Pioneers Fly High

DU's hockey team is making noise again.

In 1999, though, the Pioneers staged a startling turnaround with a 26-win season. Three years after that, the talented youngsters Gwozdecky's attracted to sparkling new Magness Arena are playing like champions, and his amazingly contented two-headed goalie ("a tremendous luxury that very few other teams in the country have") is producing more on-ice excitement than a pair of conjoined Patrick Roys. Meanwhile, last year's leading scorer, senior Chris Paradise, has continued to produce, and the team has enjoyed timely advances by sophomore winger Connor James (fourteen goals, fourteen assists) and junior forwards Kevin Doell and Greg Barber, among others. "It's been a lot of hard work to get here," James says, "but I don't think anyone's surprised. We are a defensive team, but the offense has proved it can score, and the league is so competitive that we never even think about who we're playing. Instead, we go in every weekend and play hard for two games. There are no superstars on this team, and we know it. Our strength is in balance."

The fat cats who part with three hundred bucks a ticket to watch Joe Sakic and Chris Drury slap the puck into the net down at the Pepsi Center probably don't know what they're missing: Half a dozen brilliantly talented college players are doing the same thing inside sleek, well-appointed Magness, where a top-priced seat goes for a cool twenty. But, hey -- the student section isn't even full these days, and those tickets go for a mere five-spot.

"I'm originally from Leadville," says Mike Stark, a DU freshman who plays on the soccer team. "But I've lived in Denver for ten years, and I didn't know anything about DU hockey before I came to school here." Says freshman Greg Noe, from Seattle: "It's great. I've been to eight games, and we've won them all. But sometimes it's a pain to scrape up the five bucks."

In the Pioneers' salad days, Gwozdecky points out, one of first things most DU freshmen did was buy hockey tickets, and if he has anything to say about it, that will be the norm again. "It's taken us longer than we hoped to get here, and we still have a way to go," he says. "But people are beginning to rediscover us, or see for the first time that we have a number-one hockey program here. I've said it in the past, and I'll say it again: The best is yet to come for hockey at DU."

A Wisconsin alum who played on that school's 1977 NCAA title team, Gwozdecky would be a natural fit for the Badgers' soon-to-be-vacated head coaching job. But he wants to stay put. Now that the Pioneers' traumas have passed and he can look forward next year to "what may be the best class of freshman recruits in the country," he's more motivated than ever to keep his team at the top.

"There's a tremendous tradition here, and we try to get our kids to understand it," he says. "The best way we do that is get our alumni involved. Guys like Jim Wiste and Keith Magnuson, Cliff Koroll, George Konik and Craig Patrick -- they join us for our pre-game meals. Guys who played on national championship teams and went on to the NHL. When our kids seem them up close, talking, the guys who built the foundation of this program, it starts to sink in. You can read all you want, and you can watch videotape, but when these guys start to get emotional and misty-eyed, it really gets to our young players. All of a sudden, those championship banners hanging in the arena really mean something."

Who knows? A new Crimson and Gold banner or two might be flying in the rafters come next fall.

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