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Pioneers Fly High

They grin like famished wolves. Their eyes grow big. Obviously, they love the one-on-one drill. Who wouldn't? Who could resist a thing so nakedly elemental? Stealthily, a lone shooter glides in on the crouching goaltender. The shooter swerves, he feints, he flicks his wrist and flashes the puck into a blur of black. Is it in or out? Two dozen fellow predators wait in a gauntlet for their turn, smashing their sticks on the ice in ear-splitting rhythm.

This practice-day thunder amounts to a declaration of war, of course. Come Friday night, the boys will have bloodthirsty Minnesota and 10,000 crazed Gopher fans screaming in their faces, and they need to be ready. But it also speaks of joy, this echoing cacophony of the stick-banging. Because the University of Denver Pioneers -- the Crimson and Gold -- have fought back to the top at long last. They've revived a great hockey tradition, and they want to make some noise about it.

Even if fewer people are listening these days.

This just in: While the good citizens of Denver snoozed through another season of miserable Broncos football, momentarily stirred themselves as the resurgent Colorado Buffaloes took a swing at a national championship and watched the Colorado Avalanche build an early-season foundation for another Stanley Cup run, the Pioneers quietly played their way up to number one in the nation. Going into last weekend's crucial two-game set at fourth-ranked Minnesota, Denver had won 22 games and lost only two. In Minneapolis, the Pi's split games.

Until recently, though, hardly anyone took notice. The October 12 season opener against Boston College (DU 4, BC 3) attracted just 3,909 fans to the glamorous new 6,208-seat Magness Arena on the DU campus, and the Vermont game on November 24 (DU 4, UV 1) drew a paltry 1,542. There have been five home sellouts in twelve games, but more than a thousand seats stood empty on January 18, when DU crushed lowly Bemidji State 6-2 -- even though the Bemidjians were Denver's first opponent after the home team grabbed the top spot in both college-hockey polls.

Despite overcoming huge obstacles in recent years, DU hockey isn't even the hottest ticket on campus -- much less a first-call choice for Denverites now besotted with five professional sports teams, 100,000 acres of world-class skiing and a twelve-theater multiplex in every shopping center. Certainly, the game will never again dominate Denver newspaper headlines and sportscasts as it did in the glory days of the '60s and '70s.

"People tell me about the old days, when DU hockey was the only game in town," says eighth-year head coach George Gwozdecky. "It was an impossible ticket to get. It was like a night out at the theater. People would come dressed up -- ladies in their furs, men in their sports coats and ties -- and it was a big, big thing. But as with everything, there has been evolution. Denver has evolved into a big-time pro-sports city, and there are a lot of other things to attract the attention of the public in terms of entertainment."

Meanwhile, magic has returned to DU's signature sport. Led by the impenetrable goalie tandem of junior Wade Dubielewicz and sophomore Adam Berkhoel -- "Doobie" and "Berky" to their pals -- the 2001-02 Pi's have sailed through traditional powerhouses like Wisconsin and Michigan Tech, and in early November they swept consecutive games against their most bitter rival, Colorado College. Picked by the pundits to finish as low as sixth in the tough Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Denver has instead dominated every opponent but New Hampshire and Minnesota with a combination of brick-wall defense (which the experts predicted) and potent scoring (which no one foresaw). With ten games remaining in the regular season, the 23-3 Pioneers are headed for post-season tournament play -- maybe even a spot in the record book.

In its storied past, DU won five NCAA national championships (the last in 1969) and ten WCHA titles (the last in 1986). This year, longtime Denver hockey fans are comparing Gwozdecky's charges to the legendary Murray Armstrong's 1961 club: Led by All-Americans Bill Masterson and Marty Howe, those Pioneers went 30-1-1 and in the NCAA title game blew away hapless St. Lawrence 12-2. Those who think Armstrong's NCAA championship 1968 team was even better, thanks to future NHL stars Keith Magnuson, Jim Wiste and Craig Patrick, also have their eye on this year's Pioneers. "A great hockey tradition can put a lot of pressure on kids," says Wiste, who for 26 years has owned a hockey-mad saloon on University Boulevard called the Campus Lounge. "But this is a very good team George has put together, and it's exciting to see the program become prominent again."

Four years ago, hardly anyone on the DU campus would have thought it possible. The school's drafty, inhospitable old hockey barn, the DU Arena, lay in ruins, while the $70 million, golden-spired Ritchie Center, which would contain the team's new rinks, was still a year from completion. Playing its "home" games in venues so scattered that not even Gwozdecky could keep the schedule straight, the team sank to a decades-long low, winning eleven games, losing 25 and tying two in 1997-98 while finishing eighth in the WCHA. Season-ticket sales waned, and two entire classes of DU freshmen -- the frenzied kids who used to pack the student section to the rafters, screaming "C.C. Sucks!" at the top of their lungs and pelting the ice with raw chickens -- lost contact with DU hockey altogether. Even worse, Gwozdecky's recruiting efforts suffered: "We didn't have a place to play, and that hurt us more than we anticipated," he says. "This league is so competitive on the ice and in the recruiting wars that we went through a major setback."

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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