Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Pioneer hockey team faces high expectations for 60th year

The University of Denver men’s hockey team enters the 2009–10 season with high expectations, and it’s not because Magness Arena is more than a mile above sea level.

Just look at the polls. The Pioneers are ranked No. 1 in the College Sports men’s poll; the Grand Forks Herald WCHA pre-season coaches’ poll; the media poll and the College Hockey News pre-season poll. The Pioneers are also ranked No. 2 in the preseason USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

Coach George Gwozdecky says the reasons for such lofty expectations are based on the roster. DU returns 21 letterwinners from last year’s NCAA tournament team that finished with a 23-12-5 record. The Pioneers return their top-seven scorers and their All-WCHA junior goaltender Marc Cheverie.

“Returning players had invaluable experience last year,” Gwozdecky says.

The Pioneers also have a very talented freshmen class, according to Gwozdecky. Four of the seven freshmen were selected in the NHL draft and are thought to have futures in pro hockey.

Senior Rhett Rakhshani will lead the way for the upperclassmen as team captain while seniors Tyler Ruegsegger, Matt Glasser and junior Kyle Ostrow will serve as alternate captains.

The new leaders’ biggest challenge at this point of the year is to take a group of new players and integrate them into an already talented team of veterans that finished second in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) last season and took DU to its 20th NCAA tournament appearance. Now the team will use that experience as it heads into a season coated with expectations.

“Building the team is the most important thing we do in the beginning,” Gwozdecky says. “The No. 1 goal is to become a team. Right now we are a group — a group of 27 guys. We need to come together and play together and become a team. If we can accomplish that, a lot of other things will come into place.”

The team has participated in bonding activities on and off the rink, Gwozdecky says. The captains already have had the team climb one of Colorado’s 14ers and also are planning more activities to help players get to know each other, Gwozdecky says.
The team is definitely different from last year. Forward Tyler Bozak signed a professional contract with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Bozak leaving certainly hurts even though we expected it,” Gwozdecky says. “Two thirds of the season last year we didn’t have him because of his long-term injury. It hurt us to have him leave because we didn’t have him much of the season.”
The team suffered another blow when junior forward Dustin Jackson broke his right leg on Sept. 17 during a scrimmage with teammates. He is expected to miss the entire season.

“The long-term injuries are the issues you hope you can avoid,” Gwozdecky says. “Simply because you don’t have control over them, and they are very impacting.”

This season’s schedule could provide a few bumps, as well. The Pioneers open the season by hosting 2009 NCAA Frozen Four participant Vermont during the 60th Anniversary celebration of its storied program on Oct. 9–10. DU will play nine more games against 2009 NCAA tournament teams.

In the WCHA, traditional powerhouses North Dakota and Minnesota also find themselves ranked in the top 10 in most polls. DU will get the full complement of four games against both teams this year. And, of course, the Gold Pan series against Colorado College is always competitive.

In nonconference action, the Pioneers face off against Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, the weekend of Oct. 15–16. DU will also welcome 2008 NCAA champion Boston College and future WCHA opponent Nebraska Omaha for the Wells Fargo-Denver Cup Jan. 1–2. UNO begins WCHA play in 2010.

“We are looking forward to another highly-competitive schedule in 2009–10,” Gwozdecky has said. “We will certainly be challenged at home and away from Magness Arena this season.”

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