioneers.
But for me personally, this game will be remembered for far more than hockey or big crowds.
I saw the event as a transcendent and carefully-crafted celebration of the University of Denver, reflecting the very best of DU. It celebrated DU’s identity, role, purpose, and presence in our city and our state. And the mental images printed in my mind are images of fan energy, joy, and emotional connections that DU worked so hard to create, on very short notice.
- School Spirit: The awesome ‘wall’ of the DU student section, all standing as one at the end of the rink, comprised of four full sections of the arena, set a joyous (and ok, occasionally salty) tone for the event. They were often thunderous and when captured on the giant screens, their smiles made us older alums wistful for our own college days, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our classmates. Kudos to DU AD Josh Berlo for making DU student tickets so copious, free, and available. Almost every one of those students will remember the joy of that night at Ball Arena for the rest of their lives.
- The meticulous and very thoughtful way that DU branded this whole event, not just as a typical Pioneer home hockey game, but as a true three-hour immersion into the joy of our full university. From the excellent DU video content including DU promos featuring sports; academics features; and values; to the DU logo on the ice in giant pre-game projections; to the name (and Pioneer nickname) of our University constantly flashing around the arena; the familiar ads of DU’s own Magness Arena sponsors on the hockey boards; the live highlighting of our other DU sports teams in attendance during the game; the pre-game puck drop with our own DU legend, 91-year-old Chancellor Emeritus/DU builder Dan Ritchie; and even the brilliant performance of the DU Lamont School of Music Chorale, belting out the national anthem with spine-tingling precision. Every person in the arena was thoroughly marinated in DU sights and sounds, and the results were magic.
- Even our DU internal audiences of Board of Trustees, Deans, Faculty, and Staff (some of whom rarely attend DU sports events), had the first-hand opportunity to see how DU athletics can powerfully connect our sometimes fractious community with the people of our city. Every alumnus I saw at the game was proud of the entire event. This was a shared “Denver” experience, in one of the largest public spaces in the city, smack in the center of Denver. The event showed everyone how excellence in DU athletics is the most accessible and barrier-breaking “front porch” for our university, and how it is well worthy of further investment.
- Finally, perhaps the most special image of the night for me came with about seven minutes to go in the game, when much of the DU crowd (and even some of the CC fans) linked arms and swayed together, row by row, for the John Denver song “Country Roads.” And while that song may be a relatively new DU tradition at Pioneer games at Magness, it has taken a firm hold and stamped a real sense of place on this game when the fans change the lyric and shout “Colorado” a cappella. And for us old timers, we can remember seeing John Denver as a regular fan at DU hockey games in the 1980s, taking his young hockey-playing son to see the Pioneers play at the old DU Arena. While John Denver is no more, I’m sure if he were alive today, he’d be proud to see his song so associated with hockey in Denver, for the school he used to cheer, in the city that bears his last name.
Here at LetsGoDU, our hats are off in deepest thanks and appreciation to all those hard workers at DU, in Athletics and around the university, who made this event shine, despite the risks. We know how difficult it is to plan and execute all that was done, especially with just a few weeks to do it, as the major contractual agreements for the game were not signed until December. I wrote here in 2016 after the Battle on Blake that DU needs to continue to put itself on big stages, and it is great to see DU following the advice!
Keep thinking big, and let’s do it again soon!
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus.