Gaudy in red, white and gold, the University of Denver hockey team trooped into its dressing room beneath the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs last Saturday and made loud, happy noises. As one player dumped a paper cup of Coke on the head of a teammate, Coach Murray Armstrong bubbled, "Just boyish enthusiasm; boyish enthusiasm has always been our game."
Winning would be a better word, for Armstrong's Pioneers, not surprisingly, had just defeated Cornell 4-3 for the NCAA championship. Thus they retained the national title they won last year—and have been battling for consistently ever since Armstrong stopped selling hats 13 years ago and started selling good young Canadian hockey players on Denver.
The championship game was a thriller, with the Pioneers—led by All-Americas George Morrison and Keith Magnuson and backed by a wild-eyed Colorado crowd—pouring in on Cornell's All-America goalie, Ken Dryden. The first period ended 1-1, but the Pioneers enjoyed such a territorial edge it seemed only a matter of time until Dryden would weaken. Morrison put the Pioneers ahead with a rebound midway through the second period, and one Denver coed, who obviously considered the Big Red dangerous, wrung her program and murmured, "Die, Cornell, die!"
Cornell did not die; in fact it tied the game two minutes later, but the Pioneers came out winging in the third period and went ahead 4-2 after 11 minutes. When Cornell scored from in close at 18:40, Dryden came out of his net to be replaced by an extra attacker, but the Big Red failed in its try for the equalizer.
March 24, 1969
The lanky Dryden, brother of the Chicago Black Hawk goalie, Dave, had received most of the credit for the 26-1 record Cornell brought to the Broadmoor. Indeed, he had become something of a legend in the East, losing but three games in a 70-game career and achieving a 1.65 goals-against average.
It was noteworthy that Cornell and Harvard managed to place and show in a tournament long dominated by the West (19 titles out of 22), and also that an unusually large number of NHL scouts and officials—including President Clarence S. Campbell—checked into the Broadmoor Hotel at the foot of the Rockies to be present.
The pros are going to be watching more and more college teams. Two years ago when the NHL passed a rule preventing a team from drafting a boy until age 20, it quietly transformed hundreds of potential teen-age pros into potential students first, pros later. Before the rule, which was passed to help the new West, Division catch up with the old, an NHL club could obtain the rights to a boy at 17 and entice him to turn pro. Now that same boy has a few years to go before he can sign, so he looks around, and suddenly the chance to play hockey and also get a college education doesn't seem so outlandish.
Historically the NHL coaches have disliked college hockey for two reasons: 1) there aren't enough games, and 2) the rules prohibit violent forechecking. "In the NHL, forechecking is the name of the game," said St. Louis Coach Scotty Bowman last week. "Did you notice all those defensemen freezing the puck along the boards here? They do that in their own zone because they know they can't get hit from behind. In the NHL a forechecking team would put those guys through the glass."
"I think a boy forfeits a great deal of his potential playing in college instead of going straight into Junior A," said one scout. "Here, at the most critical period of his development, he's exposing himself to inferior competition, slowing himself down."
"In the past 10 years more than a thousand boys have come down from Canada to play hockey in American colleges," said Clarence Campbell. "Those who have gone on to careers in the NHL can be counted on one hand. A college hockey player should be able to look forward to a career in pro hockey just as much as his classmates can look forward to one in pro football, basketball or baseball. But because of the difference in rules and the lack of programs extensive and intensive enough to develop his potential, the odds are stacked against the college hockey player."
"Sometimes I just shudder when I see what happens to the kid turning pro out of college," said another scout. "Like Dennis Hextall in his first year in Knoxville. He was trying to get used to pro rules and a faster, rougher game. Fortunately for the Rangers, Dennis is a tough kid."
Thus the case for the prosecution. Hear Armstrong for the defense:
"The rules don't make that much difference," he says. "There's a period of adjustment for any boy turning pro, regardless of the sport. The boy coming out of Junior A has to make an adjustment, and the NHL clubs give him time to make it. But they lose patience with the college boy.
"I'll tell you why the pros knock the colleges. We're going to cost them more money, that's why. They say we hold a boy back. What they really worry about is how much more it's going to cost to sign that boy at 21 than it would have at 17. Look at our captain, Tom Miller. At 17 he'd have cost the Rangers $7,000 if he had decided to play Junior A. Now Miller will have a degree in civil engineering. Pratt & Whitney would start him at $12,000 or $13,000 and toss in all those benefits, too. If New York offers him $7,000 he'll laugh in their faces. For Tom to play pro hockey, they're going to have to start talking in terms of $25,000. After four years in Junior A a boy doesn't have a bargaining position like that."
Echoing Armstrong, an honest (and therefore determined to remain anonymous) NHL scout, sighed and said, "Let's face it. For my purpose I'd rather deal with the big, dumb 195-pounder anytime. But now, instead of getting the big, dumb 17-year-old, we're getting the big, smart 21-year-old, and half of them have lawyers with them. Things have changed, and we'd just better make up our minds that we're going to be talking to college boys a lot more from now on."
Most of them wish they could still talk to George Morrison, Denver's sophomore All-America whom the Rangers landed prior to the age ruling. A tall (6'), skinny (165 pounds) left wing, Morrison has the fresh-scrubbed look and haystack haircut of a farm kid who should be carrying a pitchfork instead of a curved stick. But in 32 games (counting playoffs) Super Soph, as George is called, scored 40 goals, including five hat tricks, and had a pair of four-goal games. Morrison became the first player in Western Collegiate Hockey Association history to win the scoring championship as a sophomore and acquired more votes than anybody else on the All-League team. He is at his best around the crease. When traffic gets heavy he looks like Plastic Man, bending and twisting away from big, menacing defenders.
"It's funny how I wound up at Denver," Morrison says. "I'd played around my home town [Scarborough, Ontario, a Toronto suburb], but I had no particular plans. Then a friend who had gone to Denver asked me if I'd like to play hockey in college. I said sure. Within a few days I was out here taking exams. It all happened only a few weeks before school started, and I couldn't be happier."
Morrison is typical of the stars Armstrong so often grabs and suits up for Denver. At 51, Armstrong has wispy white hair and wears black horn-rims. His tongue is persuasive, and he appears to coach as well as he talks. The Pioneers had decided in 1956 to go out and get themselves a hockey coach. (Never any great shakes in the staple sports, Denver gave up football in 1960.) They made a pitch to Armstrong, a highly successful Junior A coach and hat salesman in Regina, Saskatchewan. Armstrong, who has since become wealthy through a string of apartment houses and the Jet-X Car Wash chain throughout Canada, promised the school a national championship in three years. Denver won it in his second year and again in 1960, 1961 and 1968. The club finished second in 1963 and 1964, third in 1966. In 13 years Armstrong's record is 289-99-22, the best in college hockey. And this year, when he coached the Pioneers to twin victories over the Canadian national team, he acquired what amounted to Bear Bryant stature.
It has been suggested—as it always is with regard to powerhouses in any college sport—that Armstrong has substantially more money to dole out to his athletes than his contemporaries. It has also been murmured that Denver's academic requirements are conveniently lower than those in the Big Ten and the East.
Just sour grapes, says Michigan State Coach Amo Bessone. "Hockey is the big sport at Denver, the moneymaker," Bessone points out. "Hockey to Denver is like football to Michigan State. They go all out for Murray because he goes all out for them. I only wish I had the time to recruit that he has. After this tournament he's off into Canada to scout the Junior playoffs, and by May he'll have all his prospects lined up for next year. Me? I've got a handball class to teach."