Denver’s Dream Home Opens
You can tell the athletics department at the University of Denver has been looking forward to this weekend for quite some time.
On the cover of last season’s hockey media guide, where the school most often showcases its premier player or group of players, Denver had a picture of construction workers with an inset of star player Paul Comrie. Not that the Pioneers’ hockey program was under construction, but that the school was building its dream home.
Its doors open for real this weekend. The Pioneers host the Ice Breaker Cup at the new Magness Arena, part of the Daniel L. Ritchie Sports and Wellness Center. And while the Pioneers have already played an exhibition game at the new arena — an unadvertised event that drew 4,000 people to the 6,500-seat facility — this is the true grand opening.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, for a couple of reasons. First, the Pioneers are coming off a great season, one which saw them beat North Dakota for the WCHA Final Five championship and make a trip to the NCAA tournament.
But more importantly, it means DU has a place to call home again. Since the DU Arena was leveled after the 1996-97 season, the Pioneers have played "home" games at four venues — McNichols Arena, the Denver Coliseum, Cadet Arena at the Air Force Academy and the Colorado Springs World Arena, home of Colorado College.
"Not only is it exciting, but it’s probably a relief as well to be back on campus, not only for our players, but for our staff as well," DU coach George Gwozdecky said, singling out the team’s equipment managers, who had to keep all the equipment in order while figuring out where it had to go each week.
"They’ve come through it tremendously. Our people work extremely hard and this is a nice little reward to be back on campus here."
Being back on campus shouldn’t be underestimated. The typical college student probably isn’t able to follow the team to the Air Force Academy or Colorado Springs. For that matter, if they don’t have a car, it’s tough to get to any games if they’re not on campus.
And having games on campus isn’t a new subject in the WCHA. Last season, Wisconsin opened the Kohl Center for hockey, a move from the Dane County Coliseum — two miles from campus — to a building on the east edge of the campus. Student season-ticket sales soared.
The same kind of thing is happening in Denver, where Gwozdecky reports that roughly 30 percent of the student body has bought season tickets for this year.
"We’ve always had a great student following," Gwozdecky said. "In the old building we had that south section that was called the bleacher creatures. They created a lot of the energy and a lot of the enthusiasm for the atmosphere in the building.
"You miss that when you move off-campus because students, it’s much more difficult for them to get to games, whether they’re in the city or outside the city. For us, it was extremely difficult. We did have a certain section of the student body that did follow us, but nothing like what we had experienced on campus."
Magness Arena should also give Denver a step up on some other schools in the recruiting game. It’s like giving a child a choice between a shiny new fire engine and an old, beat-up one.
"The new building is going to affect recruiting in a very positive way," Gwozdecky said. "I think it’s affected it in a certain way over the last year or so, but now that it’s actually open, it’ll have a very pronounced effect, a very positive pronounced effect during the recruiting year we’re going through now."
One question raised by the opening of the building is, in a city as big as Denver, will anyone notice it? Especially with the coincidental opening of the Pepsi Center, the new arena for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the opening of the Ritchie Center may not make the front page of the papers.
But that doesn’t seem to concern Gwozdecky all too much. He makes the claim that being in a metropolitan area like Denver or Minneapolis isn’t exactly like trying to make a name for yourself in Houghton, Duluth, St. Cloud or other smaller league cities.
"The city of Denver has a million people plus, so there’s a lot of demand for the entertainment dollar," he said. "You’ve got four major sports, you’ve got (University of Colorado) football. That’s life in the big city. Is it taking any luster away from us? I don’t think so.
"I think every entertainment venture, every sport, deals with this in this city. I think the same with Minneapolis, you have that same challenge. I don’t perceive it as taking any luster away from our building. Everybody has their own niche in this city. We’ve had a great following, our season tickets are nearing an all-time high and people are very excited about Pioneer hockey.
