With slew of California natives, University of Denver again a national powerhouse
One of the first rules of real estate is location, location, location.
It’s a helpful one for college hockey as well, and that is one of many reasons why the University of Denver finds itself with seven Californians on its roster this season.
The Pioneers’ track record of success – eight NCAA titles and 29 NCAA Tournament appearances, including 11 in a row – also has a strong appeal, as does their fast and pressure-packed pace, which has remained consistent under first-year coach David Carle, who replaced Jim Montgomery after the latter was hired by the Dallas Stars.
“The biggest thing for me was the coaching staff,” said freshman defenseman Slava Demin, a Cypress native and fourth-round draft choice of the Vegas Golden Knights in June. “’Monty’ was a huge part of me wanting to come here because of the winning culture he built. Obviously, ‘DC’ (Carle) is a great coach, too.
“Then you look at all the guys who have moved on to pro hockey, and it made me want to come here and be that next guy. All of those things were factors.”
The Pioneers have won 20 or more games for 17 seasons in a row in addition to their 11 consecutive NCAA berths – both marks are the top active streaks in Division I hockey.
The school’s presence in pro hockey also remains strong – last season, New Jersey Devils defenseman Will Butcher made the NHL’s All-Rookie Team, and after DU’s season ended in the NCAA quarterfinals, five more players signed NHL contracts, with four of them making their NHL debuts in April.
In addition to Demin, the other Californians on Denver’s roster include defensemen Kyle Mayhew (Anaheim Hills) and Ryan Orgel (Los Angeles), goaltender Devin Cooley (Los Gatos) and forwards Jake Durflinger (Walnut Creek), Cole Guttman (Los Angeles) and Tyson McLellan (San Jose).
The septet of Golden Staters on one team has only been matched one other time in Division I hockey – by Western Michigan during the 2011-12 season.
“It’s really cool having seven guys from California,” said Durflinger, who played for the long-gone Berkeley Bulldogs and then the San Jose Jr. Sharks growing up. “When I went to juniors, there might be one or two on a team, but now to play at such a prestigious school and have seven kids from California is pretty amazing.
“I think that speaks to the preparation kids are getting in California.”
Cooley, who has gone from a third-string goaltender who played a total of 20 minutes during his freshman season to one of the top goalies in D-I this season, said the school’s academic reputation also has played a significant role.
“Obviously, the location is big because for a lot of guys, it’s easy to have your family get out here and Denver is a nice city to visit,” said the longtime Jr. Shark. “DU has a really good business school and probably 95 percent of our guys are business majors, so that’s also a huge attraction.”
And that’s not just talk. All four of the non-freshmen in the group were recognized by their conference (NCHC) for their academic achievements.
The seven players not only speak the depth of grass-roots hockey in California but it’s breadth. Aside from Durflinger, Cooley and McLellan (also an assistant captain) playing together on the Jr. Sharks as Squirts, none of the others ever played with each other growing up. Some of that is due to the fact the range of birth years runs from 1996 (McLellan) to 2000 (Demin).
“I didn’t know any of them personally,” said Guttman, a 2017 draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning who played for the Valencia Express, California Heat, LA Selects and LA Jr. Kings. “I’d played against Slava but going back and talking with these guys, you realize you know a lot of the same people and same coaches. It’s been cool having something in common to talk about right off the bat.”
Mayhew, another freshman defenseman, agreed.
“It helped my transition when I’d see some familiar faces at practice,” said the former OC Hockey Club, San Diego Jr. Gulls and Anaheim Jr. Ducks player. “I didn’t have to come in blind and meet absolutely everybody.”
The seven are the most from any state on the Pioneers roster, and second only to the 10 Canadians among the team’s 27 players.
That fact isn’t lost on their teammates.
“It comes up in conversation,” McLellan said. “We take a little bit of heat from some of the Canadian guys, but it’s all in fun.”
Added Mayhew: “We give it back to them, joke with them they’re jealous of our weather or having In-N-Out.”
