NCHC Media Day 2021

You may never see a group of college hockey players and coaches so happy to be surrounded by the media again.

By Joe Paisley

The return of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference media day at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center this Thursday after cancelling last year’s gathering was a welcome signpost en route to a “normal season.”

Yeah, no one is entirely sure what that means in 2021 thanks to an ongoing pandemic, but most assume upcoming games will be played in front of fans under local guidelines.

For Denver, which did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, normal means returning to the national postseason.

“There was a lot of work to get our summer back to normal,” coach David Carle said. “Last summer our building was closed off to us. This summer we were able to put in the time and work to get off to the start we are accustomed to. Failure is a really good motivator in life.”

A good start against nonleague foes would be a huge help for the Pioneers after not having any nonconference games leading into last year’s NCHC Omaha pod. It was a lack of nonconference games that contributed to DU not qualifying for the NCAAs. Denver went 18-1-1 in nonleague play the previous two seasons.

This fall, all eight NCHC schools have nonconference games scheduled and for a league with an NCAA-best .636 winning percentage, that weighs heavily into the conference’s chances for at-large berths through the Pairwise rankings.

“It’s been a huge part of our ability to move up the Pairwise,” Carle added before noting the team’s 0-3 start in the pod and 10-13-1 record last season. “We didn’t play to our standard and we take responsibility for that.”

Does that motivate the Pioneers?

“One-hundred percent,” said senior captain Cole Guttman. “When you are playing for Denver hockey you expect to make the tournament and you work toward that. Last year was very disappointing but we don’t want to focus on that.”

Instead, the Pioneers are readying for the upcoming season.

“We are looking forward to more regular preparation and our guys are hungry to put last year fully behind us,” Carle said.

Electric sophomore forward Carter Savoie turned a lot of heads with 20 points (13 goals) in 24 games as a freshman while Carle said junior goalie Magnus Chrona knows what he needs to do to return to his stellar rookie form. Guttman is the top returning scorer with 22 points.

On paper, the Pioneers look primed for an NCAAs return with a strong incoming class that includes 2021 draft picks Shai Buium, Sean Behrens and Carter Mazur.

Carle also hopes the seven returning sophomores will improve.

“To win in college hockey, you have to get it done with a really good sophomore class,” Carle said. “We had (Dylan) Gambrel, (Troy) Terry, Jarid Lukosevicius, (Blake)

Hillman, (Logan) O’Connor and Colin Staub on our (2017 NCAA) championship team and they didn’t have a sophomore slump. They elevated from Year 1 to Year 2. We hope for the same from this (sophomore) class.”

It’s a winning formula for DU, which was picked to place fourth in the NCHC preseason media poll, which typically requires a near .500 league record. A strong nonconference mark determines where a team rests in the Pairwise rankings. The top 13-15 usually make the tourney field, which includes a regional in nearby Loveland, Colo.

Expectations are lower for Colorado College with a last-place preseason prediction. That’s not unusual for a program that has finished no better than sixth place in the NCHC regular season.

But this is not your usual preseason with a new coach, Kris Mayotte, and an on-campus arena creating a considerable buzz around the league.

The Tigers are looking forward to all the trappings of a full season.

“I still think it is our responsibility to make sure it keeps going that way,” Mayotte said. “It’s normal but there is still a lot of thought and planning that will need to go into it. Guys have to wear a mask in buildings at CC so it’s a constant reminder for our guys and the program that we are lucky to be doing what we’re doing.”

They are not taking anything for granted. Senior defenseman Bryan Yoon was on the bus to North Dakota when the 2019-20 season came to a sudden end.

“It’s something you have to think about and be grateful,” Yoon said. “Last year was definitely weird and the end of the prior season, especially for the seniors, was heartbreaking.”

“It will be a great feeling to get back in the swing of things. It feels like a very long summer.”

Yoon will be looking to bounce back from that weird season with transfers Danny Weight (Boston College) and Noah Prokop (Omaha) coming in to bolster a forward corps that returns sophomore Hunter McKown (six points). 

Goalies Dominic Basse and Matt Vernon also return behind what is expected to be an improved blue-liner group paced offensively by Jack Millar (six points) and freshman Nathan Schweitzer, a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist. CC may lean heavily on its 14 sophomores.

Ultimately, the players, coaches and league officials are excited about the possibility of a regular season with few disruptions. 

Commissioner Josh Fenton said at least 90 percent of the teams are fully vaccinated. That gives him hope the league will resume a conventional schedule.

“After 18 months, that feeling has never been more apparent,” he said during his State of the NCHC speech. “We are really looking forward to what we can call a normal season followed by when we return here for the Frozen Faceoff here in March.”