"We’re proud to be part of a city that has so many great opportunities for the entertainment of the public. And obviously, I think it’s a great recruiting advantage for a lot of people. Kids will have an opportunity to go watch the Avalanche, and go watch the Nuggets and the Broncos (NFL) and the Rockies (baseball). Other than Minneapolis, we’re the only city in the league that has that. There’s very few schools in this country that have that opportunity to watch major professional sports right off your campus."
The school doesn’t just have the opening of Magness Arena to celebrate this weekend. This season marks the 50th anniversary of DU hockey, and between games on Saturday, there will be a ceremony honoring some of the former players and the championship teams.
Plus, the team will play under its new logo, colors and uniforms for the first time. They’re still the Pioneers, but colors have changed slightly and the red-tailed hawk is the new mascot.
One would think after a year like the Pioneers just had, changing things would be the last thing to do. Gwozdecky doesn’t see it that way at all.
"I don’t think colors or uniforms or mascots or logos has any effect on when that puck drops," he said. "There’s no question that our team, especially the players returning, are very aware of what they accomplished last season, especially the second half. They realize the standard has been set high again and they’re shooting for the moon again."
They may be shooting for the moon, but the sun is just now dawning on a new era for the University of Denver.
A Good First Impression
A coach’s first win is always important. But Colorado College’s Scott Owens’ first win was important for more reasons than you’d think.
Following one of the most successful coaches in the history of the program is not an easy thing to do. Just ask Jim Nahrgang.
Nahrgang had to follow in the shadow of John MacInnes, the greatest coach in Michigan Tech history and one of the all-time best. MacInnes won 555 games in 26 years as coach of the Huskies. His teams won three NCAA titles, and he was named the national coach of the year twice.
Nahrgang lasted three years in Houghton, starting in 1982 with a respectable 20-12 record, but ending with eight straight losses and a 13-20-1 record in the 1984-85 season that prompted his resignation.
Getting back to Owens, though. Don Lucia left him a lot to work with at Colorado College. He has a talented group of players to work with, players with enough experience to take them far.
Owens, though, has to come in and make it look like nothing changed. That’s a task in itself. CC had one of the most impressive turnarounds in recent memory when he came to Colorado Springs in 1993, from a doormat to a perennial top-10 team.
The Tigers looked impressive in a 4-1 win over Michigan State in the Hall of Fame game last weekend. That might be exactly what everyone connected with the CC program was hoping for. This is Owens’ first collegiate head coaching job, and for him to be as successful as Lucia, he needs to keep winning those games against non-conference opponents.
Plus, it didn’t hurt that the Tigers got a little bit of payback against the Spartans, who came back with two goals in the last two minutes to knock the Tigers out of the NCAA tournament last year, in what proved to be Lucia’s last game with the Tigers.
One win made a lot of people believe Owens’ team will pick up right where Lucia’s team left off. And that’s not a bad place to be.
Things haven’t looked great for Michigan Tech in the past few years, but it’s been a heck of a long time since things have been this bad at the start for the Huskies.
MTU dropped a pair to Northern Michigan last weekend, 9-0 and 3-0. That marks the first time the Huskies have been shut out in their first two games since 1931. And those games were a little closer — a 2-0 loss to Marquette on Jan. 1, 1931, and a 2-0 loss to American Soo 11 days later.
Needless to say, there probably aren’t too many people in Houghton talking about how they remember the last time that happened.
The 9-0 decision last weekend was Tech’s second consecutive shutout in Marquette, Mich., having lost there in 1998 as well.
Michigan Tech has only been shut out on three straight occasions twice since the debut of the program in 1920. The first was during the 1928-29 season, when a 2-8-3 team dropped four straight in the middle of the year — a loss to the Marquette Owls, two to Minnesota and another to Eveleth.
The second was, again, the 1930 season, when the Huskies followed those opening two losses with three straight shutouts later in the season — one to the Houghton Wolves and two to Minnesota.
How’s that for dusting off the history books?
The Huskies open WCHA play this weekend at Wisconsin, trying to get some goals on the board to avoid another trip deep into the Michigan Tech annals. This is one category this year’s players don’t want to be associated with.