Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Know Your Enemy: Denver

Today's Know Your Enemy entry is a program that seems to have been quite closely linked to RPI for some time now. Seth Appert came to RPI following his stint as a Denver assistant, and was reportedly DU's top choice to become their head coach during this offseason before Appert signed an extension to stay in Troy. Denver then hired former RPI assistant Jim Montgomery. As well, RPI athletic director Jim Knowlton's son Chris played four seasons for the Pioneers, graduating in 2013 after 138 games at DU.

Nickname: Pioneers
Location: Denver, CO
Founded: 1864
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 7 (1958, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1969, 2004, 2005)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2005
Coach: Jim Montgomery (1st year)
2012-13 Record: 20-14-5 (14-9-5 WCHA, 4th place)
Series: DU leads, 11-1-0
First Game: January 29, 1954 (Denver, CO)
Last RPI win: October 20, 2006 (Denver, CO)
Last DU win: October 21, 2006 (Denver, CO)

2013-14 games: December 13-14, 2013 (Troy, NY)

Key players: G Sam Brittain, sr.; D David Makowski, sr.; D Josiah Didier, jr.; F Daniel Doremus, jr.; D Joey LaLeggia, jr.; F Zac Larraza, jr.; F Ty Loney, jr.; F Matt Tabrum, jr.; F Grant Arnold, so.; F Gabe Levin, so.; F Quentin Shore, so.; D Nolan Zajac, so.; D Will Butcher, fr.; F Connor Chatham, fr.; F Trevor Moore, fr.

The December series at the Field House marks Denver's third trip to Troy ever, and the first to take place outside of the first weekend of a calendar year - the first trip was during the first weekend of 1967, the second in the first weekend of 1982.

The all-time series is quite lopsided - the Pioneers won the first 10 games they played against RPI between 1954 and 1982. Ironically, RPI's first ever win over Denver was also former DU assistant coach Appert's first win as RPI's head coach, splitting a series in late October that was put on the schedule before he'd even accepted the job.

History seemed about ready to repeat itself when multiple media reports had Appert as one of the top contenders to succeed his mentor, George Gwozdecky, as head coach at Denver, which would have seen Appert return to Troy coaching from the south side of the Field House had it gone through. Instead, an extension will keep Appert with RPI for many seasons to come, while Montgomery takes a high-profile position for his very first college head-coaching gig.

For a high-profile program, Denver is actually fairly young - unlike many of the classic programs of the east, the Pioneers didn't have their first season until after World War II, first dropping the puck in 1949-50 with a rough first season. DU lost 17-0 to the University of Saskatchewan in their first game, lost twice to Brown by a combined 33-3 score, lost 23-2 to the University of Alberta in their next to last game, and their only four wins on the season came against that hockey powerhouse, Wyoming. Not exactly a stellar beginning.

But that inauspicious beginning vanished relatively quickly. The Pioneers picked up wins over the more established teams from Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State in their second season, and notched their first win over local rivals Colorado College in 1952. From there, it was an upward march for the Pioneers, who earned their first winning season that year en route to 22 over the next 23 years, a stretch that would see the team establish a true dynasty during the 1960s.

Murray Armstrong was hired to coach the rising program in 1956, and it was under Armstrong that Denver would become one of the top programs in the new WCHA. In Armstrong's second year in Denver, the Pioneers captured their first national championship with a 6-2 victory over North Dakota in the title game, the first of three in a four year stretch that placed the Pioneers as one of the nation's top teams. During that four-year run, Denver had a combined 104-20-7 record.

The dominance continued throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Pioneers reached the national championship game again in 1963 and 1964, but fell to North Dakota and Michigan. Additional Frozen Four appearances in 1966, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, and 1973 continued DU's run as one of the nation's premiere teams, highlighted by back-to-back championships in 1968 and 1969 and a championship game appearance in 1973. During the first 14 years of the WCHA's existence, Denver won six regular-season championships, two overall tournament championships, and made 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, four of which resulted in titles.

The 1973 Frozen Four appearance was later vacated by the NCAA after it was found in 1976 that the school had violated eligibility rules by allowing some athletes to play after losing their amateur status playing with semi-professional teams in Canada, even though they were aware of the players' situation. The Pioneers were made ineligible for the 1977 and 1978 post-seasons.

