Box lacrosse skills make Canadians key for Denver hockey

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 16: The Denver University hockey team congratulates goaltender Tanner Jaillet #36 after defeating the St. Cloud State University Huskies 3-1  at Magness Arena January 16, 2015. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

For the Denver men’s hockey team there’s a goal clearly in sight – and near at hand – for the 2015-2016 season. On the university’s campus is the national championship trophy that the Pioneers’ men’s lacrosse team captured this past Memorial Day with a 10-5 victory over Maryland. It was the first lacrosse title in program history.

That team was aided by a host of talent from north of the border. One of the keys was Wesley Berg, a senior attackman, who hails from Coquitlam, British Columbia. He scored a team-leading 58 goals during the campaign.

Defenseman Nolan Zajac has three brothers playing professional hockey - Travis for the New Jersey Devils and Kelly and Darcy who both play for the Devils' Albany affiliate in the AHL. (Courtesy DU Athletics)
Defenseman Nolan Zajac has three brothers playing professional hockey – Travis for the New Jersey Devils and Kelly and Darcy who both play for the Devils’ Albany affiliate in the AHL. (Courtesy DU Athletics)

Box lacrosse, typically played on the hard floor surface of fallow hockey rinks in Canada, developed Berg’s close quarters stick handling and is a hallmark of Canadian players. In a critical 2015 quarterfinal matchup he deposited a half-dozen goals behind the Ohio State defense to help erase a six-goal deficit and power Denver to a 15-13 victory and, ultimately, a championship.

The 2015 hockey team is trying to mirror the lacrosse team’s title with their own Canadian pipeline of talent.

DU is certainly set for a title shot in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Last spring they went 24-14-2 overall and advanced to the Regional Finals before falling to eventual champion Providence. The Friars later earned their title with a Frozen Four win first over Omaha, followed by a title victory over Boston University on March 29.

DU’s current lineup consists of eight Canadians out of a roster of 27. The Pioneers will prep for their season with an exhibition against the University of Calgary on Oct. 4 at Denver.

Like the lacrosse team, the Pioneers’ hockey team doesn’t lack for postseason experience. Dating to 2008, DU has advanced to the NCAA tournament every year. They last captured the NCAA title in 2005.

Head coach Jim Montgomery is a Montreal native and is entering his third season leading Denver. In college at Maine he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award  – given annually to the nation’s best collegiate hockey player. He was also a line mate of NHL great sharpshooter Paul Kariya (Kariya captured the Hobey Baker Award in 1993). Montgomery is one of only three players to have his sweater retired at Maine. He had a six-season NHL career after his Black Bear playing days.

Most of the Pioneers’ Canadian talent will be in the defensive zone, including sophomore keeper Tanner Jalliet. Jalliet is from Red Deer, Alberta and appeared in 27 games as a freshman in 2014-2015, recording a team-high 15 wins. He was named the NCHC Goaltender of the Week twice during his first season. Before that he played his junior hockey with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons from 2011-2014. There Jalliet posted a stellar 67-27-10 record, a .922 save percentage, while maintaining a 2.33 goals-against average for Fort McMurray.

He will be aided in the Pioneers’ zone by junior defenseman Matt VanVoorhis (Edina, Minn.) as well as Winnipeg native Nolan Zajac. Zajac’s brother Travis is a veteran center for the New Jersey Devils and former box lacrosse player who was their first-round draft pick in 2004. He has two other brothers – Kelly and Darcy – who play for the Devils’ Albany affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL).

Zajac helps new Pioneer student-athletes get acclimated to DU, but admits it’s not too tall a task. “When I got here it was a pretty easy adjustment.  Everyone is welcoming. It’s easy to get comfortable since we’re all playing on the same team,” said Zajac.

Forward Danton Heinen (Langley, British Columbia) will be a key part of the offensive push for DU and is a 2015-2016 NCHC Preseason All-Conference Team selection.

There are no nights off in conference for DU. Six of last year’s 16 NCAA tournament teams were from the NCHC, the largest representation by a single league.

“The NCHC is a high-powered conference. It’s really competitive, no matter what night or who you’re playing, that team can beat you,” said Zajac. “That’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a war.”


Above: Teammates congratulate goaltender Tanner Jaillet after a victory last season. Jaillet, one of Denver’s eight Canadians on the roster, is expected to once again anchor the Pioneers’ defense. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.