In what their coach described as a “magical season,” the Denver East Angels hockey team captured both the state and USA hockey’s national high school championship titles this spring.
The Angels beat the Northport (New York) Huntington Tigers 4-2 on March 28 in Dallas for the national prize. Kaden Dunham distinguished himself by scoring a hat trick (three goals). On March 8, East defeated Valor Christian, 6-3, at the Ball Arena to take the state 5A title for the first time. Valor had won the two previous state championships.
In only their eighth year of play, the ice Angels finished their Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) season with a 20-1-1 record. Head Coach John Kopperud says his team has evolved in skill and passion.
“Our style of play is very aggressive,’’ he said. “We push things. We take chances and we encourage the kids to take chances
“When I started coaching the team seven years ago, it was more of a rec league, but every year the players wanted more, and I started expecting a little more and we’ve just gotten better and better.”
His players agree.
“I think we were so successful because we wanted it really badly,’’ said goalie and Park Hill resident Noel Friedman. “The whole squad wanted it and then we all just worked extremely hard to get it done,”
East is the only high school in Denver Public Schools with a hockey team. One-third of the players attend East, with the rest from other DPS schools – including two each from George Washington and Northfield high schools. Three students come from as far away as Brighton and Strasburg.
The multi-school team is known for scoring goals when it’s down a player because of a penalty. East parent and team manager Sherry Beardshear says the team skates with determination to win.
“The best part about the team is they never give up,’’ she said. “The number of shorthanded goals they score is incredible. And that relentlessness is what makes them so good.”
The players train more than 15 hours every week – both on and off the ice – and they continued training throughout the pandemic. “I think it absolutely helped them come together as a team,’’ Kopperud said. “Parents told me that hockey was the saving grace for their kids when so many other activities were cancelled.”
Despite the late hours on the ice, Beardshear, who is also Dean of Operations at McAuliffe International Middle School, says the coaches are firm about making sure players don’t let their schoolwork slip. Every week, the coaches get reports on the players’ academic performance. “John [Kopperud] runs a tight ship and is very strict about grades,’’ she said. “Grades are number one.”
Kopperud says the players themselves take their school performance very seriously. Only one player in the past eight years has had to leave the team because of failing grades.
“Our kids are good at keeping on it. They know they have to. There’s no wiggle room.”
Although the team had a storybook season, Kopperud isn’t taking anything for granted next year. The team will lose at least five strong players to graduation and the state conference is reorganizing so East will play highly competitive teams more often than they did this year.
Kopperud also knows that East is now a target. “We’re going to be a team that other teams come after. Most teams have two goalies that they rotate. Now we’re going to face their number one goalie all of the time.”
Still, sophomore Friedman is optimistic.
“We still have the determination and skill to do what it takes to get the job done and win it all again next year. Even though we’ll lose some key seniors, I think we still will have the ability to have another amazing year next year.”
Photos by Lisa Paterson