Athletics & Recreation / DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alums reunite to celebrate 60 years of DU hockey

Even though the game is played on ice, the memories of former DU hockey players and coaches are some of the warmest of their lives. More than 300 faces and voices from DU’s legendary hockey heritage recalled stories, re-lived past glories and rekindled friendships at an Oct. 10 reunion honoring the program’s 60th anniversary season.

And the memories went back to the beginning.

“If you don’t have a first year, you can’t have a second year,” says Doug McKinnon (BS ’52, JD ’54) with a warm, deep chuckle. McKinnon played on DU’s first team in 1949 and served as the squad’s first team captain.

At 81, McKinnon looks spry, clear-eyed and full of wisdom. When asked what hockey taught him as he entered his life as a successful Denver lawyer, he quips, “You have to understand you win some and lose some, but if you do your best and still lose, that’s OK.”

McKinnon, who began playing at age 5 in Canada, says one of his favorite memories on the ice was simply, “I was a defenseman and I liked to shoot on the net and get one in now and then. I just enjoyed it all; it was just fun.”

The reunion was a massive undertaking headed by a committee of former players, staff, student managers and fans who approached Peg Bradley Doppes, DU’s vice chancellor of Athletics and Recreation, two years ago.

“When the reunion committee came to us and laid out their plans for a 60th celebration … I knew it was going to be a special weekend,” Bradley Doppes says. “Denver hockey has meant so much to the University and the community of Denver since its inception nearly 60 years ago.”

To borrow a metaphor from another sport, “It was a grand slam home run,” says Tom Sampson (BSBA ’70), a committee member and team student manager from 1967–70. “I couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

Sampson helped organize a weekend full of activities for the former players, which culminated in an Oct. 10 game against Vermont. One of those players was a fellow teammate of McKinnon’s, Norman Kasch (BA ’52), who was full of praise for his former team captain.

“We needed somebody who could carry their thoughts out on the ice to make it go,” Kasch says. “Doug was that guy — a coach-player, the guy who was there, the spark plug — and after 60 years, it all boils down to Doug, he’s the guy who made it fly.”

Kasch, a forward, downplayed his contribution that first year. “I don’t recall the coach ever saying two or three words to me. I was just meat out there during the practice.”

Today, Kasch is a retired architect who acts much younger than his 84 years. He lives with his wife of 59 years, Julia, in Aurora in a senior community and is a regular at water aerobics, sailing and golf.

He recalled playing hockey at a reunion game at DU 24 years ago. “I was wearing trifocal lenses then and couldn’t find that puck anywhere,” he says. “I finally took my glasses off and just did my best.”

His sentiment about hockey’s life lessons mirrored McKinnon’s: “Keep the honor of what you’re doing, no matter if you’re losing and at the bottom of the heap.”

And they are lessons younger players echoed as well.

“It sculpts you as a person, you learn how to work on a team,” says Mark Rycroft (BSBA ’03), who played from 1997–00 and who retired last year from a thriving career with the Colorado Avalanche. “It shaped my life, I met my wife here and built my mind to be a successful person. I look back and realize it helped me become confident to solve problems.”

Rycroft adds that it was an honor to play hockey at DU.

“To come to a school like this with this kind of history with all of the legends of the game and see how much pride and honor they still have was special,” he says.

Rycroft’s favorite on on-ice memory was winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship in 2000.

Erik Andersson (BSBA ’96, MS ’97), who played from 1993–97, could have won the award for traveling the farthest for the reunion — he and his family flew from Sweden, where he’s an investment banker.

“It means a great deal to me to have been a part of the program,” he says. “When you look at all the history, it’s unbelievable and incredible.”

Andersson, now a father of two daughters ages 2 and 3, adds that DU hockey even prepared him for fatherhood.

“It taught me about people and that some of them have really strong wills,” he says with a hearty laugh.

DU’s current coach, George Gwozdecky, says he’s been happy to be a part of the tradition of “so many great players and great teams who’ve fought and won the many championships and to be part of the players who’ve gone on to play professional hockey. It’s an amazing ride.”

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