A version of the following story appeared in the 2016-17 second edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
When Joe Colborne and Patrick Wiercioch signed with the Colorado Avalanche as free agents on July 1, 2016, both were happy to be getting fresh starts with a new team.
What they were each surprised to find out is that they would soon be reunited on a squad for the first time since 2010, when they played their last games together as members of the University of Denver Pioneers men's hockey team.
"I think we were both excited just for ourselves first, to get that opportunity to come back. It's just even more special that we both got to come back at the same time," Wiercioch said. "Both of us wanted fresh starts, and it helped each of us transition into the new locker room. Joe has been with a couple teams, and this was my first time switching organizations. So there is a transition period for everything."
"Yeah, he was one of the first people that texted me after it happened," Colborne said of the day he signed.
For some players, the switch to a new city and organization can be stressful. New systems must be learned and new coaches, staff and teammates must be met. On top of that, there's an unfamiliar locale to explore and become accustomed to.
That wasn't the case for either Colborne or Wiercioch, as they already knew their way around from their two seasons spent at DU.
"Just little things that you don't even think about, like not worrying where you're going to get your food, where the rink is, how to get there. Different things like that are just little things that add up and make the transition so much easier," Colborne said before thinking back to when he first arrived in town as a member of the Avalanche. "It's a cool feeling. You remember all the good memories. You remember the good things, but it really clicked once I actually got back here and got back into town. All of the sudden you start seeing the places that you remember. Then it really starts to flood back to you, and you realize that you're back."
The two were friends when they played for the Pioneers, and they're happy to be back on the same squad, no matter how much has changed in their lives.
The college hockey is an experience like being part of a family. The players spend nearly every waking moment together between their living situations, classes and practices and games. It's something that doesn't translate at the professional level but that has also forged a brotherly bond between teammates that will always remain.
"The thing is--and it's one of the biggest differences between the pro and the college game--you're at the rink and then guys have families to go to. Guys have so many other things that they have to get done," Colborne said of life after university. "You're living a full life, whereas in college you go to the rink together, you go to eat together, you go to class together, you go on the road together. You're never apart from those guys, and it creates great bonds."
"It's a lot different now. I think that was the biggest eye opener when I turned pro. It's a reality," said Wiercioch. "There's guys with wives, with kids, with families, with lives outside of the rink. In college, it's open doors and you're playing video games until two in the morning because it's a school night. It's a transition in that sense."
Despite living in different cities and playing for different hockey clubs for the past six years, Colborne and Wiercioch still managed to stay connected after leaving the Pioneers at roughly the same time in 2010.
"We've been lucky that after games there's always that brief moment to catch each other in the hallway before you catch the flight," Wiercioch said. "So we've always kept in touch throughout the years. It's fun to see where people are at with their lives and where they're playing."
For Colborne, any chance to see Wiercioch develop as a player over the years has been enjoyable.
"Seeing the way that his game has evolved since college is pretty impressive," said the 26-year-old center from Calgary, Alberta. "You go and you see him once or twice a year when you're playing, and he was injured for a while, so I maybe saw him three or four games in three or four years. Over that span, I can see how he's improved as a player. His overall presence on the ice has grown, and it's exciting for me to see how he's progressed."
The last time the two of them took the ice together, the Pioneers were poised for a run at the National Championship. Alas, the No. 1-ranked club ran aground in the 2010 NCAA East Regional when it lost a heartbreaking 2-1 contest to RIT.
They had grown as players together, co-won the Barry Sharp Freshman of the Year Award during their rookie year, won the WCHA regular-season title as teammates and then both decided to forego their final two collegiate years to pursue their major-league desires.
"We had conversations throughout the year, and we knew we had a special team. We obviously thought we had a chance to go win a National Championship and that stung," Colborne said of their decision to leave school for the professional ranks. "That was the one thing that was kind of holding me back. I think Patty signed like right after we lost our last game, and it took me about another day. That was the one thing that was holding me back. I felt like there was some unfinished business, but you look at how it's worked out for both of us, obviously it was a good call. Those were the best two years of my life."
Each player fondly recalls his time spent at DU, reminiscing not only about the playing days, but also about the time spent in the area.
"It was unbelievable. Looking back, it was probably two of the most fun years of hockey I've ever played," said the 26-year-old rear guard from Burnaby, British Columbia. "There's been stretches when you've turned pro where it's been fun, but it's a business at this level. You're in the industry of trying to get wins and there's pressure with that. In college, you were with your friends 24/7, two games a weekend where you lay it on the line. So it was a great experience.
"Freshman year, we were all living in Centennial Towers, which was nice because we had a kitchen and a little more space. A lot of us ate lunch in Driscoll there. Guys were pretty crazy about the wraps and sandwiches there. Guys were switching their meal money into cash to make sure they could afford that. We went to Bruegger's Bagels for breakfast almost every game day. You'd see about nine of us lined up there for a game day."
While the campus and surrounding Denver area has changed somewhat, the memories and experiences remain the same.
"There's definitely some turnover. The staples are still there, like the original Chipotle, obviously, and a few of the other spots like Crimson & Gold. There's some spots that are staples, and then everything else, the name changes but it's pretty much the same-like Spanky's. It might be under a different heading, but it's still pretty much the same atmosphere."
One place they both spent time was at the stand of former hot dog vendor and campus fixture Yakov Neyman, who once maintained a permanent spot in the middle of the bustling action of life at DU, providing food and sage advice as a Russian mechanical engineer turned food service specialist.
"I lived there for a while. There was nothing better," Colborne recalled with a grin on his face. "You're racing in between classes, and you might have 10 minutes. You come out of Sturm and you'd race over and grab the dog and race right back into class. For a guy like me who was trying as much as I could to put weight on, we developed a pretty good relationship."
"Of course, right between Driscoll there," said Wiercioch. "Great spot."
Video: Joe Colborne reflects on Burgundy/White Game at DU
When either of them returns to the University of Denver, they are filled with the rich history of life spent at school, living out their dreams as they grew from kids into men.
"I've been back a couple times, once for the Burgundy/White Game and once for my wife's alumni game for volleyball. It still looks the same to me," Wiercioch admitted. "I know there's been changes, I know there's been updates. Call it nostalgia, but you only see what you want to see. You see the same brick buildings that you lived in."
One person who was influential in that journey was former coach George Gwozdecky.
"You don't really appreciate him as much until you look back and realize the challenges of being a college coach. You have to find that balance between being a mentor and a father figure to the guys," Colborne said. "I was 18, you know. It's different than in junior hockey when you're 16 and you need that father figure as a coach, and it's different when you're in the pros and you don't need that type of coaching anymore. You need someone who's professional and works with you on the ice.
"Gwoz found that balance so well. The way he treated us, he gave us the opportunity to be adults. You appreciate it when you have him, but then a few years later you sit and look back and just realize the quality of human being he is. That's what I'm so fortunate to have had, and when I look back and when I see Gwoz, there's just a big smile on my face because you just know how much he cared about every single one of his players. He was just as proud of the guys who went to the NHL as he was of the guys who rarely played and got a degree and are doing good things in the world now."
Video: Patrick Wiercioch reflects on Burgundy/White Game
With the Avs, both Colborne and Wiercioch have been given the chance to continue what they started together in college, providing support to a team that has made quite a few changes since last season.
Fittingly, the first time they donned the Colorado sweater was for the Burgundy/White Game in Magness Arena at DU. They had grown as players and people in that rink. What better place to start a new chapter than in such a familiar place.