A summer attitude adjustment has helped Denver become a power
Once a week Denver practices end on a sour note. After the last two-on-one has been run, the Pioneers and their coaches line up at center ice behind a ripe lemon for a shootout treated with funereal seriousness. The players and staff take turns on breakaways until all but one has put a puck past the goalie. That last man earns a hideous yellow helmet, which he must wear throughout the ensuing week of practice, and the lemon, which he must consume before leaving the ice. "I got it once, and it's no joke," says senior center Chris Paradise. "Nobody wants that ugly helmet."
These days the possibility of sartorial unpleasantness plus a bitter snack is the only downside to playing in Denver. After a first-round exit in last season's Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, the top-ranked Pioneers (27-6-1) have regained the powerhouse status they enjoyed while winning five NCAA championships between 1958 and '69. The combination of the country's best goaltending duo-junior Wade Dubielewicz (15-2-0, NCAA-best .946 save percentage) and sophomore Adam Berkhoel (12-4-1, .917)—and a fast, physical defense has given Denver a one-point conference lead over St. Cloud State entering this weekend's regular-season-ending action. "The expectations these players have of one another are huge," says coach George Gwozdecky. "When they see something less, there's no yelling and screaming, there's embarrassment."
That attitude has its roots in last year's season-ending playoff sweep by Wisconsin. Soon afterward the Pioneers' rising seniors urged their teammates to scrap their summer plans and to stay in Denver to train together. The majority of the players bunked in off-campus housing while working as instructors at Gwozdecky's youth hockey camp until 4 p.m., enduring late afternoon weight-training sessions and playing shinny games at night. "We'd be dead tired, working 10-hour days and working out," says senior captain Bryan Vines, a defenseman. "Then we'd be up at 6:30 the next morning to run before camp started. Seeing that commitment, you knew big things were going to come."
Big things have come from the Pioneers' defensemen, in particular the pairing of 6'1", 180-pound junior Aaron MacKenzie and 6'2", 171-pound sophomore Ryan Caldwell, who also work the point on different power-play units. The defense has been virtually impenetrable in late-game situations: The Pioneers are 24-1-0 when leading after two periods and have surrendered only 17 third-period goals.
Last month Denver's administration extended the contract of Gwozdecky, whose name had been mentioned in connection with vacancies at Michigan State and Wisconsin. "This isn't a city like some others in which hockey is the only game in town," says Gwozdecky. "But I wouldn't have stayed if I didn't think this program would soon be perceived in the elite group. Everything that could attract a great hockey player is in place here."
Expanding the NCAA Field
A Fair Shake in The Postseason
Last month the NCAA competitions cabinet approved a measure that, once it expectedly passes two more committee hurdles, will bring the national tournament field from 12 to 16 teams beginning next year. That increase will acknowledge the growth of the college game (from 40 Division I teams in 1988, when the field grew from eight to 12 clubs, to 60 today) and the paucity of at-large bids. "The increase of 20 teams would be reason enough to expand," says Jack McDonald, athletic director at Quinnipiac University and chair of the Division I men's hockey committee, "but the revenue our tournament generates has been going up steadily, and that's opened a lot of eyes."
Expansion will eliminate the imbalance built into the existing format The 12 tournament teams are divided into two six-team regionals, with the top two seeds in each receiving a first-round bye. Seeds 3 through 6 must win twice in two days (the second game against a rested club) to advance to the Frozen Four, a daunting task that only 13 of 80 such seeds have accomplished since the single-elimination format was adopted in 1992. It's likely the new format will eliminate byes and have four regionals with four teams each.
Expansion will increase at-large bids from seven to 10 while accommodating automatic bids for the NCAA's newest leagues, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference ( MAAC) and College Hockey America (CHA). "The MAAC and the CHA have lived by Division I rules, and they deserve the bids," McDonald says. "Not that they have national championship-caliber teams, but they deserve access to the national championship."