The venue represents immediate title aspirations and the minutia of championship preparation for one side of the rivalry. It represents a more distant end goal for the other.
University of Denver and Colorado College hockey are at opposite junctures as programs, but when the Battle for the Gold Pan comes to Ball Arena for the first time in the history of the 80-year rivalry Friday (7 pm MT), the experience and local exposure will be mutual.
“For our fans to be able to see us where the Avalanche play and what hockey means to this community … was important to us moving this game down there,” DU coach David Carle said this week.
He also has a practical advantage in mind, one that illustrates Denver’s stature as college hockey royalty: playing on the Avalanche’s ice will prepare players for what to expect on postseason stages, such as the NCAA Frozen Four (set for the Lightning’s Amalie Arena this year ).
“That’s a little bit of why we wanted to do it, was to give our players that opportunity to play in an NHL building,” Carle said. “Obviously we plan to be in St. Paul for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, our league championships, at the end of the season. And then hopefully end the year down in Tampa.”
“That does get you ready for games like the Frozen Four, when you’re playing in front of a sold-out NHL building,” attested forward Carter Mazur, who experienced it first-hand last season. “That’s pretty special.”
The Pioneers (19-7, 10-4 NCHC) are defending national champions with sights set on a repeat. The Tigers (10-13-1, 6-7-1) are in their second season of a program reset under coach Kris Mayotte, who brings his own national title-winning resume from Providence College, where he was an assistant. Mayotte was also on the US National Junior Team staff that won gold at the 2021 World Junior Championship.
He inherited a CC program that has been on the wrong end of a lopsided Gold Pan recently. Denver has won seven consecutive matchups and 11 of the last 13, outscoring CC 19-2 in a four-game sweep last season.
“We did hand it to them pretty well,” Mazur said. “So I feel like they’re looking for revenge.”
Mayotte understands the significance of the rivalry. This will be the 333rd game in series history, second-most between any two NCAA hockey teams — only behind Michigan-Michigan State, which he also experienced as a Wolverines assistant. But he also understands the steady climb his program faces, and that it would be unwise for him to focus too much of his energy on grabbing hold of this rivalry.
“If I’m being completely honest, it’s not even on our radar just yet,” he told The Post via phone. “We have steps we have to take in this program. Obviously a big one is that when we get going, we want this rivalry to be back to what it was. We want this to be a top-five matchup in the country. … But it’s a day-to-day process.
“We don’t start a season thinking, ‘Can we catch DU?’ We’re not out recruiting, thinking, ‘Can we catch DU?’ We focus on the type of program we want to be.”
He has still managed to wrangle talent. First-year starting goalie Kaidan Mbereko was the starter for Team USA at the 2022 World Juniors last August. He enters Friday’s game with a .920 save percentage and plenty of institutional knowledge of the rivalry. He’s from Aspen, his brother attends DU, and he’s close with Pioneers such as Mazur, a teammate on the 2022 US team.
“For a lot of the year, Kaidan has arguably been our best player,” Mayotte said. The goalie matchup might be the main event, with DU’s Magnus Chrona fresh off his 100th career start and a 136-minute shutout streak. The senior goalie has been a rock for the Pioneers, even as they enter the weekend on a rare two-game skid.
The connections between rosters are endless. DU’s leading goal-scorer (Mazur with 17) and CC’s (Hunter McKown with 14) have crossed paths at World Juniors. Mayotte has worked with opponents like Mazur and Sean Behrens in Team USA settings. Everybody knows everybody in the Colorado hockey community, where players tend to work out together during offseasons. Gone are the days of unmitigated hatred between rivals.
“But I think one of the things that makes rivalries great,” Mayotte said, “is that you forget about those things for two hours.”
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