A lot has changed for the University of Denver hockey program over the last few weeks.
For starters, the No. 6-ranked Pioneers appeared poised for another deep tournament run before global pandemic gripped its grimy hands tightly on the world, forcing the cancellation of just about every sporting event or social gathering for the foreseeable future, effectively putting an end to 2019-20 NCAA season, among many other sports leagues.
Then, most recently, Denver lost its team captain in Ian Mitchell, who decided to forgo his senior season with the Pioneers to turn pro and sign his entry-level contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. And not only was it Mitchell’s leadership leaving the program, but his two assistant captains, seniors Michael Davies and Tyson McLellan, are officially graduating from the Pioneers program, as well.
That meant it was time for a new trio of Pios to step up to the plate and lead the program for the coming 2020-21 campaign, and Denver’s staff wasted little time in naming the captains’ successors.
Senior forward Kohen Olischefski has officially been named captain of the Denver Pioneers, while seniors Griffin Mendel and Ryan Barrow will serve as the program’s assistant captains.
“It’s an incredible honor. It’s the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever had in my life and in my hockey career especially,” Olischefski said. “I can’t even explain the feeling really. I had my breath taken away. I was extremely excited and I still am. I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.
“Just this opportunity, I know how great it is, and the tradition and the legacy of this team and the people that have come before me. I know how big of an honor it is and I’m so happy and excited for the opportunity to try and continue that as best I can.”
Olischefski said he didn’t really see it coming, given especially how early in the offseason it is. And given the quarantine and social-distancing guidelines that are currently put in place, DU’s staff and its players are forced to hold meetings over Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform.
It was a routine Zoom meeting with the Pioneers staff and some of the program’s seniors when Olischefski found out the good news.
“Basically we were just talking about logistics things and talking about life and how everyone was doing,” DU’s new captain said of the Zoom call. “It wasn’t really a set thing. I didn’t go into the meeting knowing they were going to announce anything. But they just announced it and I was just thrilled to hear it.
“I think this program always has plenty of great options, I mean, it could have been anyone on the team or anyone on the senior class really. Just the character we have in our locker room, the character we have in our program, there’s always a lot of good options. But they chose me and I’m extremely grateful for it.”
Shortly after the news broke during the meeting, Olischefski reached out to his friend and former captain Ian Mitchell.
“Him and I are really close friends. We pretty much talk everyday anyway so as soon as I found out, I made sure to tell him right away. He was one of the first guys I told,” Olischefski said of his phone call with Mitchell. “...It’s funny, I told him before, he’s obviously a year younger than me, but he’s always been a guy on our team that I’ve looked up to, and especially last year I’ve always admired how he took care of our team and led our team.
“I’ve learned a ton from him and I hope I can be a leader like he was.”
Olischefski’s phone call with Mitchell served as the proverbial passing-of-the-torch moment between captains, old and new. It’s also a defining moment for the entire Pioneers program as a whole. It’s now Olischefski’s team to lead — along with Barrow’s and Mendel’s — as a new era of Denver hockey is now officially upon us.
And while it’s still technically the 2019-20 academic year, it’s never too early to get to work on next season.
“Especially for our leadership group of three first-time captains on the team, it’s good for us to try and get comfortable and as used to this as we can,” the new DU captain said. “Obviously being away from guys, we have to kind of take it into our own hands to get to know the freshman and the incoming guys we have, just try and build those relationships as best we can…it’s definitely a lot different but I think it’s just a new set of challenges that I think we can adapt to and take on in our own way.”
The weird current state of affairs in the world and the social-distancing guidelines presents an added challenge for the new captains. Those normal end-of-the-year happenings, the meetings with incoming freshmen, the offseason workouts and other various team-bonding activities have been jeopardized. Those are key parts of team development which now must be put on hold for the foreseeable future.
“We’re just kind of waiting to see what happens,” Olischefski added. “Hopefully sooner than later, we want to get back to Denver and get back together as a team and start training and skating again. Hopefully that happens in the coming months — or who knows how long it’ll be, really — but that’s the ideal situation is get back there, get back with the guys, hopefully meet the new guys and start becoming a team to get that national championship.”
Either way, Olischefski will find a way to lead his team through the times, for better or for worse. After all, that’s part of his job description now, and it’s something that is often asked of a team captain throughout a season. While there has been a changing of the guard, so to speak, the end goal, no matter who has the ‘C’ on their chest, will always remain the same. That is, win a national championship.
It’s now Olischefski’s job to lead his Pioneers squad to that national glory, and that’s something he says he’s very confident his team can do.
“I’m extremely confident, always am with this program,” he said. “We’re always bringing in a ton of character and a ton of talent. I’ve seen it in the room the past three years and especially this last year, I knew we had what it takes.
“I think we have a great chance, especially this coming year.”