Long shot: The DU Pioneers surprised everyone in college hockey – except themselves

Apr 9, 2022; Boston, MA, USA; Denver defenseman Shai Buium (26) hoists the trophy after they defeated Minnesota State in the 2022 Frozen Four college ice hockey national championship game at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Question: In the past two decades, what major sports team – college or pro – has been the very best in Colorado?

The knee jerk response is likely the Broncos; they did, after all, win Super Bowl 50 and made it to Super Bowl 48. It could also be the Avalanche, winners of a boatload of games and the most recent Presidents’ Trophy (and they’re the favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup by a mile). Then again, perhaps it’s the Nuggets, a franchise that’s been to the playoffs in 14 of the past 19 seasons. Or, arguably, the most successful professional franchise in Colorado has been the Colorado Eagles hockey team, winners of four minor league championships – two in the AHL and two in the CHL.

None of those answers would be irresponsible. Yet, they’re all incorrect.

A quick scan of the local colleges always begins with the University of Colorado. The Buffs have had “moments” but nothing overly notable – not like Bill McCartney’s football program of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Colorado State and Air Force, have towed the line, shining on a smaller scale but only at times few and far between.

No, not a single, major program at CU, CSU and Air Force belongs in the conversation.

The correct answer – the only answer – is the University of Denver’s hockey program.

Simply put, the Pioneers have lapped the local competition. Winners of four national championships since 2004 – including the state’s most recent, the 2022 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey title – DU can boast what no other team that calls Colorado home can. They’re a small fish gobbling up sharks and whales.

“How can a small school like DU win in big-time college hockey?” Sandy Clough, a longtime sports radio talk show host, asked rhetorically on Denver’s 104.3 The Fan, broadcasting live Tuesday night from Magness Arena, the home of the Pioneers and the site of a pep rally assembled to celebrate the program’s ninth national title.

Ninth!

No. 9 ties “little ol’” Denver with Big Bad Michigan for the most-ever NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey National Championships. How in the wide, wide world of sports does Denver – a tiny, urban campus school dwarfed by the likes of Colorado and Colorado State – do it? Well, for starters, the Pioneers bested those worldly Wolverines of Michigan in the national semifinal 3-2. It might have taken an overtime period, but the ticket to the title bout was punched nonetheless. It should be noted that Michigan boasted 13 NHL draft picks in that same game, including seven NHL first-round draft picks and an unprecedented four of the top-five selections from the 2021 draft.

So, essentially, a school that doesn’t even field a college football team – DU – beat the equivalent of an NHL All-Rookie team – Michigan – on a national stage?

That’s correct. Furthermore, DU, who went on to beat Minnesota State Mankato in the championship game, tied Michigan for most national championships in men’s ice hockey instead of falling back into the pack. It wasn’t easy though; in the finale, it took overcoming a sluggish two periods of hockey in which the Pioneers were held to only eight shots. Then in the third period, as if a cloud had lifted, the Pioneers slapped five goals on the Mavericks and their Hobey Baker winning goaltender, Dryden McKay, snapping Minnesota State’s 18-game winning streak.

Even sports bettors weren’t buying that the University of Denver’s path in 2022 would result in yet another national championship. According to SuperBook Sports’ Jay Kornegay, DU was 7/1 to win it all prior to the round of 16, then 15/4 as they entered the Frozen Four. From there, the Pioneers weren’t considered favorites against Michigan (at +135) or Minnesota State (+110).

Early in the season, various oddsmakers had the Pioneers as a relative longshot. In Erie, Colo., Matthew Gregory pumped his fist as the clock ticked down to zero in Boston; with the score 5-1 in DU’s favor, he was about to haul in a nice payoff. Earlier in the season, after attending the game against longtime rival Colorado College on Jan. 21, Matthew liked what he saw. As DU cruised to a 5-0 victory that night, he decided a $5 investment in the Pioneers was worth a shot at 25/1. This past Saturday, his $5 turned into $125.

