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.

Digging Up Gunpowder

Colorado at Colorado State
Edora Pool and Ice Complex
Fort Collins, CO

November 16, 2019


Colorado State and its archrival, Colorado, are only 50 miles apart in the physical world, but they reside much further from each other in a cultural sense. CU and Boulder are the relative Hollywood. They have Mork & Mindy, Michael Scott (who moved there after he left Dunder Mifflin), the South Park guys, and that line about the stolen mattress in the 2016 Chainsmokers/Halsey hit “Closer.” Boulder, of course, was also the home of JonBenét Ramsey, the victim of one of the most famous murder cases in modern history, and the town’s role in that tragic story can generally be summarized as “look at what a perfect life the Ramseys had before JonBenét was killed.”

Fort Collins has…pretty much none of that. It’s the Rust Belt on the Front Range: chronically overlooked and underrated, but with a fierce pride and a blue-collar ethic that can’t be duplicated in a place that enjoys every luxury and is frequently told how great it is. You can walk around CSU’s campus on a gray, blustery Saturday afternoon in November, make your way through tailgaters getting ready for a big football game between the Rams and visiting Air Force and, aside from those ubiquitous, region-defining mountains in the background and maybe a few extra cowboy hats, you might as well be at Michigan State or Cincinnati. It’s a welcoming, unpretentious place filled with hardworking people like Andrea at the Silver Grill in Old Town, who can deliver the best cinnamon roll west of the Mississippi, and probably east of it too.

Of course, the differences between CU and CSU also extend to hockey.

The Buffaloes play in a gorgeous rink brightened by natural light and built into their campus rec center, while the Rams play at the Edora Pool and Ice Center (usually known by its fun acronym, EPIC), a decent-enough facility but one located a couple miles from campus and downtown Fort Collins, and hosting numerous activities unrelated to the university. If you want to distill things down to one line, Colorado has a school-branded Zamboni with a bold “GO BUFFS!” down the side, and Colorado State has a generic Olympia.

“It’s hard, because when you go to try out for a team, you want to know what they can offer you,” sophomore defender Darby Easterday said. “Well, we need to double our dues based on the ice, because we have off ice, we don’t have campus ice. We struggle, we really do. And then we have problems with getting that ice, where we have 6 a.m. practices and 10 p.m. practices, welcome to CSU hockey. The boys team takes X, Y, and Z, and we’re in a battle with EPIC right now to get better practice times.”

Fellow blueliner Kristen Perry, the team’s captain, agreed: “We’re not handed the luxuries of not paying for practice ice, or game ice, and not having to schedule against youth hockey.”

“Just the ease and what our team can offer incoming freshmen and recruits is not as appealing as, say, [the University of Denver] or CU,” Easterday added.

Those inconveniences relative to their primary recruiting competition can have a chilling effect on the Rams’ depth and talent level, particularly in a climate where most other ACHA Division 1 teams are fully-funded or are club teams that receive a bit more support from their universities.

“We don’t have the depth that other teams do,” Stephanie Talone, a senior forward and the club’s president said. “Our bench, we’ve got two lines, and that’s it. We don’t have healthy scratches, we have to find people to help us take stats. It’s such a hard thing to do.”

“There isn’t the top-notch talent of an NCAA player coming down or leaving NCAA, or even girls [who played] AAA,” Perry said. “We don’t have many of those, a lot of our players are girls who have come from house leagues. So it’s more like we start not with what CSU can give you, but what you can give to CSU, and how we can build upon your skill.”

What do you do, given those circumstances? Sure, you’re allowed some time to complain about it, that’s human nature, but whether you’re in Fort Collins or Buffalo, at some early point you stop talking and get to doing.

You start by making your home a little better however you can, and for Colorado State, that means being one of the ACHA’s most active teams in the community.

On October 19th, the Rams hosted a First Responders Night during their game against Denver.

“For that, we just connected with the Larimer County K-9 unit,” senior forward Katie Hurley explained. “We knew they had been in need of some money, not all of the K-9s have tactical harnesses, they don’t all have bulletproof vests, so we wanted to help give back to the community.”

“We did a cool silent auction, we did a K-9 puck drop, we raised over $1300 for them, and we presented that money to them last week at their training. They were very appreciative, and it was a lot of fun, actually.”

More recently, a couple Rams volunteered to referee the Guns vs. Hoses charity game between the Fort Collins police and Northern Colorado firefighters, held at the Budweiser Events Center in nearby Loveland, the home arena of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles.

“We did Fall Clean Up, which involves helping out elderly people in the Fort Collins area who can’t necessarily sweep up their leaves by themselves, clean up their yard, stuff like that,” Easterday said. “So we coordinated with our club sports office to set that up. We helped two families out, split up the team, took two houses, took a day, and cleaned up the yards.”

Spearheaded by Hurley, a local native and a season ticket holder since she was five years old, the team has also worked to cultivate a relationship with the Eagles and unify the Northern Colorado hockey community, whose growth she feels has come in stops and starts.


