NCAA Frozen Four
Postcard: Patriots Day
The Pioneers are reminiscent of a championship
outfit from Foxborough
of Denver hockey team, fresh off the program’s first national
championship in 35 years, was honored prior to Wednesday’s
Diamondbacks-Rockies baseball game at Coors Field. The Pioneers
got the red carpet treatment, hanging out by the cage during batting
practice, touring the clubhouse (where we’re sure more than
one guy had a word with Larry Walker, the pride of Maple River,
B.C.) and watching the contest from a suite.
earlier, another championship team – the NFL’s New
England Patriots – was saluted at the local ball yard for
its achievements. Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi and Co., with the Lombardi
Trophy in tow, were cheered by a capacity crowd at Fenway Park
as they threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
toast at Coors: the Pioneers' victory tour continues. (photo
courtesy University of Denver)
New England share more than free trips to baseball games. In watching
DU make its improbable run to the NCAA title, the similarities
between the Pats and the Pies became acutely evident.
the coaches. Like Bill Belichick, George Gwozdecky is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get
guy. No frills. No gimmicks. Both have game plans that emphasize
minimizing mistakes and taking full advantage of opponents’
errors. And both rely on their assistant coaches to help put their
plans in place. Heck, they even look a little bit alike. Hey,
I said a little bit.
The rosters are mirror
images of one another, too. Prior to the Frozen Four, how many
Denver players could you name? For most hockey fans, I’d
guess the over-under was two. Before New England beat St. Louis
in Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans two years ago, how many Patriots
could the average football fan name? I’d guess no more than
six, and one of them would’ve been the backup quarterback.
Instead of filling
the rosters full of blue-chippers a la the Washington Redskins
– no, North Dakota fans, that is not a veiled shot at your
beloved Sioux – the Pats plugged holes by signing moderately
priced starters like Mike Vrabel and Antowain Smith. They also
picked up valuable complementary players such as special teams
ace Larry Izzo and jack-of-all-trades Dan Klecko.
Need proof? Other than
Denver, no one wanted goaltender Adam Berkhoel until he guided
his junior team to a national championship in 2000. Speedy playmaker
Connor James was a radical departure for the Pioneers, who mainly
employed physical forwards prior to his arrival. Defenseman Ryan
Caldwell had all the tools, as well as a fuse shorter than Mini-Me’s
inseam. Fellow blueliner Matt Laatsch was a project of Cabrini
Green proportions when he arrived in the Mile High City. The line
of Luke Fulghum, Max Bull and Lukas Dora, the team’s best
during the playoffs? Skilled, yes, but they’re grinders
What these teams may
lack in talent, they make up for in character. For the most part
down the stretch, Denver played a smart, disciplined, responsible
game. Like an Army platoon, the Pioneers played like a band of
equals, 20 privates in lock step toward a common goal. And if
someone can’t go – like Dora, suspended for the title
game for violating team rules – just plug in someone else
and keep marching.
Again, like Belichick,
Gwozdecky got his guys to fit together like Legos. Ironically,
he did it by backing off and letting his players, led by captain
Caldwell, find their way collectively. They did just that, finishing
the regular season with a nine-game unbeaten streak that allowed
the Pioneers to earn an upper-division finish in the ultra-competitive
WCHA. It takes some serious cojones for a coach to make a maneuver
of that magnitude, but it also takes supreme confidence in one’s
invited Belichick to speak to his Boston College team prior to
the Frozen Four. Denver didn’t need such motivation. They’d
heard the message the entire season.
compare Adam Berkhoel and Adam Vinatieri...