Pioneer Spirit

Colorado State at Colorado
CU Recreation Center
Boulder, CO

November 15, 2019


Travel can be terrifying and exhausting.

The reasons for this vary somewhat based on individual circumstances, but there are common threads. Specifically concerning air travel, there’s the financial stress of buying a ticket and getting two hotel nights that aren’t needed for a standard two-hour drive to Adrian or Mercyhurst. Flights, for some reason, always seem to depart at 5:30 in the morning, which means a 9:00 bedtime and a 1:00 alarm and, ultimately, staying awake for 24 hours straight because of a check-in too far from arrival and too close to game time.

Did I forget anything? Did the x-ray machine erase my voice recorder? Is the boarding pass still in my pocket? Are my dogs pissing all over my brother’s house or, worse, having some sort of health issue that 15-year-old dogs are prone to have? Is 30 minutes enough time to make a connection at O’Hare? Is the flight on time? Did that change in the last five minutes? Wait, they overbook flights, right? Maybe people who fly often or have fewer issues with anxiety don’t have an identical monologue, but for me, air travel is essentially a constant stream of random worries flowing through my brain.

The Denver area has an incredible public transit system – a train and then a bus can get you from the airport to downtown Boulder in about an hour and a half with minimal waiting – so saving some money by skipping the Enterprise counter is an option, but then getting around once there becomes a series of 30-45 minute walks, even for the simplest errands. And God forbid my phone die at the intersection of 28th and Pearl in a strange town, leaving me to frantically search for, really, any stray outlet that would allow me to find my bearings.

Of course, there’s also the small matter of my driver’s license, set to expire while I’m away. I remembered to renew it before leaving but was dismayed when the BMV employee handed me a sheet of paper instead of a new card (which would be mailed at a later date). Playing out all possible scenarios at the TSA checkpoint for the return trip, up to and including pricing a car for the potential 19-hour drive home, began to dominate my thinking. There is absolutely no way TSA accepts an expired card and an easily-forged 8.5 x 11, right?

Travel can also be rewarding and life-affirming.

A funny thing tends to happen right when you’re at your lowest. You’re completely alone, standing on a street corner in a state you’ve never visited and with nowhere to go, your legs are all but gone thanks to a few hours of walking and that massive sleep deficit, and everything you own (at least in that moment, and in any sort of practical sense) is in your backpack. Any number of things could go wrong in that moment, or shortly after it, and wipe you out in any number of ways. But instead of panic, you feel a calm resolve. After all, there’s magic in the Flatirons and in the town they overlook as anyone who’s visited Boulder from Chief Niwot on down can attest, and it fuels the pioneer spirit in everyone from 19th century gold prospectors to 21st century club hockey writers.

I took a deep breath, crossed the street, and entered a local coffee shop to fuel up for the next leg of the journey.

The University of Colorado women’s hockey team has included plenty of pioneers over the years. The program dates to the mid-1980s, making it older than just about every U.S. college team outside of a handful in the northeast (Brown University’s Pembroke Pandas became the first in 1964, and by the time CU got going, roughly ten other eventual NCAA Division I squads had joined the re-christened Bears, although none were further west than Rochester), as well as the ACHA and NCAA women’s hockey championships, both of which started during the 2000-01 season.

As should be obvious from those circumstances, the Buffs have spent most of their history playing just about anyone and anywhere they could, with colorfully-named senior teams like the Steamboat Springs Chix with Stix and the Rocky Mountain Rockets lining a typical CU schedule into the 2010s, along with top girls programs like the Colorado Springs Tigers. The Women’s Association of Colorado Hockey provided structure for all of it, and offered a state championship tournament as a schedule centerpiece for the team (and still does for other college teams like those at the University of Wyoming and Colorado College that don’t want to absorb heavy travel and financial commitments) while the rest of the sport caught up with the west’s trailblazers.

The women’s hockey boom that followed the 1998 Nagano Olympics and Team USA’s gold medal performance helped bring along a handful of western college teams – Denver became an obvious rival, as did Iowa State and here-and-gone teams at Arizona and Arizona State – along with the ACHA itself over the next several years. But with a heavy running start on everyone else, Colorado has always been, in some sense, the flagship of the group.

There’s a certain synergy to that timeline as well, since the Colorado Avalanche arrived from Québec City in 1995 and won two Stanley Cups within their first six seasons in Denver, helping to turbocharge the growth of the sport across the Rocky Mountain state. Colorado had 15,641 registered players in 2018-19, with 2,788 of them being girls or women – a number that ranks eighth in the nation, behind only the sport’s blue bloods and a couple other states with much larger populations, Illinois and California. It’s a place that has rapidly matured as a hockey market, and CU has been there to help lead the way throughout that explosive period.

Even Minnesotans like Buffaloes president, co-captain, and starting goaltender Lexi Hartmann are impressed, while also understanding that the state’s followed a different formula than the one with which she’s familiar.

“I love it, it’s so much fun, and it’s not that far behind by any means,” she said. “It’s kinda weird because growing up, me and all of my friends played for our high schools, but a lot of kids here play for club teams, like Team Colorado and stuff. I came here assuming that they all played for their high school, but they don’t have nearly as many opportunities that way.”

“I mean the hockey is great, but it’s a little different.”

“It’s just grown so much and it makes me so happy,” said senior forward Melissa DiPonio, a product of the Denver suburb of Littleton. “We do so much to try to get girls involved every year, we’re getting more girls coming to try out, coming to our skills camps, so Colorado’s in a really good place. “Hopefully they can add some more teams in our league in the near future, but it’s super exciting.”