“It wasn’t about the money,” said Matthew who was attending the championship rally Magness. “I just love DU hockey. And when they put a beating on CC, I thought, ‘This team is really, really good.”

That’s the thing though – those who know, know. Denver Pioneer Ice Hockey might be one of the best kept secrets in major college athletics, but those who are close to the program understand the tradition and standard. Those who aren’t as familiar are surprised each and every time the Pioneers – who skate smack dab in the middle of the country, far, far away from the hockey meccas that exist in places like Michigan, Minnesota or anywhere along the northeast coast – win another title. After nine national championships, should anyone be surprised?

“You come to Denver because of the expectations, because of the tradition and everything that everyone’s done before you,” David Carle, a former player at DU and now the head coach of the Pioneers, said on Altitude Sports Radio the week after his team hoisted the NCAA trophy. “Your whole goal in being (at DU) is to try and add to that. The most exciting part for this team, is we’ve talked a lot about what it means to be a Pioneer and what it means to be a part of this program – those expectations. That’s why many of them came here – playing big moments, playing big games, but then to add to the tradition. That is Denver Hockey. That’s what we’re so excited about for them.”

If anyone understands long odds, it’s Carle.

At 32 years old, Carle is the youngest head coach to win a national championship since 1963 and the fourth-youngest ever. That wasn’t always the goal, as Carle was once projected to be a second-round draft pick in the NHL. But as he prepared for the NHL combine in 2008, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of a heart muscle, and was forced to retire as a player at a very young age. The University of Denver had offered Carle a scholarship prior to his diagnosis and opted to honor it despite the fact he would no longer be able to play. Instead, Carle served as an assistant coach under then head coach George Gwozdecky (who guided the Pioneers to back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005).

After graduating, Carle took a job as an assistant coach with the Green Bay Gamblers, but returned to DU to work under Jim Montgomery after just two seasons. Montgomery’s 2017 team went on to win DU’s eighth national title and Carle was along for the ride. When Montgomery decided to take a job in the NHL the following season, Carle – at the tender age of 28 – was handed the reins to one of the most storied college hockey programs in America.

He returned the favor by guiding the Pioneers back to the Frozen Four in his first season as head coach. And last weekend, it all came full circle, when his Pioneers won it all.

“I played my whole youth and was planning on following brother’s footsteps of coming to Denver and trying to make it to the NHL as a player,” Carle told Vic Lombardi of Altitude Sports Radio in Denver; Carle’s brother Matt won the 2006 Hobby Baker Award as a member of the Pioneers. “(Retiring from hockey) was a really challenging moment in my life. I never wanted it to define me, I preferred it to be my defining moment – how I handle myself and how I would pick myself back up.

“I didn’t do that alone. The University of Denver stepped up the same day of the diagnosis and told me I’d have a full scholarship still, and that I’d be a part of the hockey program. And obviously that’s paved the way for what I’m doing today.”

Carle’s long odds of making it to this point – especially considering his age – might be unknown to those outside of the DU community. But again, for those in the know, betting on Carle has seemingly been a wise investment. Ironically, one betting app in particular felt like investing in DU hockey was a smart move. By partnering with SuperBook Sports in the fall of 2021, the University of Denver became just the fourth school in the country to enter into an official collegiate sports betting partnership. Only UNLV, Nevada and the University of Colorado had similar partnerships prior to DU. The Pioneers’ national title in ice hockey became the first time a school with a betting partnership has ever won a national championship.

“We knew all about the athletic success and hockey tradition at DU when we started this deal,” said SuperBook Sports’ Vice President of Marketing Kristin Mackey. “To be celebrating a national title in the first season is amazing. It’s a credit to the hard work and standards that David Carle and the players put in to make this season go down in history.”

Three days after winning it all in Boston, back home in Denver, fans gave Carle a standing ovation as he approached the podium at the pep rally.

“The goal is the become the first college hockey program to win ten national championships,” the coach thundered, much to the delight of those in attendance.

Sounds like long odds. Then again, the Pioneers of Denver are used to that.

How you bettin’?

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