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15 Years Later: The Denver Pioneers

By Peter Odney , 04/17/19, 12:30PM CDT


15 years after the Denver Pioneers captured the 2004 NCAA national championship, former head coach George Gwozdecky and forward Max Bull reflect on the season of injuries, resurgence, and eventual glory.

The Denver Pioneers, 2004 NCAA men's hockey national champions. Photo courtesy of the University of Denver.

A Pioneer's Effort

Editor’s Note: On Saturday night, April 13, the Minnesota-Duluth men’s hockey team won its second consecutive national championship, the first program to accomplish the feat since the Denver Pioneers in 2004 and 2005. That 2004 Denver roster featured five Minnesotans, and in honor of the team’s 15th anniversary, YHH caught up with former head coach George Gwozdecky and Faribault native Max Bull to relive the climax of an epic season of highs and lows. 

Max Bull won’t admit that he hasn’t paid for a drink in Denver for the past 15 years, but he came close. 

“I still get treated well,” the former Denver assistant captain Bull said with a chuckle over the phone last week. “I’ve been out here nineteen years now. It’s a great city, and the fans are good to some of the athletes that spent time here and rewarded their ticket prices.”

In 2004, Bull and his teammates validated the crazed fandom of Denver men’s hockey with an improbable trip to the NCAA West Region final, where the Pioneers dethroned national championship favorite North Dakota. The Pioneers topped their Region final performance with a win over Minnesota-Duluth and Hobey Baker Award winner Junior Lessard and followed those victories with a 1-0 win over Maine in the national final.

“I remember being so relieved it was over,” former Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said. “And yet, having no idea that the following year we would duplicate that, but much (more easily). That ’04 team was a unique group, that’s for sure,” Gwozdecky said with a nearly-audible shake of his head. 

Five Minnesotans populated the Pioneers’ 2004 roster, but none were recruited straight out of high school, nor were any considered traditional can’t-miss prospects according to Gwozdecky. 

“None of them were what I would consider blue-chip players when they graduated from high school, and certainly they weren’t identified as top players coming out of juniors either,” Gwozdecky said. 

Goaltender Adam Berkhoel, who was named the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player, came from the now-defunct Twin Cities Vulcans of the USHL. Nick Larson and Matt Laatsch skated for what Gwozdecky called “probably the poorest USHL junior team there’s ever been” in the Dubuque Fighting Saints. That’s not hyperbole by Gwozdecky. The Fighting Saints made the playoffs just once in their last seven seasons before being moved to Tulsa. The team folded after one year competing as the Tulsa Crude before being resurrected for the 2010-2011 season. 

“We actually had four kids from that Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2001,” Gwozdecky said. “For whatever reason, we felt they fit a need for us, and certainly four years later, those guys would be big reasons why we were able to win a title.”

Bull came from the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL by way of Shattuck-St. Mary’s, where he and future Denver captain and Manitoba native Ryan Caldwell did their best to convince Sabre standouts and future NHLers Zach Parise, Chris Porter, and Drew Stafford among others to join them in the Mile High city.

“Ryan Caldwell and I tried to get the Shattuck-St. Mary’s contingent to come down to Denver, but North Dakota had a grip on (those) guys,” Bull said. “We actively, every year, were talking to our coaches about who they were recruiting from Minnesota and how we could be helpful.”

Ryan Helgason of Woodbury traded the Alaska Range for the Rocky Mountains by going from the Fairbanks Ice Dogs to the Pioneers. 

Under Gwozdecky, the Pioneer program didn’t just recruit the top names in the country in an attempt to stock its roster with five-star, all-everything players. 

“I was part of Gwozdecky’s process where he viewed each team as a puzzle, and you gotta find the twenty, twenty-five different pieces that fit together and put together a championship team,” Bull said.

“Everybody knew they had specific roles and responsibilities,” Bull continued. “I knew I was not a guy who was expected to score a goal-a-game, but I was expected to block shots and make hits and win face-offs and kill penalties, so I did that game in and game out.”

Matt Carle (left), and Adrian Veideman after the Pioneers defeated Maine 1-0 in the national championship game. Photo courtesy of the University of Denver.

For the Pioneers, the pieces may have fit too perfectly. The team’s belief in itself was paired with an ability to create self-inflicted hurricanes in otherwise calm seas, and then rally around each other and execute when they needed to. 

“That ’04 season was as difficult a year as I recall in my coaching career,” Gwozdecky said. “We had a team with a lot of character…but a lot of characters. When things were at their worst is when (the players) usually were at their best.” 

“As a group, and coming through the leadership of the team, we always tried to stay loose and have fun in the arena and outside the arena,” Bull said. “When we did make those mistakes, and when we did face conflicts, one thing we never did was tighten up,” Bull continued. “We always tried to make sure we were having fun and taking care of each other.”

The drama surrounding the team, whether it was hovering near the bottom of the WCHA before Christmas before a miraculous run through the regular-season schedule after the holiday break, or a handful of players not being able to practice during the week due to injury, followed the group all the way to the championship final in Boston. 

Senior forward and one of the team’s leading scorers Lukas Dora was suspended for a violation of team rules the night before the title game, further handicapping a Denver lineup which already featured offensive weapon Connor James barely-recovered from a broken leg.

Denver celebrates adder Gabe Gauthier scores the eventual game-winning goal during the first period of the 2004 national title game. Photo courtesy of the University of Denver.

Like they had all season, the Pioneers regrouped and rebounded, matching Maine (which featured future Stanley Cup champion in forward Dustin Penner and future NHL All-Star goaltender Jimmy Howard) for three periods. Gabe Gauthier’s goal with 7:34 remaining in the first frame held up for the remainder of the contest, but not without a heart-pounding comeback attempt by the Black Bears in the game’s last minute-and-a-half. 

In a cruel joke of a sequence, the Pioneers took two penalties with under two minutes to play, another example of self-infecting harm at a less-than-perfect time. The Black Bears pulled Howard, giving them a 6-on-3 advantage for the remainder of regulation. 

Bull said that his memory of the game between Gauthier’s goal and the last minute of regulation is hazy, but from the start of his final shift to the last buzzer, he can replay the entire sequence. 

“I spent 45 of those last 90 seconds sliding across the ice to block shots and (trying) to keep that puck outta the net,” Bull said. “Fortunately we were able to do that.”

The helmets were off before the horn sounded, and the celebration was on as the grinders, shot-blockers, defensive-minded forwards, rugged defensemen, and role players began jumping in their skates, surrounding Berkhoel.

While the players on the ice danced, embraced, and shouted toward the ceiling, Gwozdecky sunk into a group-hug with his assistant coaches, finally able to breathe. 

“When you’re able to win your last game of the year, and knowing how these kids did it…,” Gwozdecky trails off. “It certainly put a few gray hairs on my head, but you’re also so proud of the fact that they were able to overcome that adversity.”

“They gave me fits all year long, but they had great character.”

Denver's sizable contingent at the Fleet Center in Boston. Photo courtesy of the University of Denver.

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