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The term “winning culture” gets tossed around a lot in sports, referring to an overall belief system that holds strong through turnover and the effects of aging.
Veterans instill the culture to the youth, who in turn learn and carry on the core values that come with the established ideology.
Similar to the introduction of analytics into sports, not everyone agrees on the existence of a winning culture or ability to lay the foundation for prolonged success. But in the capital of Colorado, the University of Denver’s hockey program provides evidence of a winning culture — and the prolonged success that can come with it.
Since the turn of the century, the Denver Pioneers have maintained a level of success that has earned them a spot among the select 16 teams headed to the NCAA National Tournament 15 times. In that span, the program has achieved five Frozen Four appearances and claimed three national championships.
With players granted four years of NCAA eligibility, that means the Pioneers’ sustained success has lasted approximately five full classes of recruits. But as college hockey continues to be a prominent stepping-stone to the NHL, holding on to a recruit for four years is becoming increasingly more difficult.
Big programs including — but far from limited to — Michigan, Minnesota, and the Boston duo, often land the biggest recruits, but have fallen on hard times via early departures and turbulent season records. Similarly, the Pioneers have had no problem landing recruits, but unlike the aforementioned programs, they’ve established themselves as a perennial favorite.
That’s not to say they’ve found a way to retain recruits for four full seasons, but rather, they’ve discovered a way to fly above the turbulence. With three Frozen Four appearances in the past four seasons, the program remains healthy despite recurring losses of key players.
Ahead of the 2016-17 season, team-leading scorer Danton Heinen forwent his junior and senior seasons to sign with the Boston Bruins while four others graduated.
The following season was the last for captain and Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher, who graduated alongside six other seniors.
After the 2017-18 season, the three leading scorers in Henrik Borgstrom, Troy Terry, Dylan Gambrell, all signed with various NHL teams, in addition to Blake Hillman. Four seniors, including standout starting netminder Tanner Jaillet, also departed. Not long afterward, the Dallas Stars announced the hiring of Denver coach Jim Montgomery ahead of the 2018-19 season. Montgomery went 125-57-26 during his five seasons in Denver.
As the trend continued, freshman netminder Filip Larsson signed with the Detroit Red Wings, while two other seniors graduated.
From 2016-2019, 23 key players either graduated or forwent various years of eligibility from Denver in addition to the loss of a five-year head coach responsible for five NCAA Tournament appearances, two Frozen Fours, and a national title.
Formerly Montgomery’s assistant from 2008-12 and 2014-2018, David Carle took the reigns last season, leading the team to a 24-12-5 record and another Frozen Four. And as the trend continues, Carle’s team is currently 8-0 this season and showing no signs of slowing down.
One thing has remained constant in Denver: winning. The Pioneers have annually hit the 20-win mark since 2000, including three 30-win seasons regardless of changes both on and off the ice.
As previously mentioned, winning has been a key component of the Pioneers’ hockey program since before 2000. The winning culture has carried on through hundreds of players, three coaches, and dozens of early departures.
The winning culture at Denver is alive and well, and shows just how possible sustained success can become with the right players and mindset passing it along.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.