By Joe Paisley
With all the milestones surrounding the first game played at the new Ed Robson Arena, it is easy to overlook another important moment in local hockey history.
Air Force’s 2-1 win over Colorado College spoiled the Tigers’ home debut in Saturday’s exhibition game, which featured 13 Colorado natives, including eight on the Falcons’ roster.
Eleven played in the college hockey exhibition, which was the first time in the CC program’s 83-year history that the Tigers played on campus. The excitement of a state-of-the-art facility and playing a crosstown rival resulted in a sellout Saturday (3,502) with the same expected for the regular-seasonopening series next weekend against ECAC member St. Lawrence.
In Saturday’s exhibition, featuring 32 underclassmen, college experience was at a premium and it was Air Force’s lone senior, goalie and captain Alex Schilling, who made the difference.
New Tigers coach Kris Mayotte liked that his team’s play improved as the game went on, but Schilling (29 saves) stood tall, making three huge stops in the third period (12 saves), including a stop with 5.8 seconds left with an extra Tigers attacker.
It was too little, too late for CC.
“We were just forcing things early,” Mayotte said. “(The Falcons) were detailed, competitive and smart. As the game went on, we did a better job getting through the neutral zone. I thought we built speed instead of just going long and hoping. But once we got around their net, they blocked a ton of shots. We had a couple unbelievable looks late, but you know what? We didn’t deserve to win that game. They deserved it more than we did.”
Schilling’s performance helped the Falcon hold on for an exhibition win that meant a lot to both rivals.
“You can buy everything at Wal-Mart but experience,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “We are young and this kind of win is important for us. No wins are pretty this time of year, but we found a way to come from behind and put ourselves in position to win. That’s important for building our confidence when we face this situation again.”
The Atlantic Hockey member played a structured game, getting sticks in passing lanes and blocking shots (23 total) throughout to make it difficult for the Tigers who were unable to sustain offensive pressure until the third period.
“We just weren’t good enough,” Mayotte said. “We weren’t willing to do the hard things. We weren’t willing to go through pucks. We weren’t willing to finish hits. We weren’t willing to work to the right side of the puck. We weren’t willing to work above the puck. And they took advantage of it. They came at us hard as we knew they would. And we weren’t prepared. We wanted a line-rush game and they were willing to pay the price a little bit more than we were.”
The Falcons took control in the second period with an early goal by Parker Brown, who tucked his own rebound in behind CC starting goalie Dom Basse (nine saves) 2:09 into the middle frame. Jacob Marti scored the game-winner against Tigers reliever Matt Vernon (14 saves) with 3:24 left.
A Falcons goal late in the second was waved off and Air Force had two shots bounce off the CC posts in the first period or the close game could have been a rout. The Tigers opened the scoring on a power play goal by Logan Will just 77 seconds into the contest.
It was an historic goal — CC’s first at Robson — as was the number of Coloradans in uniform.
Thirteen Centennial State natives in one D1 game is remarkable when you consider the state of youth hockey in Colorado before the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Avalanche in 1995.
But having 13 may soon be commonplace. Air Force’s eight Coloradans trails only the nine Minnesotans on its roster. The Tigers have eight born in The State of Hockey and five Coloradans.
Colorado may never be Minnesota when it comes to producing D1 talent — look at any in-state Minnesota roster — but the Centennial State has gained ground.
“No question,” Serratore said. “Now, we’re a hockey state. Before the Avs arrived, our best players all had to leave the state (starting around U16) to develop. Now we have out-of-state players coming to Colorado.”
One example from Saturday’s game is Clay Cosentino, a Californian who competed for two years with the Colorado Rampage in Monument. He was one of the top scorers (67 games, 69 points) in the North American Hockey League last season. The 21-year-old forward has said his familiarity with Air Force during his time in Colorado led to his commitment to the service academy.
The growth of Colorado youth hockey has helped the state’s colleges. Denver has no Colorado natives on its roster this season but has featured plenty in past years.
“They have all grown up seeing (all three colleges) play and they understand what the academy is all about,” Serratore said.
The growth of youth hockey has meant more locals developing into NCAA-caliber players and perhaps NHLers – CC’s Jaccob Slavin (1994 birthdate) of Erie springs to mind. Colorado Springs native and Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo, who played major junior hockey, was born a few months after the Avs hoisted their first Stanley Cup (1996).
Those are just two recent examples of what NHL expansion has meant for nontraditional hockey markets like Arizona, Florida, Texas and perhaps soon, Nevada and Washington state.
Centennial State roll call
Here are the 13 Colorado natives in the two Pikes Peak Region programs. Eleven played Saturday.
Air Force (listed by city) — Broomfield, Blake Bride; Colorado Springs, Maiszon Balboa, Jasper Lester, and Ty Pochipinski; Highlands Ranch, Jacob Marti and Austin Park; Parker, Austin Schwartz; and Lucas Coon of Steamboat Springs.
Colorado College – Centennial, Bryan Hawkinson; Denver, Jackson Ross; Highlands Ranch, Noah Prokop; Parker, Bryan Yoon; and Jack Millar of Westminster.
Stick salute for the Falcons
Saturday’s showcase may not have happened with the assistance of Air Force, which gave a rebuilding Tigers program a place to play after the old Broadmoor Ice Palace was demolished and while what became The Broadmoor World Arena was built.
CC played all its home games for the 1994-95, 1995-96, 1996-97 seasons and into December of the 1997-98 campaign at Cadet Ice Arena. It was during that span that former coach Don Lucia led the Tigers to the 1996 NCAA title game and to the 1997 Frozen Four semifinals.
“We’re crosstown rivals but Air Force has always been a good neighbor,” Serratore said.
That successful stretch was a turning point for the Tigers program, which enjoyed winning records from the 1993-94 season (Lucia’s first year) until the 2012-13 campaign (18-19-5) under former coach and 2021 Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame inductee Scott Owens. One of the many reasons Robson Arena was built was the hope, much like in the mid-90s, that a new home rejuvenates the National Collegiate Hockey Conference program.
CC holds a 63-13-2 edge (just 4-5-0 since 2013) over Air Force in the all-time series, which does not include Saturday’s exhibition. … The teams play a home-and-home nonconference series Oct. 29-30 that will determine ownership of the traveling Pikes Peak Trophy, currently held by CC after sweeping the 2019-20 games. CC won 6-2 at World Arena and then defeated Air Force, 4-2, in the Faceoff at Falcon Stadium. The teams did not play last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. … CC was picked last in the eight-team National Collegiate Hockey Conference preseason media poll while Air Force was selected ninth out of 10 by Atlantic Hockey coaches. …. Air Force opens at Michigan State next weekend in East Lansing, Mich. The Spartans were picked sixth in the seven-team Big Ten preseason poll. … CC opening foe St. Lawrence was selected fifth (one first-place vote) in the 12-team ECAC.