First-year CU hockey head coach Jeff Neitenbach not only lives and breathes the sport, but bleeds black and gold. His team has new gear, a new rink and a new coaching staff this season, but if anything will bring them success this fall and winter, it’s that deep-seated Colorado loyalty.
“When I played here, my favorite time of the day was coming to play hockey, and the guys I still talk to today I played with here,” he said. “I want to create that same atmosphere.”
It seems that Neitenbach has every opportunity to carve his own masterpiece into the ice, especially because his potential roster is teeming with rookies. Forty-two freshmen tried out for the 2014-2015 season, and only 25 skaters total will make the final cut.
“I didn’t do too much recruiting,” he admitted.
By the time Neitenbach was hired in early June of 2014, it was a little late for that.
“A lot of the kids either know who I am, know my brothers or have played with my brothers, so that helped, I think. Besides that, I don’t know…we just got lucky, I guess. We have a pretty talented freshman class.”
The rest of the coaching staff boasts talent as well. Assistant coach Andrew Neitenbach, also a CU alum, played for the Buffaloes and, for a short time, the Wichita Thunder. Rounding out the trio is Nathan Davis. Davis’ hockey resume includes NCAA Division I play, a World Juniors Team USA jersey and time in the Chicago Blackhawks farm system.
After last season’s 11-19-2 overall record, priorities unsurprisingly include strength training, speed and academic eligibility. Short term progress aside, Neitenbach cites a national tournament appearance and a top-20 ACHL ranking as highlights in his vision for the Colorado hockey program.
“Coming in to the season now, I think it’s pretty realistic.”
Talent and strength won’t get the Buffs to nationals, though. Leadership also plays a role. With so many fresh faces, the core of returning skaters is naturally the first place to go for guidance, but Neitenbach believes inspiration can come from anyone.
“I don’t have a problem with picking a freshman as a captain,” he said. “Sidney Crosby was 18 or 19 when he was named a captain of the Penguins, and he’s been a good one ever since then. Plus, the guys last year didn’t have a very good year. I don’t know if that was a question of leadership or personnel.”
Overall, Colorado’s potential game-time prowess is undeniable, but building Buffs hockey will take outreach and promotion off of the ice as well. Neitenbach is placing responsibility on the players, as well as a newly formed crew of volunteers, to create a palpable presence for the program on campus and in the minds of students.
“When I was a freshman, the players were hanging banners up in their dorms, telling everybody in the dining halls, stuff like that,” he said. “All the media coverage we can get helps. If kids see that ‘Oh, we’ve got a hockey team’, or ‘Oh we’re playing CSU’, that does a lot for us.”
Last year’s head coach, Eric Ballard, wanted to win hockey games by playing fast. Neitenbach agrees, but stresses a more basic and deliberate approach.
“Hockey’s a simple game. You can do a lot by just being in the right place at the right time.”
We’ll soon see if he is right. Colorado plays at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, Sept. 12, in an exhibition game against the Superior Roughriders at the CU Rec Center. The first home game of the season, against Midland University, is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 18.
At the end of the day, behind all the drills, penalties, wins and losses, the program will always exist for the love of the game.
“We want guys to be dedicated and want to be here,” Neitenbach said. “I want guys to love to come to the rink.”
Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Jordyn Siemens at firstname.lastname@example.org.