CU was an instant powerhouse upon the founding of the ACHA’s first women’s division. The Buffs qualified for nationals seven times in the tournament’s initial nine seasons, highlighted by third-place finishes in 2001 and 2005, and on an individual level by Stefanie Metcalf’s Zoë M. Harris Award in 2003-04. After a downturn for a few years, thanks in no small part to the growth they helped trigger, Colorado re-emerged as a contender in the mid-2010s under coaches Kristen Wright and Jamie Hazelton. The headlining players by then were All-Americans and World University Games selections like Leah MacArthur, Kathleen Ash, and Maura Kieft – all of whom received in-state tuition – and the newer generation has managed the 2017-18 championship of the Western Women’s Collegiate Hockey League (which was founded in 2014 and presently includes six teams, all in Four Corners states, a far cry from battling the Chix with Stix for adult state titles) as well as a spot in the ACHA semifinals that same season.

Sometimes pioneers are memorialized forever through museums, statues, and history books. But much more frequently, they die from some Oregon Trail-sounding disease along their route and disappear into oblivion.

For my part, powering through my mental and physical obstacles led me to explore a beautiful town and a gem of a campus. CU holds up next to any school in the world, with its signature Tuscan Vernacular Revival sandstone, black iron accents and roof tiles that define most of its buildings, from Norlin Library to Folsom Field to the Rec Center, which includes the school’s ice rink. And of course, those mountains always stand ready to make the most mediocre photography look spectacular.


Even the local Rodeway Inn is fascinating, although that’s not the word most would use to describe it. My lodging, which would prefer to be called the Broker Inn (the Rodeway branding is minimized in many cases, initially leading me to think I was lost and should’ve headed towards the Green River instead of Fort Bridger back where the trail split), is a former luxury hotel whose glory days are long past. In a few short years, it went from hosting campaign events for current state governor Jared Polis to making headlines for shootings and drug-related explosions, and don’t even bother checking the Yelp reviews. But the vintage décor inspired by a period well before the building’s 1974 construction, including plenty of stained wood and stained glass, and mailboxes behind the front desk, along with the modern concession of an automatic pancake maker, was well worth the $70 per night to me.

In short, I kept going, I survived, and I was rewarded.

As for the Buffaloes, well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

One of the universal truths in sports is that there’s no real conclusion to any of it on the macro level, no point where you can stop and say “well, that’s it, I guess we made it.” Win a title, and you have to get right back out there in a few months to try and win it again. Beat your rival, and they’ll get another chance, possibly the very next day. And as any pioneer knows, if you become the first to do something successfully, you can be damn sure that someone else is going to be second, and they’re going to try to do it bigger and better than you.

While Colorado State wasn’t the second college team in the west, they were the first to provide a credible, sustained challenge to CU’s state and regional hegemony beginning with their 2009 entry to the fray. The Rams toppled their southward rivals for the first time on November 5, 2010 by a 3-2 count behind a pair of Hannah Prochnow goals, and shortly after that began a run of 15 wins in 16 tries (including 13 in a row to close the stretch), before things began to tilt back in the Buffs’ direction during the 2015-16 season.

“Our team had just started beating CSU when I got here, and then it’s been a complete 180 since then, knock on wood,” Hartmann said. “We have a very deep rivalry, it’s a fun game, but it’s brutal out there, nobody’s joking around, we’ve had some rough history with them.”

“Our two clubs have been very competitive back and forth over the years. If you’d have asked us five, six seasons ago, CU never won against CSU, it was always CSU,” Rams captain Kristen Perry agreed. “But you can see throughout the ACHA, it’s filling in, filling out, teams come in with some good talent, teams drop some talent and need some rebuilding years.”

Continuing the recent run of the rivalry, a young but talented Colorado team held off their would-be usurpers by a 3-0 count tonight in a game that wasn’t easy, a tough Rams squad made sure of that, but also wasn’t ever really in doubt.

Speedy Megan Johnston created several CSU chances in the early going, but Sydney Browne’s snipe after peeling off the left wall late in the first period put the hosts ahead to stay. After the intermission, CU stars Kieft and Sara McNamara found their legs and combined on several pretty plays that didn’t quite click, then an ugly one that did, as McNamara fired off of Rams goalie Teagan Ries’ chest protector and got a fortunate bounce over the line midway through regulation, with Kieft available to clean up if needed.

Kieft later did the honors herself, putting a bow on Hartmann’s 19-save shutout with 5:26 remaining in the game, thanks to an absolute rip following an offensive draw (when I marveled at her shooting ability later, Kieft informed me that she learned from longtime NHLer Paul Stastny, back when he played his college hockey locally at DU, if you’ve been wondering why all of this growth stuff matters).

With many frontiers – women’s hockey, Colorado hockey, ACHA hockey – conquered and their turf defended, one might think that CU would be satisfied with things as they stand. But a couple more horizons remain. The most immediate is the national championship, and the Buffaloes look like they have the skill and depth to at least have a shot at that.

Further in the distance, becoming the first NCAA women’s program west of Minnesota seems like a natural goal for a program that is a full decade and a half older than the NCAA women’s hockey tournament. On the men’s side, Denver’s eight national championships make them one of the nation’s most storied programs, while Colorado College, which also owns a pair of titles, and the Air Force Academy have certainly had their highs as well. But to this point, Colorado has been a vacuum for the women’s game at the NCAA level.

“Actually, the basketball arena, they were trying to figure out how they could turn that into an ice arena, kind of like DU does, so they do NCAA basketball and hockey in the same arena,” Hartmann said. “I don’t know what that’s looking like right now, but if they could do that…it could take decades though.”

Okay, that one might seem like a longshot right now. But never count out the pioneer spirit.

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