When Armstrong departed in 1977 after 21 seasons in Denver, he had won 463 games and helmed only three losing seasons, one of which was his first and the other two coming toward the end of his tenure during the NCAA morass. Marshall Johnston, his replacement, guided Denver to a WCHA regular-season title and a coach of the year honor in his first season, but was gone three years later. Ralph Backstrom then led the team through the 1980s, earning big success in 1986 with WCHA regular-season and tournament titles and DU's first NCAA appearance in 13 years, culminating in a Frozen Four appearance. Backstrom's other teams across nine seasons were typically fair, but rarely outstanding.

Frank Serratore replaced Backstrom in 1990 for his first NCAA head coaching gig, and while he later found success at Air Force (where he now coaches), his time to the north in Denver was disastrous. In 1991, during his first season behind the bench, the Pioneers failed to reach 10 wins for the first time since their inaugural season, finishing dead last in the WCHA. DU went 15-55-4 in his first two seasons alone, including 30 losses in 1991.

Miami head coach George Gwozdecky came to Denver in 1994 to rejoin the league where he'd been a player with Wisconsin in the 1970s. Fresh off back-to-back 20-win seasons and the Redhawks' first NCAA appearance in 1993, "Gwoz" turned the Pioneers around quickly, putting them back in the NCAA tournament in just his first season while winning 25 games, 10 better than the team had mustered in Serratore's final season.

NCAA appearances and 20-win seasons would become commonplace under Gwozdecky. In 1999, DU won its first WCHA crown since 1986, the first of six WCHA banners the program would earn in his 19-year stint. The majority of the "Gwoz" glory came after 2002, as the Pioneers began a run of 12 straight 20-win seasons that continues to the present, and landed back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005, the school's first in 35 years. Defenseman Matt Carle won the school's first Hobey Baker Award in 2006.

Despite reaching the NCAA tournament for the past six consecutive seasons - a school record - and a WCHA regular season championship in 2010, Gwozdecky was fired at the end of 2013. The team's record in those six tournaments likely had a lot to do with that - the Pioneers are 1-6 in the national tournament during that stretch, the lone win coming in double overtime against Western Michigan in 2011.

So Denver begins a new era on two different fronts in this coming season - a new coach in Montgomery, and a new league after 54 years in the WCHA. DU will be the first member of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference to visit Troy and play against the Engineers.

The Pioneers lost their top scorer, Nick Shore, when he signed a pro deal with the LA Kings, and their top three goal scorers (Shawn Ostrow, Knowlton, and Shore). Their top goaltender last year, Juho Olkinuora, also fled for the NHL, as did top defenseman Scott Mayfield, both with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

That kind of early departure list would be devastating for a lot of teams, and it's likely to make the Pioneers less potent as they could have been, but there's plenty still around in Denver to make them a solid team. Four defensemen who played at least 75% of the team's games last year return, as do four forwards who notched at least eight goals each. Brittain already has experience as DU's top-choice goaltender, having held down the position in his freshman season before being displaced by Olkinuora, and his numbers that year were nothing to sneeze at.

And when it comes to coaching, there are few coaches with the track record of Jim Montgomery to be making their head coaching debut this season. He's been very successful wherever he's been, including in Dubuque where he coached Luke Curadi three seasons ago, and at RPI as Appert's top lieutenant.

Despite all of the changes the Pioneers have experienced this offseason - new coach, new league, early departures - RPI fans can still expect them to be packing a considerable punch when they show up at Houston Field House in December. But RPI should be packing a sizable punch of its own. It'll be interesting to watch and see how DU stacks up in a smaller but amazingly difficult new conference (all eight teams have been in the NCAA tournament in the last three seasons, including four last season) ahead of the visit.

Of the non-conference teams coming to Troy this season, this is the must-see series of the year - not just because of the extensive links between the two programs over the last several years, but because the matchup should be absolutely stellar, and both teams ought to be able to learn quite a bit about themselves during the course of the mid-season weekend.


  1. Nice write up.
    Hope we can give the Engineers a good test, "cuz" next year is still a big question for many of us.

    Murray Armstrong and George Gwozdecky were the only 2 coaches I "knew" as a student or alum. Coach Monty has big skates to fill. And your coach is part or the DU tree so you are stuck with me.

    Much success to the Engineers except for that one weekend in December and if we meet again at the NCAAs.

  2. RPI Asst. Coach Bryan Vines was a 4 year player and Captain of the DU team.


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