Popular Pioneers

There has been such an outpouring of support for the Denver Pioneers recently that coach George Gwozdecky estimates it’ll take two weeks — two weeks he doesn’t have at the moment — to get back to everyone who has called or e-mailed or wrote a letter.

The Pioneers are keeping a busy schedule these days. There was the welcome-home celebration at Magness Arena attended by thousands and a first-pitch ceremony at a Colorado Rockies baseball game. Friday will be proclaimed DU hockey day by the state legislature and the team will be honored by the Colorado Avalanche at Saturday’s Game 5 of a Western Conference quarterfinal series with Dallas.

There’s no time to breathe when you’re the newly crowned national champions of college hockey.

But that can’t be seen as a bad thing, not when you have this many people looking to celebrate your accomplishment. The Pioneers defeated Maine 1-0 in Boston last Saturday to win their first national championship in 35 years.

Down the road, it might be seen as the game that put Denver back in the upper echelon of NCAA hockey — if that hadn’t happened when the Pioneers were No. 1 for most of the season two years ago. But right now, it has provided the Pioneers with a pretty satisfying feeling.

“Pretty much with every passing hour, it’s starting to sink in even more, the magnitude of their accomplishment and what it means to our program,” Gwozdecky said in a brief period of down time in a hectic week. “With everybody who’s calling or sending me an e-mail or a letter congratulating us on a national championship — every time someone says, ‘Congratulations, you’re a national champion,’ you start to realize that sounds pretty good. It’s something that we all strive for, but when it actually happens, I don’t know if you’re ever ready for it.”

If they weren’t, the Pioneers have done well in making it up as they go along. As they went along in the NCAA tournament, one couldn’t help but notice the smiles and laughter around the team, even though they were passing through new territory.

They never let the perceived weight of the moment get to them, and that may have been one of the biggest reasons they were able to keep their composure throughout the tournament.

There were trying times. The one that immediately comes to mind is the 6-on-3 disadvantage they faced in the final minute of the championship game.

But the Pioneers were faced with deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 in their national semifinal game against Minnesota-Duluth and were scoreless with North Dakota in the final three minutes of their West Regional final. Each time, they came out smiling.

The cool-under-pressure resolve with which they played the NCAA tournament seemed to carry over off the ice, too. Gwozdecky told them at the outset of the tournament that he wanted them to practice and play with intensity, but enjoy the ride.

He had heard from some of the players from the 1986 team — Denver’s last to make it to the Frozen Four before this season — who said they regretted that they didn’t take the time to smell the roses while they were there.

This year’s group didn’t just smell the roses, they took some home with them.

“I think part of that was the personality of our leaders, especially [captain] Ryan Caldwell,” Gwozdecky said. “About an hour after we were selected [for the tournament], we had our first practice. One of the things that I stated was, ‘Guys, who knows when we’re going to get a chance to do this again.'”

The upbeat sense from the Pioneers made it seem like that had been the way it was all season. But the laughter at the season’s end didn’t reflect the despair the team felt in January, when their season was perilously close to crashing down. The Pioneers had a 3-4-1 record in January and fell four games under .500 in the WCHA.

After a weekend off, the Pioneers came back a changed team. They lost only twice the rest of the way.

And they went to Boston intent on not having any of the regrets the 1986 team did.

“We want to be able to enjoy this thing for what it is and have it so we can keep it as great memories for the rest of our life,” Gwozdecky said. “When you say that, combined with the kind of personalities we had in our senior class and leadership, they did exactly that. They had so much fun and they were so loose.

“Even during the games, during the tighest times — especially Ryan Caldwell. Having so much fun out there, and not only enjoying it but coming back to the bench and making fun of himself when he would make a mistake. That was the kind of team we had down the stretch. That fun-loving ease at which we approached the games and the whole thing helped us in how we played.”

But there was a moment before Saturday’s game in which Gwozdecky had a chance to sit down and think about everything that was going on. He had seen mentors and friends go through preparations for championship games and witnessed what seemed like torture.

“I remember watching Shawn Walsh go through it, Rick Comley, Ron Mason,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself back many years ago, what a unique feeling this must be, what a difficult feeling to control this might be if I ever had the chance to go through that period or that feeling. And yet I sat there on Saturday, and I felt a little bit guilty and maybe a little bit cheated, because I didn’t feel that way.

“It was almost like there was this resolute calm. I was really looking forward to the evening, really looking forward to the game for the fun of it. We all had worked so hard and had met so many challenges, and all of a sudden here we are. I was just really looking forward to playing the game and playing for the fun of it because it was going to be a terrific game. And that’s basically all it was.

“As I told the team the night before, let’s not get too carried away with the magnitude of the event because it’s still a game. I really enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun. There were a couple of tense moments in the game, but I don’t think for one minute did I ever look at the game as, ‘OK, this is the final game of our season,’ or ‘This is the national championship.’ I tried to keep it as, ‘This is a game between Denver and Maine,’ and that’s it.”

But Gwozdecky has been asked how he managed to not suffer a breakdown in the final moments of the title game, when he saw two of his players go to the penalty box and Maine pull goaltender Jimmy Howard for a three-man advantage.

Simply put, he couldn’t afford to stop coaching.

“There were a lot of things I had to keep in mind, options that I had to think about,” Gwozdecky said. “If Maine did score, we still had to kill off another penalty, and were we going to call a timeout after if they did score, who we were going to get on the ice if we had to get this thing to overtime, et cetera.”

Because his penalty killers and goaltender Adam Berkhoel did the job, none of those matters ever came up for discussion.

And the discussion now around Denver is about the Pioneers — a big step for a program that has to fight for attention in the sports-heavy market.

“I’m so happy and so thrilled for the accolades the players are receiving. They really deserve it,” Gwozdecky said. “They’re just having a ball. It’s just continuing the enjoyment they have had through their national tournament run. They’ve had so much fun once they were selected three weeks ago to play in the national tournament, and now they’re reaping the benefits. It’s almost like they continue to have the fun they had prior to the Frozen Four.”