In a fitting ending to an achievement-laden season, senior defenseman Will Butcher (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin) was the first player to jump into the winning goaltender, junior Tanner Jaillet’s (Red Deer, Alberta) arms as the puck was cleared out of Denver’s zone and the game clock dwindled down to zero, giving DU their eighth national championship in school history on April 8.
In the same weekend, Butcher was awarded the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player after posting 37 points in 43 games and Jaillet the Mike Richter Award for the nation’s top goaltender.
Denver’s two top leaders epitomize the philosophy and structure which Head Coach Jim Montgomery preaches; patience, poise and headiness. The culmination of their tireless work on the practice rink, countless hours spent studying video and dedication to becoming the No. 1 ranked team boiled down to a gutty, 3-2 victory over the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“It’s hard to put into words. After that loss [to University of North Dakota in the 2016 Frozen Four], it seemed everyone was focused from that day on to become better and become committed to excellence, sticking to the process like usual,” said Butcher. “Like I said, I’m so proud of these guys. They followed Coach Montgomery, followed our leadership group.”
Standing at a modest 5’10” and 190 lbs., Butcher isn’t the most imposing defenseman on the ice, yet the college hockey player of the year’s focus and decision-making is second to none. Despite registering zero points and only one shot in his final game for Denver, Butcher’s contributions to the team have been unquantifiable, providing stability and leadership on the back-end.
Having been a Frozen Four team the year before, DU was the only team to return in 2017. Butcher and the Pioneers’ consistency and slow progression of depth scoring over the regular season ensured Denver would have an outstanding shot at the championship.
Jaillet, having made the lion’s share of Denver’s starts during the season, wrestled the starting spot away from Florida Panthers’ prospect Evan Cowley (Evergreen, Colorado) last season and never looked back, despite having a less flashy style of play. Undrafted, Jaillet’s calm demeanor and superb rebound control gave Denver’s skaters confidence in front of him, even when the Bulldogs went all-in during the third period.
“They were coming strong. Obviously, they were throwing the kitchen sink at our guys,” said Jaillet. “Our guys had some huge blocks, making plays and obviously we came out with the win.”
Sophomore winger Jarid Lukosevicius’s (Squamish, British Columbia) second period hat trick provided Denver enough firepower for the win, but even in his legendary performance, Lukosevicius was the benefactor of multiple years worth of team chemistry, as he was able to finish off his teammates’ stellar efforts. His first goal came off a deflection from freshman Michael Davies’ (St. Louis, Missouri) point shot, the second a tap in from some glamorous sophomore Troy Terry (Highlands Ranch, Colorado) dekes and the final score came off a one-time feed from sophomore Dylan Gambrell (Bonney Lake, Washington).
“[Gambrell] and [Terry] did an unbelievable job. They forechecked their butts off. I wouldn’t have scored any of those goals if it wasn’t for those two,” said Lukosevicius. “I just happened to stand in front of the net because I knew they were going to shoot pucks or bring pucks to the net.”
Although they led for the entirety of the third period, Denver suffered a significant loss when top-four defenseman Tariq Hammond (Calgary, Alberta) severely injured his ankle and was declared out of the game. Despite having only five active defensemen to finish out the game, the close-knit group rallied around their fallen teammate.
“I was overcome with emotion when I saw [Hammond] on the ice. He’s got the heart of a warrior. He’s an incredible teammate, definitely wearing a letter next year and probably our captain. His prognosis is probably a broken ankle,” said Montgomery. “Once it was back in place, he wanted to hop out on the ice. It just shows the character of the individuals that we recruit at Denver.”
The Spencer Penrose Award winner as coach of the year, Montgomery assembled a high-character locker room of motivated, driven players with an affinity for refining their play through the smallest details. The culture he’s established at DU hockey has not only produced a host of award winners but also gleaned the ultimate prize, an NCAA championship title.