To be the captain of a hockey team is a distinguished and privileged honor.
It’s not just handed to the team’s top goal-scorer, or the most vocal guy in the dressing room, or the oldest and therefore the most inherently sagacious guy on the roster. Rather, it’s an honor bestowed to those who really, truly lead.
Whether it’s a more vocal guy or the “lead by example” type, or any combination of the aforementioned adjectives, above all, the captaincy is given to players with passion, determination and the guys who best exemplify the culture of the team.
For the Denver Pioneers, it’s guys like Ian Mitchell and Michael Davies.
A junior defenseman for the squad, Mitchell was nominated captain of DU for this 2019-20 campaign. And rightfully so.
His first year at DU, Mitchell earned the Pioneers’ Barry Sharp Award for the team’s top freshman. He was also awarded the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) Distinguished Scholar-Athlete for his efforts on and off the ice. His sophomore year, he was named an alternate captain, represented Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship and was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award. He continues to build his strong resume this season by earning the ‘C’ on his chest.
“Honestly, I’ve just tried to be myself and do the same things I’ve done my first two years here,” said Mitchell of the captaincy. “That’s what kind of got me to be named captain and so I don’t want to change anything — just keep being myself and lead by doing the right things all the time.”
His head coach certainly appreciates his efforts.
“Mitchy has been really good for us. He wanted to be a dominant player in college hockey,” said second-year head coach David Carle. “Night-in and night-out I think he’s done that...and then off the ice he’s done a great job of bringing the team close together, leading by example of how to treat your teammates, how to treat others around the program and I think that our group is really really close because of Ian’s demeanor and how Ian treats people with respect.”
Like Mitchell, senior defenseman Michael Davies was also bestowed a leadership honor, earning the distinction of one of the team’s alternate captains, along with fellow senior Tyson McLellan.
Davies is an ironman on the Pioneers squad, only having had missed one game (during his sophomore season) out of 126 in his collegiate career heading into this season. As one of just four seniors on DU’s roster, Davies has more than earned the ‘A’ on his chest through his four-year efforts .
“I think last year I was kind of in that role, too, a little bit,” Davies said of his leadership position. “I didn’t have a letter, obviously, but I was an upperclassman. Especially with a younger team, you kind of take on that role a little bit even if you don’t really want.
“But I love being a leader, I love showing the younger guys the stuff that I learned from the older guys when I was younger and here my first couple years. I don’t think I really changed much, on the ice especially. I got named an assistant captain for a reason, because of the things I do. Just do the same things, nothing I really need to change.”
Coach Carle says his lion-hearted efforts and his consistency is what he appreciates the most about his assistant captain.
“Mike has been really steady for us. Some games he’s been our best player,” said Carle. “He hasn’t had any dips in his game and he’s a guy that’s been through the ringer, played a lot of games for us and leads by example. He puts his heart and soul into it and he’s been real good for us.”
Colorado Avalanche forward and DU alum Logan O’Connor had nothing but positive things to say about his old teammate. He offered me some kind words on one of his “good buddies.”
“He’s a great leader for that team,” said O’Connor of Davies. “I know he can be a backbone for that D-core and that team as a whole. I’ve really seen him develop as a player and a person throughout his four years. He’s a big leader back there and he can really create chances using his feet and his hockey IQ to get up the ice and create offense through good defense as well.”
As for Davies’ fellow defenseman and captain, O’Connor thinks the Pios made the right choice in picking Mitchell to lead the charge.
“Mitchy is an unbelievable player and he’s going to have a great professional career, whenever that may be,” O’Connor added of Mitchell. “He’s doing great things for DU right now and he’s sort of leading the charge. Like Michael Davies, he’s a big piece of that leadership core and he’s done great things so far leading that team to those expectations. They have high expectations this year and he’s done a good job of keeping guys level-headed...he’s an all-around great defender.”
For Mitchell, he rocketed out of the gate to start the season. The junior D-man opened the year on a seven-game point streak, totaling three goals and seven assists in that span. He also led all NCAA defensemen in scoring over that time, although he’s slipped to eighth as of late.
“Pucks have just been going in, guys have been scoring for me and for me it’s just been kind of going in,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully I can keep that up, it’s definitely nice to be on the scoresheet, that’s for sure.”
His playmaking abilities as a defenseman are probably one of the many reasons why the Chicago Blackhawks took Mitchell in the second round of the 2017 NHL draft. Like O’Connor said, he’ll likely have a great pro career. As far as when it is he’ll start that career remains to be seen. As a junior, Mitchell has one more year of eligibility in the NCAA. He could also forgo his senior season and turn pro with Chicago at the conclusion of this season.
Those questions, however, are not exactly at the forefront of his mind at the moment. His focus remains on captaining DU to success this year.
“I just want to focus on this year and then see what happens,” added Mitchell. “The Blackhawks have been great to me and it’s definitely my plan to sign with them. But just focus on right now at this time.”
For Davies, however, his hockey future remains a question mark. As a senior, this will be his last year at DU and his prospects of playing pro hockey remain up in the air. Davies did earn a spot at Avs Development Camp this past offseason, and the hope is more opportunities like that may be in his future.
“It was a lot of fun, it was really cool,” Davies said of his development camp experience. “They have a lot of young up-and-coming talent there so it was cool to kind of go up and there and see how I stacked up against some of those guys.”
Like Mitchell, Davies first priority remains with the success of the Pioneers, not his prospective professional career.
“I’m not too worried about it right now honestly,” he added of what comes next for him. “Eventually, when the season’s over and it’s said and done, I’ll see what’s out there for me. As a smaller guy I’m probably going to have to go in there and prove myself and show that I can play at the next level. I believe in myself and I believe in my game and I’m going to do whatever it takes to prove to the higher-ups that I can play at the next level.”
If you ask anyone in the Pioneers locker room, they’d probably tell you he at least deserves a shot at the next level. But like the two captains said, they’ll leave those questions for their future selves. Right now, it’s all about Denver hockey.
And right now, things are going pretty well for the two recently-named captains and their team. With strong leadership, the Pioneers are off to one of its best starts in the program’s 70-year history and appear poised for another NCAA Frozen Four run.
With plans to win it this time, of course.