Denver and Minnesota-Duluth return to the NCAA Frozen Four next week. It’s the third in a row for the reigning national champions, UMD. For Denver, it’s a third trip in the last four years — a run highlighted by the Pioneers’ national title in 2018.
Yes, the NCHC boasts the last three national champions — North Dakota’s triumph in 2017 preceded Denver’s and UMD’s. But that doesn’t tell the story of UMD’s and Denver’s remarkable consistency — despite coaching changes, inevitable graduations, and early departures (many of which were inevitable, too).
Denver’s return to college hockey’s final weekend of play, in particular, is remarkable considering its rookie head coach — David Carle, not even 30 years of age, leading a team that lost its top three scorers from last year to the NHL. Henrik Borgstorm, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell combined for 143 points last year.
Yet here they are again.
UMD? The Bulldogs lost their top assistant coach, Brett Larson, to league rival St. Cloud State. They faced the probability of a natural step back after the elation of winning last year’s title. They lost an all-time great captain in Karson Kuhlman.
Yet here they are again — looking to become the first team since (who else?) Denver to win back-to-back NCAA titles (2004-05).
“Probably a little bit of luck,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin, about his team’s consistency. “We’ve gone through ups and downs in my time here. We changed some recruiting philosophy back in ’08, ’09, looking to get a certain type of player. Certainly guys who you can build around who might be in your program for four years… We’ve always recruited players who we think fit here, more of a blue collar mentality. And we’ve found that and have had great leadership.”
For Denver, the script is similar.
“For us it’s about finding a balance between those perceived higher end guys and guys who are going to be four-year players in your program, who come in with a little bit more maturity and junior experience,” Carle said. “It’s been the recipe for Denver’s success. I’d date it back to the late ’90s when the recipe was put together. We’re just here trying to make sure we follow it, so that we can continue to put out teams that are consistently competing in the national tournament.”
The only way to really explain this type of consistency is to understand that — beyond the obvious cliche of it all — each player on the roster has fully bought into his coach’s vision. How else to explain UMD’s remarkable run of 12 straight one-goal wins in the NCAA tourney before the Bulldogs’ 3-1 win (a blowout, relatively speaking) over Quinnipiac in the NCAA quarterfinal round last week?
Since Sandelin became UMD’s head coach in 2000, UMD is 17-6 in the NCAA tourney, with two national titles this decade.
And in Denver, David Carle — just as Jim Montgomery did before him — often uses the refrain of playing “Denver Pioneer hockey” or simply praising his players for knowing “what it means to be a Denver Pioneer.”
It’s the foundation for consistency.
“It’s an understanding that you’re a part of something that’s much bigger than yourself,” Carle said. “No one person is bigger than this team or this program. There’s not a lot of egos — that gets checked at the door. It’s a huge part of our recruiting process and what we look for in young men and families, trying to filter that out on the front end. That allows them to come here and hold them to high standards and high level of accountability.
“They learn to hold each other accountable.”
There are 60 teams in Division I men’s college hockey. Every April, only four get to play for the NCAA title. To be a part of that elite 6.6 percent — year after year, as Denver and UMD have done over the past few years — is remarkable.
But is it surprising? For Denver and UMD — among the bonafide elite in college hockey, coming from the best conference in the nation — it’s really not surprising at all.