There’s no denying that the University of Denver is a collegiate hockey heavyweight: Since the NCAA tournament began in 1948, the Pioneers have earned seven championships, tying with the University of North Dakota for second-most titles won. (The two teams are topped by the University of Michigan, which has won nine championships.)
All great programs go through lulls, though, and Denver is no exception. After the Pioneers brought home five titles in the span of a dozen years from 1958 to 1969, they didn’t ascend the NCAA ranks again until their back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005.
In the team’s first Frozen Four appearance since its 2005 championship, the Pioneers will face UND in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday, April 7. Though the 11 years since Denver’s last title pale in comparison to the three-and-a-half decades that elapsed between 1969 and 2004, true Pios fans will tell you this postseason run has felt like a long time coming—especially considering the team’s first-round regional exits during the last three seasons.
Beyond the magnitude of Denver taking on National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) rival UND this week (the Pioneers split the regular season series with the Fighting Hawks 2-2-1), the final chapter of this team’s legacy has yet to be written. If the squad defeats No. 3 North Dakota, and then topples the winner of the Quinnipiac University vs. Boston College match, Denver would not only secure its eighth championship, but also establish itself, once again, as the nation’s preeminent college hockey program. This is especially true given that Michigan hasn’t won a title since 1998.
Two-year captain Grant Arnold has been a solid leader on and off the ice for third-year coach Jim Montgomery, who knows a thing or two about clutch tournament play himself, as captain of Maine’s 1993 title team. Their combined leadership—along with the potent scoring ability of Danton Heinen (20 goals), Dylan Gambrell (17 goals), Quentin Shore (13 goals) and nine other players with five or more lamp-lights this season—should give Denver the confidence that the puck will bounce their way in Tampa.
Regardless of the tournament’s outcome, it’s important to remember what the team has already accomplished. This is a squad that began the season with obvious inconsistencies on the ice—the Pioneers were 7-7-2 at Christmas—and then turned on the jets in the new year, posting a 18–2-4 mark since January 1 and breezing through their first two playoff match-ups by a combined score of 13-5. The opening puck of the Frozen Four has yet to drop, but this team’s already won big.