When George Gwozdecky became the University of Denver hockey coach in 1994, he and recruiting coordinator Steve Miller began to make an annual effort to give at least one Colorado player a chance to be a fifth-line forward or a seventh or eighth defenseman as a walk-on freshman.
That's mostly decoration, given that a traditional hockey lineup includes four lines and six defensemen.
"Maybe over time these guys would develop into pretty good players for us, but it was an opportunity for the local kids to be part of our roster and hopefully inspire other kids to set their goals to be a Pioneer," Gwozdecky said.
Today, Colorado hockey players have risen far above being depth and token players for DU, replacing Canada as the Pioneers' primary recruiting pipeline. Colorado-raised hockey players not only dominate DU's roster, all are scholarship players recruited from the same metro-area, Tier I triple-A organization that has become a national power.
All seven of DU's players from Colorado previously played for the Colorado Thunderbirds from ages 12 to 18: senior Chris Knowlton (Colorado Springs), junior Nick Shore (Denver), sophomores Matt Tabrum (Colorado Springs), Daniel Doremus (Aspen), Josiah Didier (Littleton) and freshmen Quentin Shore (Denver) and Grant Arnold (Centennial).
Six of the seven have played in every game for the No. 2-ranked Pioneers (7-1), and combined they account for more than half (18) of DU's 33 goals.
"It's definitely crazy to think about and definitely pretty cool," said Nick Shore, who leads DU with 13 points and is tied with Knowlton and Doremus with a team-high five goals. "When you have this many kids from Colorado growing up in that program, they're obviously doing a lot of things right."
The Thunderbirds, named by Air Force coach Frank Serratore after the military academy's demonstration squadron — the fastest-flying, multiple-jet domonstration team in the world — are a nonprofit organization based out of Big Bear Ice Arena in Denver. They field seven teams from 11-under to 18-under, and each team plays 60 and 75 games per season, including five to nine out-of-state tournaments.
Tabrum, Knowlton and Arnold also played for one of the state's other triple-A organizations — the Pikes Peak Miners (Colorado Springs), Colorado Rampage (Monument) or Rocky Mountain RoughRiders (north Denver). Tabrum won state titles with the Rampage (2008) and Miners (2009).
Serratore, Gwozdecky's predecessor at DU, has two former Thunderbirds playing for him at Air Force and more on the way. Serratore founded the Thunderbirds in 2002 with fellow Minnesota native and Colorado Springs resident Kevin Holmstrom, and Littleton Hockey Association directors Jim Hillier and Ryan Stewart — partly to provide for Serratore's twin sons, Tom and Tim. Tom plays for the University of Minnesota and Tim for nearby Division III Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
In 2010, the Thunderbirds joined the Pittsburgh Hornets as the only team to advance all four eligible teams (U18, U16, U14, U12) to the national tournament. The next year, the U16 team that featured Quentin Shore and Didier captured Colorado's first and only Tier I national championship.
Three more former Thunderbirds — Landon Smith (Greenwood Village), Brad Hawkinson (Aurora) and Tyler Pham (Fort Collins) will join DU within the next two years, during a stretch rival Colorado College will add former T-birds Jaccob Slavin (Erie), Christian Heil (West- minster) and Gustav Olofsson (Sweden).
According to Thunderbirds director and midget-minor (16- under) coach Angelo Ricci, 29 former Thunderbirds are playing Division I hockey and more than twice that amount are playing Division III, in the college-prep United State Hockey League (junior-A) or NHL-prep Western Hockey League (major-junior).
Defenseman Seth Jones, a peewee on the Kent Murphy-coached Thunderbirds in 2006-07, could be the first pick in the 2013 NHL draft. Jones, the son of former Nuggets player and assistant coach Popeye Jones, is playing for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks, teammates with former T-bird Dominic Turgeon, son of NHL 515-goal scorer Pierre Turgeon.
Ricci, a former DU forward, enjoys placing his players with his alma mater, in what appears to be a natural fit because most metro-Denver players dream of becoming a Pioneer.
"Our first goal as a Tier I program is to properly develop our players so they have the ability to be recruited by NCAA teams," Ricci said. "If DU happens to show interest in some of our players, that is a quite an honor."
"The coaching staffs and the people are all unbelievable," Quentin Shore said. "Angelo, especially, works a ton on skill development, and he really wants to get players to the next level."
The eldest Shore brother, Drew, a former DU star who signed with the Florida Panthers last spring, never played for the Thunderbirds because they weren't around when he sought elite competition when he was 13. So he moved to Canada.
"I think it really speaks to how much Colorado hockey has grown," Nick Shore said. "At one point there really wasn't triple-A around, but now the game has grown so much kids can stay home; they don't have to move away."
Now, they have a pipeline to DU and other big opportunities throughout North America.
Mike Chambers: 303-954-1357, email@example.com or twitter.com/mchambersdp
The University of Denver hockey team has seven players from Colorado who played youth hockey for the triple-A Colorado Thunderbirds:
F Chris Knowlton, Sr., Colorado Springs: Tied with team-leading five goals and plus-9 rating.
F Nick Shore, Jr., Denver: Top center and L.A. draft pick leads team with 13 points and 28 shots.
F Daniel Doremus, So., Aspen: Power forward has five goals, tied for team high and one more than he had last season.
F Matt Tabrum, So., Colorado Springs: With a goal and four points exceeded what he produced in 33 games as a freshman.
D Josiah Didier, So., Littleton: Prized shutdown defenseman with NHL potential. Canadians hold his rights.
F Quentin Shore, Fr., Denver: Third Shore brother has two goals and looks just as good as the first two at this stage of his career.
F Grant Arnold, Fr., Centennial: At 6-1, 215 and age 21, he's already DU's most physical role-playing forward.
EX-THUNDERBIRDS HEADING TO DU
F Landon Smith, Greenwood Village (2013): Has five goals just 13 games into his second season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (United States Hockey League).
F Brad Hawksinson, Aurora (2013): Three goals 13 games into his second season with the Lincoln Stars (USHL).
F Tyler Pham, Fort Collins (2014): Seven assists 14 games into his second season with the Indiana Ice (USHL).
EX-THUNDERBIRDS HEADING TO CC
F Christian Heil, Westminster (2013): Has scored 10 goals in 12 games in his second year for the USHL's Chicago Steel.
D Jaccob Slavin, Erie (2013): Played 10 games (five assists) for the Chicago Steel.
D Gustav Olofsson, Boras, Sweden (2013): First full season with the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers.
See the complete list of Thunderbirds alumni playing in North America. blogs.denverpost.com/colleges