Time does not speed up once you’ve won the national championship. It only seems that way.
George Gwozdecky can attest. The Denver coach saw his summer reduced to a blur after the Pioneers won their first national championship in 35 years in Boston last April.
“It was busier than I have ever experienced here,” said Gwozdecky, the first man to win NCAA hockey titles as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
Winning makes you popular, right? The challenge for the Pioneers this summer was to make sure winning didn’t also make them complacent.
They know well how much teams prepare to face the champ. They’ve done it for years, with the likes of Minnesota and North Dakota and even Boston College a few seasons back. Now they’ll see it all year.
“I don’t think you can ever prepare — we’ve never been through this yet where you have to prepare to have the bull’s-eye right on your chest,” Gwozdecky said. “But I know these guys are very eager for the opportunity and the challenge.”
Saying it’ll be a challenge is just about right. Denver has lost key players at every position since last season — including Frozen Four most outstanding player Adam Berkhoel in goal — and has an increasingly difficult WCHA road.
But the thing they have going for them now is experience. The Gabe Gauthiers and Matt Carles of the team will be able to draw on the experience of having to pull themselves out of the gutter just to get back to the top five in the WCHA and an NCAA position last season.
“I think every team experiences this when you win a championship, whether it’s a league or national title: The confidence that kind of thing creates and the awareness that it’s not an impossible task, that if you do the things that allow you to play effectively as a team, the unlimited power of teamwork is immeasurable,” Gwozdecky said. “I think we were a good example of that. There were a lot of things that our team experienced and learned from in the last third of the season that will really come into play, hopefully in a positive way for us in the coming year.”
At the start of February last season, the Pioneers were four games under .500 in the league. They pulled out of that and pulled off the national title with gritty performances from a lot of players, notably Berkhoel, forward Connor James and defenseman Ryan Caldwell — all of whom are gone.
That leaves the pressure on players like junior Gauthier, a third-team all-WCHA selection last season who appears poised to take his game up another notch and become one of the league’s premier forwards this season. He scored 18 goals — including the only one in the national championship game — and racked up 43 points a year ago to rank tops in Pioneers scoring.
Gwozdecky, however, is quick to point out that players usually aren’t considered top notch in the league unless they play for a successful team. He reminds his players to think about the team first and said individuals will get their due if the team does well.
He also tabbed senior forwards Jeff Drummond, Kevin Ulanski and Luke Fulghum, and sophomore forward J.D. Corbin as potential star players in the league this season. Senior forward Jon Foster could have a big year, too. Freshmen Paul Stasny and Geoff Paukovich also should provide a spark up front.
The seniors, who are joined as classmates by defensemen Matt Laatsch, Jussi Halme and Nick Larson, have seen their roles evolve over the first three years, Gwozdecky said. Laatsch and Halme, in particular, had to battle through injuries to be at this point.
But the coach wants them to stay focused on what got them to the point where they’re leading the team.
“I think the biggest challenge for them, as any senior’s challenge is, is to not to get too consumed with trying to do too much and trying to expand your role now that you’re in your last year,” Gwozdecky said. “The reason you’re a captain or the reason you’re a senior or the reason you’ve been successful up to this point is because you’ve done so well in the role that you’ve played.”
Caldwell was the unquestioned leader on defense last season. Laatsch, the captain, and Halme now will direct the defense as the experienced voices, but Carle also will be expected to grow from his all-rookie season.
With Berkhoel gone, sophomore Glenn Fisher will assume the No. 1 goaltending spot and get the majority of the playing time in the early part of the season. Freshman Peter Mannino will get some looks, but with the pressure on the Pioneers, they’ll go with the little experience they have.
“Glenn has gone through the same learning process as a freshman that Adam Berkhoel went through and Wade Dubielewicz went through and as Peter Mannino will go through this year,” Gwozdecky said. “There’s no question we feel very confident in the potential of these two young goaltenders. What Glenn learned from Adam, Peter is going to learn from Glenn. They’ve got a terrific relationship already started and I can only see it getting better.”
With the key losses and young goaltenders, Denver may take its lumps early in the season. The Pioneers know now that it’s nothing they can’t overcome.
“We’re definitely not going to try to get ahead of us,” Gwozdecky said. “We’ve had enough people reminding us that this season you’re going to have to defend the national title. Forget trying to defend the national title, we need to put ourselves in a position where we can compete and put ourselves in position for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, period. In my mind, nothing else matters at this point.”