When Denver University clinched its first MacNaughton Cup since 1986 last Friday night in thrilling fashion — Kevin Doell scored the game-winner with 8.7 ticks left in overtime — it was just another chapter in a storybook season for the Pioneers.
Picked to finish fifth this season in the WCHA Coaches Poll, the Pioneers have done more than win their regular-season conference championship. They have put together a remarkable 28-7-1 record and have been first in the Division I polls for a good part of the season. DU has an inside track on a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament West Regionals.
All of which might lead you to brand this team as an overnight sensation. Hardly. While the Pioneers have exceeded expectations this season, their success has been a work in progress.
Looking to build for success, the Pioneers first needed a successful building. You can almost imagine Pioneer Coach George Gwozdecky in a production of Rink of Dreams, hearing the ghosts of the 1969 championship team whispering.
If you build it, they will come.
Prior to the 1999-2000 season, the Pioneers were forced to cobble together a ramshackle schedule around the greater Denver area while they awaited the construction of the $70 million Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness. When it was completed, the team could play their games in the state-of-the-art Magness Arena within the complex.
“A big difference is having a building,” Gwozdecky said. “It’s hard to recruit when all you have is a big hole in the ground: You can only show blueprints so many times. We were playing on odd days all over the area, and that hurt our recruiting efforts.”
One of the first players to be lured to the program by the carrot of a new facility has turned out to be an integral component of today’s national championship contender, goaltender Wade Dubieliwicz.
“It was about three-quarters built when I flew down on my trip,” Dubieliwicz said. “It was something I really looked forward to playing in. When I came down, they were playing in McNicholls Ice Arena, and it’s a five-ten minute haul off-campus — it’s not very convenient. It was so nice to see that building going up on campus. It’s not that big a campus either, so you can pretty much get to it quick from anywhere. It was probably the deciding factor in my going to Denver.”
— Denver coach George Gwozdecky
Two seasons ago, the Pioneers certainly looked like a team that badly needed an infusion of talent. During the 1999-2000 campaign, the team struggled through a nine-game losing streak in which they which they were shut out three times. Over that season, the Pioneers were blanked five times and held to one goal on four other occasions.
“We were slow; we struggled to generate offense,” recalled Gwozdecky. “We had average goaltending.”
With numerous promising recruits in hand with the help of the new facility, the Pioneers showed both significant improvement and growing pains last season, when they compiled a 19-15-4 record. They swept their two games against Minnesota, but were shown the door quickly in the postseason, losing both games at Wisconsin in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The Pioneers experienced a mixed blessing last season: Their young and talented were thrust into critical roles perhaps before they were ready to handle them. On the flip side, those players gained invaluable experience for this season’s Rocky Mountain summit bid.
“We thought we had a good team last year,” Gwozdecky said. “Last year I joked that our only problem was that we were playing in the wrong league. At one point last year — around February — I think we were sixth in our league and 11th in the Ratings Percentage Index.”
With a better sense of what it would take to win in a challenging league, the players didn’t exactly head for the mountains during the recent off-season.
“We worked hard over the summer; we knew we had a lot of talent coming back,” Dubieliwicz said. “Our freshman class added to that too. But at the same time it was our work ethic over the summer that really got us the edge coming into the season early.”
“We lost a few key players but pretty much the whole nucleus stayed together,” said Connor James, currently leading a small cluster of Pioneers statistically with 36 points in 36 games. “I guess after playing one year in the league you’re a little more comfortable; you know how things go and you’re a little more relaxed out there.
“We did a weight training program in Denver,” added James. “I put on 15 pounds, and that’s helped because last year I was about 150 pounds.”
Still, Gwozdecky and his team could hardly anticipate that they would turn out to be this much better.
“Even after coaching for 16 years, I never really know how we’re going to do, I find,” Gwozdecky said. “We knew that we had [last season’s leading scorer Chris] Paradise coming back, but after that there were a lot of questions about who would step up and score.”
As it turned out, several candidates on that front answered the call — especially in the sophomore and junior classes — allowing the team to boast a balanced attack to go along with great team speed and defense.
Among the juniors, Kevin Doell was a fitting Friday night hero — he’s increased his production from 19 to 35 points thus far this season. Classmate Greg Barber has more than doubled his point production, going from 15 to 31 through the regular-season schedule. Fellow junior Aaron MacKenzie has boosted his numbers in similar fashion, going from eight to 20 points
“Last year [Doell and Barber] only had about 20 points, but you always knew they were going to explode some time because that’s the kind of players they were,” James said.
Not to be outdone, the second-year Pioneers certainly aren’t cursed by a sophomore jinx. James has gone from 27 to 36 points while currently-injured forward Lukas Dora jumped his total from 12 to 26 points
“I have to say Lukas Dora has impressed me the most,” Dubieliwicz said of the group who has emerged. “He’s got a lot of tenacity — he’s an impact player — but at the same time, he gets himself wound up too, so sometimes when the puck finally gets on his stick, it’s tough for him to put it in the net but this year he’s doing well.
