Rick Heinen remembers the recruiting process for his son Danton and how it all came to an abrupt halt when Danton visited Denver.
“He called and said, ‘Dad, this school just feels so good. I want to go here,’” Rick said. “My response was, ‘Well, then tell them. If your gut says it’s right then go with it.’ And he’s loved it.”
In Danton Heinen, the Pioneers have the catalyst behind the team’s first Frozen Four run since 2005 and the inaugural winner of ASN’s Hockey Player of the Year award.
The 6-1, 190-pound sophomore from Langley, British Columbia, is a 2014 fourth-round pick of the NHL’s Boston Bruins and the leader of Denver’s vaunted Pacific Rim Line that has sparked an 18-2-4 run heading into Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal game against NCHC rival North Dakota.
“What an honor for him to be the first winner and it couldn’t go to a more deserving guy,” said Denver coach Jim Montgomery, who was one of eight finalists for the Spencer Penrose Award presented to the national coach of year.
“He’s not a guy who’s going to make a lot of noise in the locker room. The first year he was here he maybe said two words to me. This season we’ve had at least 20 conversations. He’s more comfortable offering input to linemates now than he has been in the past.
“Mostly, he just leads by example and has a tremendous work ethic. I can’t tell you how many times I go up to my office after practice and when I come out 30 or 40 minutes later he’s still out there on the rink working on his release and skating. He’s always the last guy off the ice and either stays alone or with a couple other guys shooting around. He just loves the game.”
Heinen combines with junior Trevor Moore (11 goals, 33 assists) and freshman Dylan Gambrell (17 goals, 30 assists) to form the Pacific Rim Line. His 20 goals and 28 assists rank 10th in the nation and lead DU.
As a freshman, Heinen earned NCHC Rookie of the Year honors after tallying 16 goals and 29 assists. As Montgomery hoped when they recruit him, Heinen’s offense carried over from his last season with the Surrey Eagles when he scored 29 goals and 22 assists.
“He puts others in position to score by the way he sees the ice,” Montgomery said. “He’ll push the puck into where the open area will be for a teammate and reads plays well.
“There was a play against Miami when they had pulled the goalie to put pressure on us, but Danton read a pass around the boards that they were setting up, picked it off and sent it over to a teammate for an open-netter. After the game Danton was asked how he read that play and he just looked up and shrugged like it was no big deal. He said, ‘Everyone in the building knew that pass was coming,’ and he really believed it. But his teammates come back and said, ‘Ah, no, Danton, you’re the only one in the rink who knew it.’ He just sees the ice so well.”
Montgomery said Heinen hadn’t been on DU’s recruiting radar until he crept into the top 10 in scoring the British Columbia junior hockey league midway through his final season of juniors. When assistant coach David Carle went to BC to watch him, two things stood out: His hands and his hockey IQ.
“We needed offense at that time,” he said, “but how he sees the game is special.”
Following the Frozen Four, Heinen will face the annual decision to leave school early and join the Bruins or return to Denver for at least another season.
“He’s got the body capable of being more physical and he’ll need to play that way at the next level,” Montgomery said. “Right now he can get by guys with his stick handling and hockey smarts, but he knows he’ll have to use his body more and he’s working on it.”
Asked what his future holds after this weekend, Heinen said he hasn’t given it any thought past Thursday’s game against UND.
Montgomery, making his Frozen Four debut as head coach in his third season with the Pioneers, believes him.
“What I love about Danton is that when he was asked about the NHL and he said he hadn’t thought about it at all and he was focused on North Dakota and winning the Frozen Four — that’s really true,” Montgomery said. “He’s not a guy that has a three- or five-year plan. If he’s hungry, he eats. Right now he’s completely focused on North Dakota. You have to love that.”
Four more Denver fast facts:
- Defensemen Nolan Zajac must have an interesting household this week. His brothers Travis and Darcy both played for North Dakota teams that reached the Frozen Four. In 2005, Nolan’s brothers lost to Denver in the national title game. In 2012, Nolan’s other brother Kelly played for a Union team that lost to Ferris State in the Frozen Four semifinals in Tampa.
- Quentin Shore leads Denver with two shorthanded goals, while Gambrell lead the team with four power play goals.
- Senior Grant Arnold is the first Pioneer since the 1950s to serve as captain for two consecutive seasons.
- Denver is 18-2-2 since Jan. 8.