Colorado College travels this weekend to a land of high hostility – the Denver campus – with an enviable blessing.
The Tigers are as close to unburdened as a hockey team can be.
DU is the defending national champs, ranked No. 4 in the country and the prohibitive favorites. But CC has flown higher – much higher - this season than any rational observer would have predicted. The Tigers escaped college hockey’s dungeon, regained relevance, repaired relations with thousands of fans and played DU to 1-1-2 draw during the regular season.
And, best of all, they repeatedly surprised themselves and their coach and their fans.
The Tigers have a strong chance to frighten the Pioneers. I don’t see CC winning two of three to take this series. That’s a little too big of a jump to fit into my vision of probable reality.
I do see the Tigers winning one in the best-of-three NCHC quarterfinal series and carrying the threat of a program-altering upset into Sunday’s finale.
Coach Mike Haviland and his Tigers embrace the role of dangerous underdog.
“They’re defending national champs, and no matter who plays them, they’d be underdogs going in,” Haviland says. “But sometimes underdog is a great role. The pressure does go back on them.
“We believe that we can win. We played well in conference. We played well against them. I like where we’re at.”
A year ago, nobody liked where the Tigers were at. CC had won only 27 of 144 games over four seasons, going back to final year of Scott Owens as head coach. The Broadmoor World Arena, once loud and rowdy, transformed to a quiet, depressing weekend destination.
Haviland and athletic director Ken Ralph kept asking for patience, but everyone’s patience had been exhausted. A revival was required.
CC delivered that revival. Sports can be a drag, but sports can also deliver happy jolts to our lives. The Tigers delivered one of those jolts this season with an entertaining, astonishing turnaround.
Why the massive turn from awful to respectable?
A couple reasons.
First, juniors on the team were tired of skating around as one of the worst college programs in America, regardless of sport. They challenged themselves and their younger comrades to practice and play with ruthless diligence. (There are no seniors on the Tigers.)
Second, Haviland finally was comfortable with the players who surrounded him. He never blended with the players Owens recruited. He never found a way to motivate them. Together, they skated to epic failure.
Ralph says he noticed Haviland having more fun this season. This was a change, Ralph says.
The fun is easy to explain. For the first time, Haviland’s guys inhabited CC’s roster. A gruff, fierce and more-sensitive-than-you-think coach harbored no doubts about the deepest loyalties of his players.
“This is the first time that we have all of our guys that I recruited,” Haviland says. “I think it takes a long time to get what you want when you’re a coach in college hockey.”
The Tigers will arrive at DU with reason to believe. They played some of their finest hockey at Magness Arena, tying once and winning once. Hockey is a sport where a hot goalkeeper can lift a lesser team to victory. Yes, DU boasts more talent than CC, but Alex Leclerc, if he’s in the zone and receives help from his defensive corps, could carry his Tigers to a shocking weekend.
The darkness has lifted from CC’s hockey program. That darkness hovered far too long, but let’s not get stuck in the incredibly ugly recent past. The forecast for next season is filled with clear, bright skies, and maybe, just maybe, the stupendously good times could start this weekend.
“We’ve exceeded our expectations, and we’re certainly not done yet,” Haviland says.
Watch out for the underdogs skating to Denver with nothing to lose.