“He’s a huge surprise in my mind because he’s the type of player who can turn a game around, and he’s done it a few times this year.”
Add a couple of freshman standouts — Jon Foster has a 7-14-21 total in 32 games played, while Kevin Ulanski has put up 4-15-19 in 28 GP — to go along with stalwarts such as Paradise and Weber, who have produced just as well as expected, and you get a good sense of why this team has helped Gwozdecky surpass his personal best of 27 wins as a head coach (Miami, 1992-1993).
But offense was not the key to winning the MacNaughton Cup. St. Cloud State features considerably greater offensive firepower: Hobey Baker hopeful Mark Hartigan has scored twice as many goals as any Pioneer, and the Huskies have four players with higher point totals than anyone on Denver.
Outstanding team defense, a commitment to two-way play, and solid, confident goaltending have been the critical factors in giving the Pioneers an edge over some tough competition.
Sophomore Adam Berkhoel has improved his netminding totals nicely, and Dubieliwicz looks likely to set all-time DU records for save percentage-topping his own record of .9209 last season. He also could top the Pioneer single-season record for goals-against average — George Kirkwood’s record of 1.84 has stood for over 30 years.
While the junior’s numbers are rather eye-popping — he leads the nation with a .941 save percentage and is tied for third with a 1.79 GAA — all parties agree that he is the beneficiary of an terrific group of experienced defensemen on top of a team focus on both ends of the ice.
“Wade’s playing well, but I don’t think people realize how good our ‘D’ corps is,” James said. “They help him out a ton: All the rebounds that are cleared right away … I’m not trying to take anything from Wade, but the whole defensive corps as a unit plays so well that it enables our goalies to get numbers like that.”
“We’re the kind of team that everybody has to come to play or we’re in trouble,” Dubieliwicz said. “We’re more of a team-oriented club — we’ve got to play both ends of the ice to win a hockey game and that’s what we’ve been doing that all year.”
Accordingly, the No. 1 man between the pipes doesn’t appear likely to get a big head regarding his individual accomplishments.
“It would be nice to have your name up there with a lot of great goaltenders, but at the same time, save percentage and goals-against are more team-oriented things, too,” Dubieliwicz said. “We’re a team that plays well on both ends of the ice; our team defense is good. We’ve got four seniors playing on the blue line for most of the season which definitely helps.”
“We’re a forechecking team — that’s where we get all our chances,” James said. “We don’t go on the rush much; we just go off turnovers. When our forecheck’s working, our team’s playing well. When it’s not, that’s when we get in trouble.”
The Cloud of Speculation
One unexpected bit of trouble did throw the team for a loop in January. With longtime Michigan State Coach Ron Mason announcing he would retire at the end of this season, rampant speculation abounded as to whether Gwozdecky would return to Lansing, where he once had been assistant coach. In retrospect, Gwozdecky concedes that the situation apparently affected his team’s focus in January.
“I didn’t anticipate that it would be a big distraction, and I was surprised that it turned to be more of an issue than I expected — even as a distraction for me,” said Gwozdecky. “So it was great the University stepped up and got something done.”
Gwozdecky signed a contract extension last month, holding a press conference to annonunce the move and put to rest all the questions.
“When all those job offers were coming up, that’s when we were slumping,” James said. “I don’t know if that was the reason or not but if any coach turns down Michigan State — that’s probably one of the best jobs you can take — to stay in Denver …
“He’s definitely shown us that he wants to stay here and win this thing with us. He’s a great coach — he’s not really a yeller or a screamer; he talks to people individually. … It’s good to have him here for all four of my years, that’s for sure.”
Once Gwozdecky was tied up with a contract through 2007, the coach and his players could put their emphasis back on the ice where it belonged. He clearly appreciates the “unique” situation of playing college hockey in Denver.
“You’re not the only game in town, and that can be a good thing,” Gwozdecky said of playing amid the Nuggets, Broncos, Rockies, and Avalanche. “It’s got a fantastic climate: You can ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon.”
When the Avalanche were new in town, they did a great deal of community outreach to promote hockey in the region and, naturally, sought out kindred spirits and found the Pioneers to be their closest hockey brethren.
“Players have had a chance to rub shoulders with the Avalanche — many of the players used to come to the team party, guys like Peter Forsberg,” Gwozdecky said. “They had young guys who liked meeting some of our co-eds, plus we’ve always had some Swedes and Finns on our teams.”
If all goes well in Ann Arbor and Saint Paul, the Pioneers can claim their first national championship in 33 years. Then the Avalanche will be happy to help them party like it’s 1969.