Five miles south of the heart of downtown Denver sits a university that’s molding the future professionals of the world.
When you walk along the campus of the University of Denver, you’re walking among future doctors, engineers and business professionals of the world, among many others. Along the way, you may pass by various brick-laid buildings. There’s the Daniels College of Business, the Anderson Academic Commons and, of course, the hard-to-miss gold-plated Williams Tower and Carillon, a large bell tower that soars high above campus, shimmering on sun-lit days from its gilded beacon.
Then on the outskirts of DU’s 125-acre campus, bordering the bustling Interstate-25, is the unsuspecting Magness Arena, a building that houses another category of future professionals who reside at the university.
Magness has become a mecca of hockey talent. It boasts a long list of alumni, many of whom have graduated to the NHL, won Stanley Cups or have gone on to play, coach and scout at the next level. Aside from its individuals’ successes, as a whole, the university’s hockey team itself has become one of the most successful collegiate programs in world.
In total, the DU hockey program has won eight national championships, the second-most of any college hockey program; they’ve appeared in 30 total NCAA tournaments and the last 12 straight and have made it to the Frozen Four 17 times.
Denver’s resume speaks for itself and it has become an expectation that the program is to be successful season after season. This year is obviously no different.
The 2019-20 Pioneers are off to a historical start to the season. After jumping out of the gate to start the year 8-0, DU split a weekend series against the back-to-back defending national champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs to pull their record to 8-1-1 on the year. A win last Saturday would’ve earned the Pioneers the program’s best start to a season in its 70-year history. This matters very little, however, in the grand scheme of things. The end goal remains the same for the Pios.
There’s an air of confidence inside Magness Arena this year, as the Pioneers look poised for another successful run.
Steering the ship is second-year head coach David Carle, who led the Pioneers to 24-12-5 record last season, while driving the team to its 12th consecutive NCAA tournament berth before bowing out to Massachusetts in a gut-wrenching 4-3 overtime loss in the Frozen Four. Carle is leading a much more mature and veteran group to early-season success thus far.
“I think there’s a quiet confidence to our group that we can win games in different ways. I think we’ve been able to do that,” said Carle of what’s different about this year’s squad. “A lot of [the wins] have been different. We’ve won some games late in the game last minute; we’ve won some games with our special teams; we’ve won some where we just grinded teams down and didn’t give up much.
“I think we’re a more veteran group than we were last year, we’re a little further along than we were last year and the guys are confident and they’re playing ‘Denver Hockey.’”
To play “Denver Hockey” is to play with confidence and success, as the university has been known to do throughout its program history. One of those embodiments of that “Denver Hockey” mantra is junior defenseman Ian Mitchell, who’s effort and hard work earned him the role of team captain this season.
Mitchell brings plenty of NCAA experience to the team, of which he says this year’s group has plenty of.
“I think we have a pretty experienced team this year,” Mitchell told me. “We don’t have as many freshman as we had last year, so I think that’s definitely a big part. We have a lot of guys returning. The start-of-the-year learning curve I guess wasn’t as big as past years. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Without that learning curve the team has been able to hit the ground running. That’s part of the reason for the near-record-breaking start to the season. The team appears to be hitting its stride and in mid-season form as conference play is only just beginning.
Michael Davies, one of only four seniors on the team, gave me his input on why the team has found so much success from the jump. Like Mitchell, Davies attributes the fast start to a more tenured squad.
“I think we’ve got a little bit more experience than we had last year,” he said. “Last year, obviously, we had a young team. So I think with young teams at the beginning of the year it takes a little bit longer to get going and I think you kind of saw that. Then we found our stride a little bit later in the season.
“But this year we’ve got a lot of guys that came back, a lot of upperclassmen. So I think just having that experience and having some older guys who can show younger guys the ropes has helped us a lot.”
Wielding both maturity and a quiet confidence, the DU Pioneers appear poised for a season replete with potential. Currently sitting at the mountain top of NCAA hockey, the expectations remain high in the Mile High City for the No. 1-ranked Pios.
The season, however, is really only just beginning. But already, though, the team looks set to make a run at its 13th consecutive tournament appearance come late March. They’ll have a prime opportunity in the tourney, as well, as DU will get to play in front of a local crowd this year. The Budweiser Events Center in Loveland was selected to host the tournament’s West Regionals. There, the West’s top-four teams will battle it out to see who emerges as best of the West. That team will then advance to the Frozen Four to take on the winner of the Northeast Regionals in Detroit.
The Pioneers fully expect to be there.