Coach Gwozdecky looks back on 2001-02 season's unhappy ending
March 21, 2012
By: Pat Rooney
Like his players, George Gwozdecky was still simmering from the stunning loss when he received some words of consolation from an unlikely source.
It was late in the spring of 2002 when the University of Denver's hockey coach attended the dinner for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. During the dinner, Gwozdecky was approached by the University of Minnesota's Jordan Leopold, the recipient of that year's Hobey Baker.
Leopold, about to embark on a steady NHL career that continues to this day with Buffalo, was basking in the glory of the Golden Gophers' recent overtime victory in the NCAA championship game. Gwozdecky still was trying to figure out how his best Pioneers team to that point — perhaps the best DU team in decades — had been eliminated in such crushing fashion.
After surviving five brutal battles against the Pioneers that season, including DU's win against Minnesota in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) tournament final, Leopold provided some affirmation to Gwozdecky.
"[Leopold] came up to me and he says, 'Coach, I want to let you know, and I don't mean it to come out wrong, but I was so glad you guys got beat in the regional,'" Gwozdecky recalls. "He said, 'You guys were the best team. We couldn't beat you guys. I just wanted to let you know you were the best team by far.' We had great depth on that team — we were solid defensively, good offensively, outstanding in goal. That night, Michigan used their home-ice advantage the best they could."
The night DU's coach refers to was the fateful eve in Ann Arbor, Mich., that doused the Pioneers' NCAA title dreams while writing a wrenching ending to the story of the best DU hockey team that never won an NCAA tournament game.
While the younger members of the 2001–02 team would have some of the sting from that season healed by the back-to-back national championships of 2004 and 2005, the unhappy ending of '02 remains as jarring a loss as any member of that squad has experienced in the decade since.
The Pioneers of 2001–02 earned the first No. 1 national ranking in program history while also completing the impressive sweep of winning the WCHA regular season and tournament championships. The team's 32 wins remain the third-best total in the program's rich history, and DU earned the No. 1 seed (second overall) for the West Regional in the NCAA tournament.
DU's lineup had absolutely no holes that season. The Pioneers boasted the best goaltending tandem in the nation in Wade Dubielewicz and Adam Berkhoel. They had a rugged corps of veteran defensemen, led by captain Bryan Vines and junior Aaron MacKenzie. And they had offensive depth to spare, as six players from that squad eventually earned spots in DU's Century Club for scoring at least 100 points in their career.
"I always think of what a great team we had — not in terms of wins and losses, but in putting the program first," says Vines, currently an assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under former DU assistant Seth Appert. "I felt like we did things the right way that year. I thought that year was a sort of culmination. We had a group of seniors that totally bought into Coach and everything the staff was teaching."
Although DU earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the unfavorable draw the Pioneers received marked the beginning of the end for the team's stirring season.
Still one year away from the four-region, 16-team NCAA tournament format currently in use, DU was the top seed among the six teams competing at the West Regional in Ann Arbor. Even though the Pioneers received a first-round bye, they were forced to play the host Michigan Wolverines in the second round.
With the school's first Frozen Four berth in 16 seasons only one win away, DU fell apart as Michigan rode its home crowd to a comeback victory. Leading 3–2 going into the third period, the usually unflappable Pioneers were victimized by a pair of Michigan goals, with the Wolverines' go-ahead tally coming with 1:23 remaining.
Michigan added an empty-net goal moments later, sending its home crowd into delirium while the best Pioneers team in decades slumped back to the locker room wondering what the heck had just happened.
"That was one of the toughest losses I've had in my career," says Kevin Doell, who led that club with 43 points and remains a veteran scorer with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. "When we had a lead going into the third period, we were good at shutting the door. Once they got that first goal and their crowd got into it, it was a huge momentum boost for them. It's still hard to swallow when I think about it."
While that 2001–02 team fell just short of its aspirations, the club nonetheless left its mark in DU lore.
The sophomores on that squad — talents such as Berkhoel, Ryan Caldwell and Connor James—evolved into the senior leaders who helped deliver DU's first national championship in 35 years in 2004. The freshmen on that team, including eventual Century Club members Kevin Ulanski, Jeff Drummond and Luke Fulghum, were part of a class that won more games during a four-year span than any previous group in DU history after the Pioneers collected another national championship in 2005.
Their DU careers began with heartbreak, yet ended with the Pioneers once again reigning atop the college hockey landscape. Throughout the years, those players have come to the realization that the glory may not have ever occurred without first experiencing the agony of defeat that night in Michigan.
"Coming in as a freshman, it seemed like we really had a team of grown men," says Ulanski, currently in his fourth season with the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles of the ECHL. "Those seniors really set the bar high for us. I think we built off that experience as we went on, and that night in Michigan helped us down the road whenever we played in a tough environment."