The other remarkable aspect of the California collection is they’re all contributors to a team that’s spent nearly all of this season in the top 10 after losing 11 players – eight to pro hockey – off last season’s roster.
Cooley started 11 of DU’s first 12 games and won seven – including two shutouts – and had a 2.08 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Demin, a former Jr. Duck and KHS Ice Arena player, moved right into the top six on defense and plays on the second power play.
Mayhew has played in four games (Denver typically rotates its sixth and seventh defensemen).
Orgel made an impact immediately last season, when he signed with Denver out of junior around Thanksgiving and played almost right away. The timing was unconventional, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“It was always a dream of mine to play for Denver,” said the former LA Select and Jr. King. “To have it happen has been even better than I imagined.”
Guttman has been a key player from the start, scoring 11 points (seven goals) in his first 12 games and contributing to one of D-I’s most prolific freshman classes. He not only centers the top line but plays on the top power play unit and kills penalties.
Durflinger, a sophomore, had 12 points (five goals) as a freshman and spends much of his time on the ice stealing pucks from and generally enraging opponents with his in-your-face style of play. He also is a key penalty killer
McLellan, a junior, is one of the team’s fastest players and a Swiss Army knife. During his freshman season, he played with first-round draft pick Henrik Borgstrom during the Pioneers’ 2017 NCAA title run. But he also is one of the team’s top faceoff centers and key penalty killers. After 11 points as a freshman, he had eight in 15 games last season before sustaining a shoulder injury, which he has bounced back from this year.
While seven Californians might be a bit of an outlier, it emphasizes the importance of the state to DU’s program, something that’s been in place decades, dating back to when Mike Lampman and Peter McNab played for the Pioneers in the early 1970s.
“It’s really important – we spend a lot of time out there,” said Carle, who recruited the region heavily when he was an assistant to George Gwozdecky and then Montgomery. “The reality is we’re the closest flight for people from California to get to Denver. We want to be in that market. It’s a market that’s continued to grow and progress as a hockey community with the three NHL teams there.
“You’re seeing youth teams competing for national championships out of California, and the depth continues to better in, and we want to be strong in recruiting there. We’ve made it a focus of it the past couple of years. But it didn’t start with us.
“We’re real fortunate to have a recruiting hotbed close to us.”
It’s always the No. 9 at Denver for one Californian
Imagine have a standing reservation at your favorite restaurant for any day, any time.
It’s sort of like that for one California hockey player at the University of Denver every season.
Ever since Gabe Gauthier began his Pioneers career in 2002, a Californian has worn No. 9 every single year. And it’s been an impressive progression.
From Gauthier, who played a handful of games with the Los Angeles Kings and was an American Hockey League All-Star, it was handed to Rhett Rakhshani, a 2006 draft choice of the New York Islanders. Rakhshani handed it off to Beau Bennett, who in 2010 became the highest drafted California-born and trained player when the Pittsburgh Penguins took him 20th overall. In 2012, it was passed to Gabe Levin. In 2016, its current owner, Tyson McLellan took over the honors.
“It’s pretty cool,” McLellan said. “I never really thought about it before, but when I first came in, I was told it’s been a long-standing tradition that California guys get that number.
“I got to meet Gabe Gauthier at the alumni weekend (in 2017) and talk about California hockey and No. 9. There are a lot of good players who have worn that number, and it’s an honor to wear it.”
The tradition was born upon Gauthier’s arrival. He had worn No. 9 in Bantams and at prep school and continued to do so during his three seasons in the British Columbia Hockey League.
The tradition might never have started had not fate intervened. Its previous owner transferred from DU concurrent to Gauthier’s arrival.
“I was fortunate enough to pick that number because of that,” he said.
How long will the tradition carry on?
“It’s a cool tradition,” Denver coach David Carle said. “Now we’ve got to go find the next guy because Mac’s a junior.”
Photos/Shannon Valerio/Linneya Gardner/University of Denver
— Chris Bayee
(Jan. 9, 2019)