For a stupendously uplifting weekend, Colorado College drew even with the Evil Empire of the North, sometimes known as the University of Denver.
On Saturday night at World Arena, it was loud and happy and intense as CC and DU battled to a second consecutive tie. Loud and happy and intense had taken a long vacation from World Arena. It was good to welcome them back.
This CC revival is reason for hockey rejoicing. Over the past three excruciating, humiliating seasons, CC resembled DU in roughly the same way a Chihuahua resembles a pit bull.
Those sad days are gone. On Friday and Saturday, two pit bulls did battle on the ice.
CC coach Mike Haviland has struggled to bring drama back to what had become a laughably lopsided Gold Pan rivalry. He was smiling with earned satisfaction after Saturday’s tie.
Haviland knew his team had to deliver Saturday for the home crowd after Friday’s tie at DU. He knows CC skeptics still abound in Colorado Springs.
“People would have said, ‘Was it just one game?’ We came out tonight and we showed tonight that we can skate with anybody in the country.”
That’s a change. For far too long, CC could skate with nobody in the country.
From 2014 to 2017, DU rode to 82 wins, a national title and two Frozen Four trips. Oh, and 12 straight victories over CC, too, by a combined score of 51-18. During the same span, CC crawled to 20 wins and a 10-35-3 record at World Arena.
How bad was it?
This bad: DU fans started calling CC’s Tigers “Kitty Cats,” which doubled as really mean and utterly understandable.
But over a long offseason of soul searching, CC’s growl returned. This edition of the Tigers is far tougher than Haviland’s previous three teams. And more resilient. On Friday, the Tigers rallied from a 3-2 deficit heading into the third period. The rally would have been unthinkable a year ago.
DU coach Jim Montgomery took time to salute the change in CC.
“Oh, that’s a good college hockey team, and they’re not going to stop surprising people because that’s a committed group,” Montgomery said.
The prime reason for hope is sophomore goaltender Alex Leclerc. CC defenders were weary after Friday’s tie, which stretched into two overtimes. At times on Saturday, their focus wandered, which allowed DU’s men in red to gather in close range of the net.
Leclerc repeatedly and acrobatically denied the Pioneers. He rescued his teammates on Saturday. This rescuing will linger as long as he remains at CC.
“An All-American game,” Montgomery said. “If he’s not on top of his game, we probably win that game by four goals.”
On most nights during Leclerc’s career, World Arena has featured a silent, vacant feel. On Saturday, he was inspired by a loud, rowdy, locked-in crowd.
“It’s such an honor to play in front of thousands of people,” Leclerc said. “You have to live it to understand it.”
For years, the Tigers have understood only suffering. They lost nearly every night. They labored in front of tiny crowds.
Meanwhile, a few dozen miles up the highway, DU was rampaging to hockey dominance while all the wonderfully bitter fun of a vintage Front Range rivalry virtually evaporated.
“Some people said it was gone,” Leclerc said. “But we’re ready to fight for it again.”
Some quick advice for the skeptics who remain out there:
Listen to Leclerc. He speaks the truth.