Going into last year's NCAA playoffs, the Denver Pioneers (of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association) were underdogs -- even in the eyes of their archrivals from Colorado College. Little matter that the Pis had won the 2004 NCAA championship in a 1-0 nail-biter over favored Maine; this wasn't the same team -- not without star goalie Adam Berkhoel, now lost to graduation. But when the ice cleared at the 2005 Frozen Four, DU had secured its second straight NCAA title with a 4-1 win over North Dakota. Last week, the Pioneers failed to earn a bid for the 2006 NCAA tournament, but their two straight titles earn them top honors.
If they were playing in the softer Eastern Conference, the Denver Nuggets -- led by Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby -- might really be flying high. As it is, though, they aren't doing too bad (first in the NBA West's Northwest Division), and much of the credit goes to no-nonsense coach George Karl, who hasn't posted a losing NBA season in fourteen years and who has a knack for turning struggling franchises around. After Karl took over from Jeff Bzdelik at mid-season last year, the revived Nuggets went on a 32-8 tear, winning 19 of 20 at the Pepsi Center before falling to the eventual world-champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. This year? The team still lacks a reliable outside shooter, but if Karl has anything to say about it, the Nuggets won't lack for toughness as the season winds down.
In the first nine years of his tenure as the University of Denver's hockey coach, George Gwozdecky's scrappy Pioneers had their brief moments of glory. For example, the 1998 team won 26 games after losing 25 the year before. But now the Pioneers remain on top of the college-hockey world. With Gwozdecky (University of Wisconsin, class of 1978) behind the bench, they won the sixth NCAA national championship of their 55-year history in 2004, and their seventh title last year. The 2005 crew was the first WCHA team since 1997 to capture the MacNaughton Cup, the Broadmoor Trophy and the NCAA national championship in the same season, and Gwozdecky is the only coach in NCAA history to win national titles as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach. Does anyone now dare to think "three-peat"? At the Ritchie Center on the DU campus, the whispers have already started.
Sleek and blond, she looked lovely in her February 2004 photo spread for FHM Magazine, and she clearly had a ball as an honorary starter for this year's Daytona 500. But 25-year-old Gretchen Bleiler, a native of Ohio who's lived in Aspen since she was ten, is at her best in the half-pipe, throwing spins, flipping and getting good air. Prior to the 2006 Winter Olympics, she suffered a nasty black eye while perfecting her signature move, an inverted spinning trick called, ominously, the "crippler" -- but that didn't keep her from winning silver in Torino, one of four medals won by American women in the snowboarding events.
Against all odds, the University of Colorado football coach survived the scandal-plagued departures of the university president, the chancellor and the athletic director, but in the end, Gary Barnett also had to take a hike -- not because he was a male chauvinist pig, or because he looked the other way while his program wooed recruits with sex and drugs, but because he'd done the one unforgivable thing in college sports: lose. In the last two games of 2005, Barnett's hapless Buffs were blown off the field by Nebraska and Texas with a combined score of 100-6. That -- and that alone -- triggered the coach's long-overdue firing in mid-December. Of course, the $3 million settlement that Barnett got from CU is likely to cushion his fall.
Sure, it's fun to go to Avalanche or Nuggets games -- as long as you've got a wallet the size of Stan Kroenke's. For those of more modest means, DU's men's and women's basketball teams offer plenty of bang for your buck. The teams are improving, and they play in a gorgeous venue, Magness Arena, yet ticket prices begin at just $6 and top out at $11 for women's games, $15 for the men's. And groups of twenty or more receive a $3 discount per seat. As a bonus, DU offers up such freebies as thunder sticks at many games and launches T-shirts into the stands any time a player on the home team sinks a three-pointer. This is how to net a good deal.
Since 1968, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School has offered wilderness-based life-changing experiences to people around the world. But the life that BOSS may have changed most is that of Josh Bernstein, who today is the outfit's president and CEO. BOSS has become the go-to source not just for individuals, but also for publications and moviemakers looking for survival experts. Last year the History Channel tapped Bernstein himself to host Digging for the Truth, which became the channel's top show. Bernstein became such a celeb that not only did he have a spread in the debut issue of Men's Vogue last fall, but he's now the star of a comic book, "Josh Bernstein and the Search for Shangri-La: A Digging for the Truth Adventure," which is billed as the first in a series. The adventure continues.
Denver Forestry keeps a list of champion trees, the largest examples of their species found in the state. Of the 73 champs rooted in Denver, 25 can be found at the Denver Botanic Gardens, another 17 in the city's parks system. The tallest of all is the American Elm located by Cheesman's east entrance at Ninth Avenue, adjacent to the road. Just a few inches under a hundred feet, this baby is too hefty to hug, so just stand back and admire those big shoulders.
Bear Creek Greenbelt Shelter
Round a lush bend on the Bear Creek Greenbelt trail and you'll find yourself smack-dab in the middle of a thriving prairie dog town. Little heads pop up and out of burrowed holes that dot the wide, open meadow; elsewhere, the cheeky varmints stand still as statues, hoping not to be noticed. This is one of the delightful surprises that make the 340-acre Greenbelt the best urban nature fix in town. Although the 'belt occasionally dives under a busy surface street, most of its approximately two miles of paved and unpaved trail winds around little ponds and through swaths of grassland; horse trails hug the mossy banks of Bear Creek, which flows beautifully in the spring. Start at the Stone House, wander east, and let yourself pretend that the trail goes on forever.
The Urban Farm
The Urban Farm, located on a reclaimed corner of the former Stapleton Airport, is one of the city's hidden treasures. It's a real farm with all kinds of animals -- cows, sheep, goats, chickens, a gorgeous hog the size of Kansas and lots of horses -- where urban kids can get a feel for rural life and learn to ride, too. The Farm also offers fabulous birthday parties, complete with a tractor-drawn wagon ride to visit the animals, a ride around the ring on a handsome pony, and a free hour for cake and games in the farm's arbored garden and big red playhouse. What little kid wouldn't love to feed hay to a llama, rub a palomino's nose or stroke the silky-soft coat of a rex rabbit? The parties are pure child's play and a boon to the farm, which uses the fees to help feed and care for its residents.

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