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David Ramsey: Colorado College hockey requires victory over Air Force, the city champs

December 28, 2017 Updated: December 28, 2017 at 4:50 pm
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Colorado College's Alex Leclerc waiting for Air Force to take a shot on goal on Saturday, November 26, 2016 at the World Arena. Photo by Spotlight Sports Photography.

Mike Haviland grasps what it’s taken Colorado College hockey fans so long to understand.

Friday’s game with Air Force is a big deal.

For decades, Air Force stumbled around as CC’s weakling little hockey brother up north. The Tigers defeated Air Force 29 times in 30 tries and outscored the Falcons, 57-12, in nine wins from 1998-2005. Decades of domination inspired CC fans to believe they never would worry about Air Force.

Then a tidal wave of change soaked the lives of the Tigers and their fans. Air Force has beaten CC four of the past five, including a 6-3 stampede last season at World Arena.

Air Force, clearly and emphatically, reigns as the premier college hockey team in Colorado Springs, a status that was unthinkable a dozen years ago.

But here’s the good news for the Tigers and their fans:

The reign will end with a CC victory.

“A huge game,” Haviland said of Friday’s 7:05 rivalry renewal at Cadet Ice Arena. “A crosstown rivalry. There’s a trophy involved and we need to get that thing back. It’s a huge game.”

The Tigers have taken an entertaining journey back to respectability this season. They defeated North Dakota. They twice tied Denver. They boast a winning record (8-7-3), which might not sound like a big deal until you consider the Tigers crawled into the season with 27 wins in 144 games.

A loss to Air Force won’t eliminate CC’s revival, but a loss will be a major setback to the Tigers’ collective ego, not to mention the self-esteem of their fans.

Haviland hungers for the Pikes Peak Trophy to return to CC. Minutes after the Tigers struggled to a 4-4 tie with Arizona State, Haviland considered the immense importance of beating Air Force.

“The guys in that room understand,” Haviland said, pointing at the CC locker room. “Air Force is a good hockey team. It’s going to be a battle.”

Air Force coach Frank Serratore was sitting at Denver International Airport last week, waiting for a flight while thinking back on the reversal in the Tigers-Falcons series. It’s been a joyous reversal for Serratore.

On Jan. 28, 2000, a night that still stings Serratore’s ego, the Tigers demolished the Falcons, 10-0, at World Arena. At the time, the distance between the programs was roughly the same as the distance from Colorado Springs to Cairo.

“It was what it was,” Serratore said.

Back in those bitter days, Serratore knew catching the Tigers would mean his Falcons had arrived as a legit, dangerous college hockey team.

In 2008, Air Force defeated CC, 4-1, in a monumental moment. Two programs were headed in opposite directions. The Tigers were tumbling toward their darkest days since they won 18 of 96 games in 1958-1962, and the Falcons were climbing to the top of the city’s college hockey rankings.

Since 2007, Air Force has traveled to the NCAA Tournament six times while collecting seven 20-win seasons. In the same time frame, CC has earned two NCAA Tournament trips and two 20-win seasons. I realize CC has played in tougher conferences. I also realize the point of college sports is not playing in cool conferences. The point is competing in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we caught up with them in the beginning of it,” Serratore said. “We caught up more than they fell off, you know.”

As the teams meet for the 74th time, the times might be changing yet again. CC boasts a junior-dominated roster and Alex Leclerc, an acrobatic goaltender who turns defeats to victory.

Nothing was expected from CC this season, but the Tigers have delivered one of the finest blessings in sport:

A surprise.   

Junior forward Trevor Gooch quickly summarized the revival.

“We just got tired of losing, you know,” he said.

Meanwhile, up north, the Falcons ranked in the preseason top 20 and rose as high as No. 17 after a 5-1-1 start. Since then, injuries have ravaged the Falcons. Air Force staggers into the game with a 7-8-3 record.

CC competes in the mighty National Collegiate Hockey Conference with big games against Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota looming just over the horizon.

“I think you’re foolish if you take a team like Air Force for granted,” Serratore said. “That’s what we make a living off, people like that.”

Those were the old days in the Springs, Frank.

Be sure of this: Haviland and his Tigers do not take Air Force, the city champs, for granted.

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