April 9, 2013
At the 2005 Frozen Four, a question kept crossing my mind during the sweetest moment in Colorado’s rich college hockey history.
Is our state about to take over the sport?
Upon arrival in Columbus, Ohio, site of the 2005 Frozen Four, I was surrounded by hopeful, joyous Denver and Colorado College fans. The Pioneers were seeking their second straight title, and the Tigers had roared to 31 victories with the nation’s most entertaining offense.
This was not a one-season hockey party. CC triumphed 135 times in five seasons, twice winning 30 games, while DU seized 131 wins. At that moment, they towered as the dominating programs in college hockey.
Who would have believed the answer to my 2005 question would be no?
And it’s a clear no.
George Gwozdecky led DU to a second title in 2005, but managed only one victory in the NCAA Tournament in the next eight seasons. He was fired April 1 after 19 seasons.
Scott Owens, coach at CC for 14 years, just struggled through his first losing season. He, too, has one NCAA Tournament win in the past eight seasons.
Gwozdecky’s dismissal, which makes absolutely no sense, arrives at a time of fascinating chaos in college hockey.
The 2005 Frozen Four featured DU, CC, North Dakota and Minnesota, programs that have combined for 21 national titles. The 2013 Frozen Four teams (Massachusetts-Lowell, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and Yale) have combined to win no – count ‘em - national titles. No team from this quartet has even played for the title, but here’s an important fact to remember about tradition:
It never scored a goal. It never will.
I talked with Gwozdecky on Sunday morning from his home in Denver. He’s recovering from the shock of his April 1 firing. For the first few minutes, he believed he was the victim of an April Fool’s Joke.
He laughed often during our conversation. He’s recovered from his shock as he looks toward his next hockey adventure. He was happy to travel back to 2005, the pinnacle of his DU career.
“I don’t know if the word dominant ever crossed my mind,” he said of DU’s and CC’s status, “but the programs had never been any stronger or any higher. We were at the top of the food chain.”
Still, there were shadows of the challenges ahead. Gwozdecky recalled a moment immediately following his first title in 2004. He was standing beside Ron Mason, a longtime coach, enjoying the triumph.
“Congratulations, George,” Mason said, “You’ve built a monster. Now try to feed it.”
Gwozdecky soon discovered the truth of Mason’s word. DU fans, and administrators, expected national titles. Gwozdecky delivered nearly annual journeys to the NCAA Tournament, but that wasn’t enough.
“To keep feeding the monster is really challenging,” Gwozdecky said.
In the current state of college hockey, it certainly is. The 2005 DU and CC teams were jammed with experienced, elite talent. That combination of experience and excellence is close to impossible in 2013.
In the hockey world of 2005, Jaden Schwartz probably would have remained at CC three seasons. He might even have remained four seasons, which would have kept him on the ice for the 2013-2014 Tigers.
In the current hockey world, Schwartz remained at CC two seasons before skating away to the St. Louis Blues, and I always sensed his eyes were focused on his future life in the NHL.
Owens does not enjoy offering excuses, but he agrees building a consistent national power requires complicated chemistry skills.
“It’s gotten a little more difficult,” he said. “You have to deal with not having as many players stay four years.”
Gwozdecky wondered aloud if anybody – and he meant anybody – believed Quinnipiac was destined for this season’s Frozen Four.
But that’s where the Bobcats, jammed with experience and hunger, have arrived. Quinnipiac chases a national title while coaches from traditional powers sit and watch.
These are bewildering times in college hockey, and it’s nothing like 2005, when everything seemed so promising for Gwozdecky and Owens.
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