Magazine Feature

Rob Armstrong: DU, Dad and me

Rob Armstrong. Photo: Danielle Brooks

Rob Armstrong. Photo: Danielle Brooks

The Murray Armstrong era for DU hockey dawned in 1956. I didn’t quite understand it all, but I knew it was big. I was just 7, the same age as the University of Denver hockey program.

My first glimpse of the University was in summer — probably June. The athletics department was housed in a tumbledown brick and cinderblock structure in the grotto beneath Hilltop Stadium.

Dad worked and I explored, following one of the tunnels that led from the dungeon beneath the stadium into the seats — row upon row of splintery, backless wooden benches. My small legs took me to the very top of the stadium. I was just tall enough to peek over the wall.

To the north, I could see the Daniels & Fisher Tower, the tallest structure on 16th Street. To the south, the tower of Mary Reed Library. And, of course, nature’s mountain towers to the west, basking in the summer sun.

For Murray Armstrong, the immediate challenge was to make good on his promise to Chancellor Chester Alter: that he would deliver a championship team in three years or he’d resign. His first NCAA Championship pennant came only two years later.

For me, the immediate challenge was to conquer second grade.

By 1997, Hilltop Stadium and the offices beneath had long since met the wrecking ball. I had been lured away from DU law school to join CBS News in Washington. And Murray Armstrong had decided it was time to hang up his trademark letter jacket and whistle. The era was at its close.

When the cheering faded, the record remained: 460 wins, 215 losses and 31 ties. His Pioneers collected five NCAA Championships (1958, 1960, 1961, 1968 and 1969), and four of his other teams made it to the NCAA finals.

More than just a hockey coach, Dad taught his players about life, taking fresh-faced boys from places like Moose Jaw and Swift Current and turning them into solid, steady men.

“Only a few will make it in the pros,” he often said. “They all have to make it in the world.”

In October 1999, my parents, both in their mid-80s, reluctantly agreed to return to Denver for the celebration marking the opening of Magness Arena.

“Boy, have things changed,” Dad said, eyeing the new facility. He especially liked his statue in the lobby and the part of the hockey complex that bore his name.

Dozens of his former players were there. There was much laughter, many smiles and a few tears. That was the last time Dad and Mother would see DU, Denver or most of those solid, steady men he’d helped mold.

That mid-autumn night it snowed.



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