“We have some work to do,” coach John Kopperud confesses when asked if the East Angels, last year’s Cinderella story, can win the state title again. “But we certainly have the pieces.”

The Denver East Angels won the 2022 Colorado State 5A championship last March, beating out local powerhouse Valor Christian, 6–3, in Ball Arena. They went on to secure the national title in a tournament of champions in Dallas. But to fully understand how special last year’s national title run was, you need to know a little bit about how prep hockey works.

In Colorado and elsewhere in the country, promising young players from rec leagues at local rinks are swooped into dedicated development programs often affiliated with private schools. Public schools then, like Denver East, are left with the more average young players and those who choose for other reasons to pursue a less intense (and often less expensive) path to the ice.

Coach John Kopperud of the Denver East Angels hockey team wears a black hat and quarter-zip with the red "EA" insignia of the Angels.
Coach John Kopperud. Photo by Reid Neureiter

In the Mile High City, there are so few hockey players in this second category that in order to create a single competitive squad, the East Angels draw from more than 10 high schools within Denver Public Schools. Around half of the team comes from East, but others walk the halls at South, Northfield, and George Washington, among others. And so when the ragtag East High Angels put together a championship season, it glimmered like a Hollywood storyline. “Everybody wanted us to win,” Kopperud says, adding that coaches and pals from conference foes, like Valor Christian, texted him their support as the Angels marched to the national title in Texas.

Although the Angels have the potential to repeat, there are some hurdles. For starters, the transient nature of prep hockey—seniors graduating every year—tends to hurt the public school programs more acutely. The Angels will need to replace their top scoring line with more inexperienced underclassmen; private academies can often swap in rising seniors who’ve been primed in highly competitive feeder teams. The Angels also lost their top goaltender via transfer.

Another factor: “There’s a target on our backs,” Kopperud says. In prep hockey, that means the Angels will likely face every team’s number one goalie. But the East High Angels have never been reliant on one skater or one scorer, and Kopperud thinks the team is set up for another run “if everyone buys in.” That means that the new-look Angels will need to find new ways to win, stay healthy, and then they’ll “see what happens,” Kopperud says.

3 Ice-Cold Questions

Defenseman Joseph Capra wears a white jersey and helmet with red and black trim. He his being defended by a player on Valor Christian, who wears a navy jersey.
Joseph Capra (7) waits for a pass in the state title match against Valor Christian last March. He went on to win the Colorado 5A Player of the Year Award. Photo by Reid Neureiter

Can we expect the same offensive production from this year’s team?

The short answer is no. The Angels graduated six seniors last year, including forwards Connor Hasse, Kaden Dunham, Connor Smithburger, and Colby Asheim. Kopperud doesn’t mince words: “Those were our go-to guys when we needed goals.” Last year’s Angels had a penchant for scoring short-handed and scoring fast. This team has a different identity.

“Our defense is solid,” Kopperud says. “We have six guys who are really good—they are the strength of our team.” Among the stalwart defenders is newly minted captain Zeke Romero, who is recovering from a broken wrist suffered from—you guessed it—checking an opponent into the boards. Vance Vialpando, an alternate captain, is another reliable blueliner.

Perhaps the most interesting player to keep an eye on is Joseph Capra, a sturdy defenseman who was awarded Colorado All-State 5A Player of the Year in 2021-’22. He has missed the Angels’ summer and fall training and club seasons because he’s the starting quarterback at Denver South with big-time prospects of playing collegiate football. He’ll swap cleats for skates in winter.

Who will mind the net?

The Angels lost their number one goalie in the off-season (Noel Friedman, who transferred to a private academy). That leaves two relatively inexperienced netminders between the pipes for East: Samuel Cozart of East and Jacob Smithburger of Northfield.

Kopperud has been impressed with their practice and club play so far, though. In six games for the club team this fall, Cozart has a 0.875 save percentage and sub-3 average goals against (both metrics are above average for preps). Smithburger has also been smooth: 0.845 save percentage and 3.86 goals against. Kopperud hasn’t picked the starter yet.

When does the season start?

Trick question: The Colorado Prep Hockey League, or club season, is underway. That team is made up of largely the same players who will take the ice as the Denver East Angels 5A high school hockey team on Saturday, December 3, against Cherry Creek High at Family Sports Center in Centennial.

Both the club and high school Angels play their home matches at Big Bear Ice Arena in Lowry Field.

Can’t-Miss Matchup

Kopperud is hesitant to name his Angels’ rivals but admits that beating private schools Valor Christian and Regis Jesuit last year tasted just a little sweeter than the rest.

The Angels face those heavy hitters in back-to-back conference home games to close out the season: Saturday, February 11, against Valor Christian at 3:45 p.m. and Wednesday, February 15, against Regis Jesuit at 5 p.m.

The North American Prospects Hockey League Prep Playoffs begin the following weekend in Detroit.