“I’ve known Chris Stewart [the team’s first head coach, who currently is the Eagles’ president and general manager], for the longest time,” she said. “His son-in-law was actually my coach for a few years. Former Eagles players are directors of my old hockey organization, and have been my coaches too. As I got older, I kind of knew them going into college. I’ve actually had a few friends who were interns for the Eagles too, so I kind of wanted to have that relationship between our team and theirs.”

“I think especially with the Eagles moving up in leagues and divisions, and then being an Avs affiliate, hockey in general in the entire state has come together, I think it’s becoming bigger and bigger, and it’s really fun to see.”

Another way to beat adversity is through sheer will.

There are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate your level of resolve during a hockey game of course, and although the Rams dropped the home half of their rivalry series against Colorado by a 3-1 count, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. Consider these facts:

  • The Buffaloes took an early lead on a Kenzie Zaumseil shorthanded rebound goal, following a CSU turnover. However, just before the end of that same body checking penalty to CU’s Cali Gonzalez, Talone flipped an innocent-looking backhander towards the goal off left wing that surprised Buffs netminder Lexi Hartmann and tied the game.
  • In the dying moments of the first period, Colorado star Mariah Dally scored a spinning rebound goal just as the buzzer sounded to give her team the lead back. While just about everyone in the rink outside of those from Boulder thought the puck crossed the line after the period ended, a legal goal was signaled on the ice, and it remained on the board after a brief discussion. Rather than buckle after the play, which was either backbreaking or unfair depending on perspective, the Rams dialed up their intensity even further and kept the visitors off the board for the next 33:30 of game time.
  • Rams goalie Teagan Ries battled as much as anyone against the effects of CSU’s short bench that became more and more evident as the game went on. She closed with an incredible 80 saves on 83 shots in what easily qualifies as one of the ACHA’s best goaltending performances this season.
  • Although CU’s shot count might give off a different impression, Colorado State remained very competitive throughout, with breakaway threat Megan Johnston and opportunistic Kallie Clements generating consistent chances for a squad that was within one goal of the Buffaloes for all but 6:30 of the evening.
  • All of this occurred just nine months removed from the teams’ last meeting, a 13-0 drubbing by Colorado at the 2019 Western Women’s Collegiate Hockey League playoffs – a game that saw Dally deliver the further ignominy of a Michigan-style lacrosse goal in the late going, with the contest long decided.

“I know this is a CSU rebuilding year, but things are changing,” Perry observed.

“It’s definitely on the push forward, especially from the games last year. So I think it’s back in that mentality that it’s always back and forth between us, always some good hockey, and it definitely gets a little chippy. It’s really close to the heart with Colorado.”

“I think our culture is really marked by going into every game as ‘don’t go outskill these girls, go outwork these girls,’ because that’s what we have,” Easterday said. “We don’t have the NCAA skill, but we have a group of girls that’s willing to put their hearts and souls in it, because we show up to things like this rink, it’s not the easiest to get to, and stuff like that. So we have the mentality of ‘don’t outskill, outwork.’”

“These girls that are committed, all 15 of us now, we’re really committed,” Talone added. “We’re willing to work as hard as any other bench with twice as many players.”

The Cache la Poudre River runs just north of campus and central Fort Collins, and gets its unusual name from a corruption of the French phrase for “where the powder is hidden.” The incident behind the moniker took place in the 1820s, decades before the United States Army established a camp named after Colonel William O. Collins (an Ohioan, incidentally – this Rust Belt thing runs deep), when a band of French fur trappers was caught in a snowstorm and forced to bury their gunpowder to protect it from the moisture.

That powder is still in the ground today, at least metaphorically, for those able to survive the snowstorm and willing to dig for it.

A couple things happen when a college hockey team demonstrates the resolve that’s characterized its town and its school since the beginning. First, people will take notice and support it, even if it loses more than it wins. And there’s little doubt that’s started to become the case: the crowd at off-campus EPIC was bigger, louder, and more engaged (including numerous homemade signs) than the one that witnessed the teams play the night before on the campus of the more-recently-successful team.

Even more importantly, that effort alters the players making it, both in terms of their relationships with their teammates, and internally – after all, CSU and not NYC is the place where, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Blessed are those who get that powder.

“I would not change our program,” Perry said. “I think having to fight for what we get, and having to deserve everything we have on this team, compared to other schools being handed stuff, makes us who we are. Every girl wearing that jersey is out there to give it 100 percent for themselves, and for the person next to them.”

“Adversity humbles us, and it makes us want to be here, makes us want to play hockey,” Hurley said. “It’s not a chore for us, it’s a privilege to play.”

“Because we don’t come from such high-end backgrounds, we all know what it’s like to work hard, and we’re willing to do that for the people next to us, and that’s kind of what makes our team, what drives our team is knowing that you’re going to play not only for yourself, but for the person next to you, for the coach behind you. I think this team is not just a team, it’s not just a sisterhood, it’s truly a family.”

“A Ramily, if you will,” Easterday quickly corrected.