Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Writer Recalls DU's First National Championship

(above) Jim Brown & Murray Massier were two of the best players on DU's first National Championship team in 1958

Exclusive To LetsGoDU
by Dick Hilker (Denver Post Hockey Writer 1956-60)

A half-century after the 1957-58 team captured the University of Denver’s first NCAA hockey championship, those warriors of old are to be exalted once more.

Deservedly, the entire squad will be inducted into the School’s Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 23 at a banquet in downtown Denver.

To this one-time sports writer who chronicled that club’s unlikely climb to the apex of college hockey, the most single memorable game, of course, came on a frigid Saturday night in Minneapolis when those determined lands in crimson sweaters stunned the Sioux of North Dakota 6-2 in the title game.

But a two-game NCAA tournament did not make a season. Several important things about that team and that season still remain in my mind.

One was the fact that no one—not even Coach Murray Armstrong (left)—had expected that band of Pioneers to achieve what it did. Certainly, everyone correctly figured that “The Chief” eventually would turn Denver into a national power. But, after all, 1957-58 was only the second season of what was considered to be a formidable building project.

One-third of the player roster in Year Two was still comprised of pre-Armstrong recruits. Freshmen were not eligible for varsity play in those days and a half-dozen future Pioneer stars—including four all-Americas-to-be, Bill Masterton, George Konik, Grant Munro and Marty Howe—were enrolled in school but skating only during practice.

Yet, amazingly, the men who achieved The Fabulous First somehow turned the “future” into “now.”

(left) Bruce Walker, Murray Massier and Walt Dingwall were just three of Armstrong's elite forwards

Second, as impossible as it seems today, those Pioneers accomplished their feat with only 17 players on the varsity roster—including a back-up goalie who never saw a second of playing time and a versatile “utility” player who didn’t get ice time in 13 of DU’s 46 games.

College rosters generally were smaller then than they are today. But Denver had so few able bodies that stamina was a key ingredient in the season.

Remarkably, DU played the entire season with a rotation of only three defensemen—all- America senior Ed Zemrau, senior Blair Livingstone and Wayne Klinck, who had played for Armstrong’s successful Junior club in Regina, Saskatchewan. When Zemrau had to sit out five games with an injury, Al Barnhill came off the bench to fill in.

It should also be noted that a shortage of manpower wasn’t limited to playing personnel. The coach had no backup either. Armstrong had no assistant coaches or support staff except for a student manager. In fact, he didn’t hire as assistant coach until his 11th season at DU. But, given his ability to coach and recruit talent, why enlarge the payroll?

(left) DU's first line in the 1957-58 season comprised of Con Collie, Barry Sharp & Jim Brown

The third significant thing about that magical season was a six-game stretch between Dec. 17 and 31, 1957. After splitting the first two league games with Colorado College, the Pioneers were faced with four tough contests on the road against powerhouse Michigan and Michigan State, followed by two home games against Michigan Tech.

Those were the only games against those three teams that year and under the rules of the seven-team Western Intercollegiate Hockey League, they would count double in the point standings—two points for the winner instead of one.

In six previous games at Michigan, the Pioneers had only managed one victory and a tie and were solid underdogs going into Ann Arbor in 1957. Yet they pulled out two dramatic one-goal victories that were an omen of things to come.

Before moving on to East Lansing to face the Spartans, the traveling party spent Sunday night in Detroit. And since Armstrong had once skated for the Red Wings, he prevailed upon his old coach, the legendary Jack Adams, for tickets to watch the Wings and Gordie Howe play Toronto. It was a nice bonus.

Against Michigan State, the Pioneers had it a bit easier, winning 5-1 and 4-2, but given the hostile environment, the visitors had to work for both victories.

When the team’s plane arrived at Stapleton Airport, the triumphant icers were greeted by a couple of dozen fans and school officials, including Don Smith, DU’s sports information director who had not made the trip. Smith told me he considered the four-game sweep the most important event in the school’s hockey history—then in its ninth season.

I would have ranked the wise hiring of Armstrong as numero uno, but certainly that march through Michigan was a close second. The wins energized fan interest in the program and pumped up the crowds at the old DU Arena the rest of the season.

Hockey on the Hilltop was hardly a financial success in those days.

