Blackhawks great Keith Magnuson’s memory looms over Denver’s NCAA hockey title – Chicago Tribune
Keith Magnuson would have loved this.
Here was Denver, Maggie’s alma mater, infiltrating his hockey town in a way that would have made the rambunctious redhead smile. Here were the Pioneers, wearing the same colors Magnuson wore in college, beating Minnesota Duluth 3-2 at the United Center for the NCAA championship.
“He would be leading the circus if he was around,” said Kevin Magnuson, son of the late Blackhawks defenseman.
Hours before Jarid Lukosevicius’ hat trick set off a party on the ice, Denver’s pep band played in the parking lot. The school’s cheerleaders danced in crimson and gold skirts, and kids with painted faces mimicked every move. Denver’s impressive hockey following made the UC all about DU, the roar loudest when the Pioneers scored two goals 16 seconds apart in the second period.
Chicago rolled out the red carpet — literally — for both teams by giving players the Blackhawks treatment when they arrived at the arena, but forgive Denver if it felt more like a reunion than an introduction — and not just for Hawks sixth-round draft pick Blake Hillman. Familiar, friendly signs were everywhere for the Pioneers.
Hawks board member John Miller, a Denver alumnus and CEO of North American Corp. who is a longtime friend of Rocky Wirtz, recently made a significant contribution toward the Pioneers’ new $2.1 million, 7,000-square-foot hockey facility.
Miller chaired the search committee that hired Denver coach Jim Montgomery in 2013, a process that included consultation with Hawks brass. He helped arrange Denver’s midseason tour of the UC when the Pioneers stopped on their way East to watch a Hawks-Jets game Dec. 27, practice at Johnny’s IceHouse West and listen to a speech by Hawks general manager Stan Bowman.
“That was smart to give them a taste of what the place was about,” Wirtz said in his office before the game.
“Just wanted to make them comfortable in case they made it,” Miller added.
Then there was the connection to Magnuson, Chicago’s fan favorite whose banner honoring No. 3 hangs from the rafters — also for Pierre Pilote. Magnuson’s tragic death in a car accident Dec. 15, 2003, traumatized three families: the Magnusons, the Blackhawks and the Pioneers.
At Montgomery’s first Frozen Four news conference Wednesday, the Denver coach acknowledged that reality by saying, “Keith Magnuson was a hero in Denver hockey and a hero here.”
“My dad felt like he owed everything in his life to the University of Denver,” said Kevin, 40, a hockey agent who lives in Chicago and has three Denver players as clients.
Kevin’s dad was a senior in high school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when Keith’s best friend, Cliff Koroll, returned home from Denver for Christmas break. Koroll was having so much fun in Colorado, he wanted company.
“I remember saying to Maggie, ‘You’ve got to come to Denver,'” Koroll said. “I told my coach, Murray Armstrong, that Maggie was a quality person and player, and they recruited him.”
Good tip. During an All-America college career, Magnuson led Denver to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1968 and ’69 before becoming one of the rare players to put on an Indian-head sweater without a day of minor-league hockey. Magnuson, Koroll and Denver teammate Jim Wiste blazed the same trail to the Hawks back when NCAA players were less popular in the NHL.
The college teammates remained friends as professionals, with Magnuson and Koroll spending 1969 to 1980 with the Hawks. When Magnuson became the Hawks’ coach in 1980, he named Koroll his assistant. Wiste, who had a less distinguished career, remained close enough that he was the one who broke the news of Magnuson’s accident in person to Kevin, in law school at the time in Denver.
“Those three guys, not to sound cheesy, but they were true pioneers as college guys,” Kevin said. “My dad was proud he never spent a day in the minors.”
A prouder day for Keith came to mind upon Kevin seeing Denver and Minnesota Duluth compete for a national championship. It was 1998 when Kevin followed in his father’s footsteps by winning an NCAA title when his Michigan team beat Boston College, a moment that still makes his eyes big 19 years later.
“That hug he gave me after the ceremony, it was a real cool father-son moment,” Kevin said.
Another memorable one happened later, with Keith absent. Kevin was playing in the East Coast Hockey League when a bruiser named Keith Bland skated toward him. He braced himself for a big hit — and laughed when Bland’s message wasn’t intimidating at all.
“All he wanted to tell me was that he was named after my dad,” Kevin said. “It’s pretty cool that I’ve met eight or nine people named Keith after my dad.”
Surely more than that invoked Keith Magnuson’s name Saturday at 1901 W. Madison as his alma mater earned No. 1 status directly under his No. 3. From a Chicago sports fan perspective, Saturday’s NCAA hockey final represented a tree falling in the middle of a dense forest with all five of the city’s pro teams busy making noise.
But for Hawks fans with good memories, and perhaps a few Pioneers, it offered a chance to reminisce about a player quite unforgettable.
“A special night,” Kevin said.
His dad would have loved it.