You’d think starting the season ranked number one would mean the only place to go was, well, down. But fifth-year head coach David Carle would say you were wrong.

His Pioneers, reigning national champions, are faster than last year and expectations are even higher, he says. “We have nine new guys, and that gives this team a unique identity,” Carle said before the Pios’ season-starting match against Notre Dame last Friday (a 5–2 victory in the Ice Breaker Tournament). “We have last year’s experience to lean on, plus new players and new perspectives. We’re staying present.”

University of Denver closed last year’s campaign with an impressive 31–9–1 record, the winningest season for a Division I hockey program since 2017, when then head coach Jim Montgomery led the Pioneers to a 33–7–4 record and the natty. It was the program’s ninth overall championship, tying it with the University of Michigan as the country’s all-time winningest school.

Carle, 32, looks to break the tie this season as his Pioneers gun for their 10th championship.

3 Ice-Cold Questions

Skaters on the University of Denver Pioneers ice hockey team wear crimson and gold; they are skating toward their bench, celebrating a goal scored in the National Championship match.
The Pioneers celebrate a goal in their 5–1 victory over Minnesota State in the 2022 NCAA National Championship game. Photo by Damian Strohmeyer/NCAA Photos via University of Denver Athletics

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

The Pioneers lost seven forwards in the offseason (four to graduation, one transfer, and two to the National Hockey League), including their four top scorers and top line. But Coach Carle remains optimistic about the newcomers, which includes two transfers and three hot shots picked in the NHL draft: Rieger Lorenz (second round, Minnesota), Aidan Thompson (third round, Chicago), and Jared Wright (sixth round, Los Angeles).

Likely leading DU’s top line this year is sophomore Carter Mazur (a newly minted alternate captain). The Michigan native looks to build on a standout rookie season as the Pioneers’ fifth-highest scorer (14 goals, 24 assists, and a +23 plus/minus rating) and second among all freshman in the NCAA. He was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the third round (70th overall) in 2021.

Does defense win championships?

In the Centennial State, it sure seems so. Like their professional brethren [hyperlink to Avs preview], the Pioneers are carried by stout blue liners who contribute more than their fair share offensively. They lost only two defensemen in the offseason, so look for stalwarts like Sean Behrens, Mike Benning, Shai Buium, Justin Lee, and Kyle Mayhew to build off of uber-successful 2021-’22 campaigns.

Senior Justin Lee, from Waskada, Manitoba, Canada, earned the C after a 16-point effort (three goals, 13 assists) with 33 blocked shots and 30 penalty minutes last year. He leads the team by example and plays aggressive, team-first hockey, says Coach Carle. He spent his 2022 summer in development camp with the Arizona Coyotes.

Another defender to keep an eye on is Benning, who scored the game-winning goal against Minnesota State in the Pios’ championship match. He played in all 41 games last year, tallying 15 goals and 23 assists and leading the team in both plus/minus rating (+32) and shooting percentage (18.3). He spent his 2022 summer in development camp with the Florida Panthers.

I’m not an alum—should I catch a game?

The Pioneers, who play their home contests at Magness Arena on the DU campus, serve up the same vim and vigor of the NHL but at a fraction of the cost. Tickets range start around $20 at the home barn. Don your crimson and support the hometown boys—many of whom are likely to reach the pros eventually.

Can’t-Miss Matchup

DU Pioneers captain Justin Lee wears a white jersey with a crimson helmet on the ice during a hockey game.
Denver captain and defenseman Justin Lee during an NCAA hockey game on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in Denver. Photo by AP Photo/Bart Young

The Pios have 23 home games on the slate this year, but one series digs a little deeper: the Battle of the Gold Pan. This classic college hockey rivalry pits the Colorado College Tigers against the Pioneers, in the most neighborly of ways. Although the Tigers were 6–17–1 in conference play last year, this Front Range face-off comes in the middle of a stacked season for the Pios. Bringing home the Gold Pan would set the stage for this season’s Frozen Four playoffs—and maybe DU’s 10th National Championship.

The puck drops at home at Magness Arena on January 27 and away in Colorado Springs the following week: February 4.