Attendance averaged only 2,756 (half of the arena capacity) in 1955-56 and was only slightly higher in Armstrong’s first season. But when all the ticket stubs were counted in 1957-58, the average crowd was just shy of 4,000. The significance of that was not lost on those of us who were hoping college hockey could be a profitable venture in Denver.

That road sweep was a turning point.

A week later, after the Pioneers swept Tech, 3-0 and 6-2, they were assured of a winning league record based on points in the standings. The 12-point sweep gave them 13 points, and although they won once four more games in league play, it was good enough for a second-place finish and a berth in the four-team NCAA field.

Still, few figured they would capture the grand prize. After all, the league champion Sioux had won three of the four games with the Pioneers, including a 9-0 pasting in Grand Forks in February.

Little wonder that a large contingent of Nodak fans was traumatized in Williams Arena in Minneapolis as the Pioneers skated into history—and the University of Denver Sports Hall of Fame.

An upset? Not really. As one of the DU players explained to me afterward, “Never count out Murray Armstrong in a big game.”

How true.

The members of the “Seventeen Blocks of Granite" (a nickname coined 50 years later)

(left) Dennis Slinn and Al Barnhill

Al Barnhill (So) - Defense and forward. “Barney” filled in well when called upon. Had played only juvenile-level hockey in Alberta, a couple of steps below Junior A brand played by most of his teammates.

Jim Brown (Jr) wing - Could really put the biscuit in the basket. Calgary native scored 53 goals in two seasons. Made all-tournament team.

Alan Cook (G) - If memory serves, he was also the team’s manager, but would have gone into goal in an emergency.

Con Collie (So) wing - Nicknamed “Dogger.” Played for Armstrong with the Regina Pats. If he went into the corner to get a puck, he usually came out with it, although he didn’t weigh more than 150.

Gordon Cresswell (Jr) wing - Toronto native played in 24 games. Wasn’t flashy, but dependable.

Walt Dingwall (Jr) wing - Scored only 12 goals for title team, but one of them—plus an assist—came in championship game. A valuable fore-checker and back-checker.

John Godfrey (Jr) wing - Played in every game and the Vancouver native was another of the good-checking forwards.

Wayne Klinck (Jr) defense - Teammates called him “Klincker.” He personified what this team was all about: guts. Playing with only three defensemen, this team gave up only 3.1 goals per game.

Blair Livingstone (Sr) defense - Blair was a defenseman in a wingman’s body, but he missed only one game. Solid and dependable. His most notable statistic of the season: Only seven penalties for 14 minutes. That was big considering his two defensive mates combined for 130 minutes in the sin bin.

Murray MacDonald (So) wing - Another ex-Regina Pat, who toiled on the third line. His forte was his checking ability. Wound up lettering for three seasons.

John MacMillan (So) wing - Not sure if DU has ever had a faster skater than Johnny Mac. Scored 19 goals and was named to al-tourney second team. Played a half-dozen years in the pros after graduating.

Murray Massier (Jr) center - “Muzz” was another of Armstrong’s Regina Pat imports. A wonderful stick-handler and playmaker. Was named the MVP of the NCAA tourney.

Rodney Schneck (Jr) goalie - He wasn’t highly touted when he came to DU from Wetaskwin, Alberta. But he turned out to be a stalwart in the nets, playing in every game for three seasons. Played in 94 games and the Pioneers won 58 of them. Usually came up big in the big games.

Barry Sharp (Sr) center - Big and strong, Barry provided the muscle up front. Tied for third in scoring on the team with 43 points in 37 games. In November of 1959 Barry was tragically killed during a pick-up hockey game at DU Arena when struck in the head by an errant puck.

Dennis Slinn (So) wing - Played with the Regina Pats juvenile level team and improved greatly as the season wore on, earning a regular turn on the third line. Scored a goal in tourney finals.

Bruce Walker (S0) wing - “Rooster” scored 18 goals and worked well with Massier. Recruited by Armstrong from the Prince Albert Mintos, a junior club in Saskatchewan. Solid player for three seasons.

Ed Zemrau (Sr) defense - Had a legitimate all-America year during championship season. A tough, hard-hitting two-way player who dealt out a lot of punishment.

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