In April 2017, I got the opportunity to attend the Frozen Four hosted at the United Center (home of the NHL Blackhawks) in Chicago, IL. Let’s start with how I got there.
St. Cloud State’s hockey season had ended in North Dakota a few weeks earlier. I was keeping up with the NCAA bracket, cheering for Dubuque Fighting Saints alum and fellow NCHC teams. The University of Denver Pioneers had made it to the regional finals game and I had my eyes glued to the TV the whole time. There was no question I had chosen the Pios as my pick to win because of my fondness of the team.
Jim Montgomery, DU’s head coach, had been the head coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints USHL team when I worked for them from 2011-2013. He was the head coach of the 2012-13 Clark Cup Championship team that I had the pleasure of being a part of, serving as the team photographer. (That was a hockey season I will never forget.)
Evan Janssen (DU senior) and Dylan Gambrell (DU sophomore) had also been on the Clark Cup roster. Blake Hillman (DU sophomore) and Michael Davies (DU freshman) had played in Dubuque as well during the time I covered the Saints. I wasn’t short on connections, and being the #Saint4Life proponent that I am, I was not short on reasons to be a Denver fan. *Note: player class years are as of the 2016-17 year.
As soon as it was confirmed that Denver would be making their way to Chicago, I started searching through flights, bus schedules, train ride options, hotels, airbnbs, and possible friends in town to stay with. I booked my flight one week before takeoff and found a place to stay with some friends who’d had a house about 20 minutes from the rink. I had never in my life so spontaneously made travel plans, but I knew I would regret not going if I didn’t.
So, I flew from Minnesota to Chicago at 6 a.m. on April 5th to volunteer for a hockey tournament no one had asked me to go to.
I landed in Chicago, dropped my bags at the house I was staying and went to work. During the past week I had been in contact with Denver’s Sports Information Director to volunteer my time for whatever help was needed. I ended up serving as one of the Pioneer’s team photographers and as a media assistant, posting to DU’s official Instagram and Snapchat accounts throughout the long weekend. Being that the NCHC had two teams in the tournament, I also worked as the league’s appointed photographer.
As an added bonus of the trip, a born and raised Chicago sports fan, I will admit that walking into the United Center to work in that building was pretty surreal. DU was the top seed in the tournament and therefore was granted use of the Blackhawks locker room. I had a brief, wide-eyed moment of awe the first time I stepped into the room, seeing the iconic logo on the floor and the “One Goal” slogan above the stalls. After allowing myself a few minutes of fangirling, I settled in and got to work.
Through media day (Wednesday), semifinals game day (Thursday) and championship game day (Saturday), the entire weekend became a blur. Back-and-forth from the rink to the house to the rink and so on. I did manage to find a few hours of sleep, after shooting, editing, posting, and sharing photo albums and checking in with my supervisors for the weekend to see if there was anything I could do next.
The Frozen Four was a 4-day sprint, not a marathon.
On Thursday, Denver won the semifinal against Notre Dame 6-1 and would go on to face Minnesota-Duluth for the NCAA championship title. My overall experience working the tournament as a photographer and team media personnel was great. Things were organized and communicated well, photo assignments were timely, the United Center staff was nothing but kind and courteous, and (an essential) the food was good.
I had made myself a small work setup outside of the DU locker room in the hallway – I tend to do this at every tournament I work because media workrooms can be a trek away from getting to ice level shooting positions. And, to be honest, I prefer the quiet and seclusion of having my own work space. (Go figure, having the brutally introverted personality type that I do.) Plus, the table I set my laptop on to do quick edits was also the coffee station. Fresh coffee an arm’s-length away? Perfect.
On Saturday, April 8, 2017, the University of Denver Pioneers won the Frozen Four. It was the program’s eighth NCAA title.
DU defeated Duluth 3-2. I was shooting from behind Denver’s net. As the seconds ticked down in the third period, my smile kept getting bigger and my heart was pounding faster. I wanted to get the bench and reactions as players stormed the ice towards DU’s netminder Tanner Jaillet, throwing their helmets and gloves on the way. I’m glad I stayed there and captured those moments.
Then I started running.
Up the stairs, onto the concourse, to the opposite end of the rink, I dodged fans and ran (while letting out a few overly-excited expletives under my breath) until I came to the zamboni door where photographers were asked to wait to get onto the ice for championship photos. I have no idea how long we were on the ice for. My camera was glued to my hand, capturing the moments Denver players first touched the national championship trophy, cut the goal netting from its posts, and celebrated in pure euphoria. They were champions.
Even though I’m not an employee of the Denver Pioneers, or really even have any distinct affiliation with the team, watching them win that game and the ear-to-ear smiles on every player, coach, and staff member that night is something I will never forget. Seeing friends I’ve known for years reach the ultimate goal in college hockey, witnessing the support DU had and the strong culture they’re all about was amazing. I smile as I write about it. The joy on the ice and in the locker room was contagious.
It was a pleasure working with Denver Hockey that week. Everyone I met and interacted with, whether it media personnel, players, coaches, staff, or fans – everyone was so kind and accommodating. It really was a fantastic group of people that I got the fortune of spending those few days with and feeling like an honorary Pio in celebration of hanging eight. I was so proud to be a part of it, thank you.