Denver East hockey off to a hot start in its first season — and aiming high

Denver East hockey

Jack Longenecker (second from right) and Denver East hockey have started this season 6-1-0. (Courtesy of Jennifer Hernandez)

Denver East is in its first year of fielding a varsity hockey team. But that's not going to stop the Angels from setting lofty goals.

The program, announced in the spring, is off to a 6-1-0 start this winter, including 3-0-0 in Peak Conference games. It's surprising, but not quite stunning. And they have further aspirations: the frozen four.

"Our goal in the locker room, it sounds crazy, but I want to be undefeated in the Peak (Conference). If not undefeated, definitely get that top seed," Angels coach Chris Delaney said Tuesday. "That really gives us a nice entryway into the frozen four. Long-term goal is the frozen four this year. It'd be making history. There'd be no better way to start the program."

Denver East hockey

(Courtesy of Jennifer Hernandez)

Included in Denver East's hot start are wins over Steamboat Springs, Columbine and Doherty — all teams that made the playoffs last season. Columbine was ranked No. 9 at the time.

The win over Doherty, meanwhile, came on Monday night after the Angels had endured a three-hour trip down I-25 that was slowed by snowy road conditions.

The two teams were tied at 3 heading to the third period.

"We told them, 'We just spent three hours in a bus. It's going to be a long ride if we lose,' That resonated with those guys," Delaney said.

East got two quick goals from Jack Longenecker in the third — he had four in the game — and then held on for a 5-4 win. Delaney called it his team's best win of the season to date.

This type of success for a new program is not unprecedented. Cherry Creek began play in 2012-13, and made the semifinals last season. Mountain Vista started in 2011-12, and has reached the quarterfinals in each year of play.

"There's growth in hockey right now, and we're going to be adding a couple more teams. It's really exciting to be a part of," Delaney said. "And then throw Denver Public Schools in the mix, it's really cool that we're able to get a team in there.

"Just the number of students and the hockey players in the district there, I expect us to be perennial contenders."

The East team is a district program, meaning any player who attends attends a DPS school can tryout for the team.

Eleven of the 28 players on this year's roster played with Bishop Machebeuf last season, and that team reached the quarterfinals. (Machebeuf no longer fields a program.) Five more played on Kent Denver. But Delaney estimated that 80 percent of the roster attends Denver East.

"Mostly the reason (they played elsewhere) was because there was no program at East," Delaney said. "Most of the kids are from Denver East, so that's really cool for the program."

It makes for a great recipe of support, too. When the team opened its home season against Kent Denver at Big Bear on Dec. 5, students came out in droves.

Denver East hockey

Denver East fans crowded Big Bear arena for the team's home opener in early December. (Courtesy of Jennifer Hernandez)

"The place was packed," Delaney said. "We were up at Big Bear, which doesn't have any stands. So around the rink, around the entire rink, was probably three or four (people) deep."

Delaney has a club background. He has headed an under-8 program at DU for the past four seasons, but grew up playing high school hockey at the renowned St. Sebastian's School in Boston. (He later played four seasons at Boston College, and also in Europe.) So high school hockey has always held a special place in his heart.

"It was a great part of my life, and I really want to share it with these guys, too," he said.

Nights like the home opener are a big reason why.

"It's just the pride of the school. That's something you don't see in club hockey," Delaney said. "That's why I like the high school stuff. You're playing for your community, and when you have a community like Denver East with that many people and alumni, it's pretty cool."

As for for this season, the Angels are on a winter break until Jan. 9, when they play No. 8 Lewis-Palmer. It'll be another tough test, and take extra importance as a Peak Conference game.

Moving forward, Delaney is hopeful that the Angels' depth will continue to be an advantage. East has the ability to play four lines, something that isn't very common around the state.

"That's been the biggest things that I've seen," he said. "Some of these smaller schools, they have one great line, and four or five good players and those guys are scoring 80 percent of the goals.

"So if we can just shut those lines down and just battle with our second and third lines and run out that fourth line, and keep our (first line) fresh for the third period, those guys (on the other team) are getting pretty tired."

East is led by Longenecker, who had 19 goals and 28 assists last season, good enough to put his 47 points second in the entire state. He has nine goals and an assist this season. Noah Hernandez leads the team with 13 points (four goals, nine assists), and Max Bublitz has eight (three goals, five assists).

Denver East hockey

(Courtesy of Jennifer Hernandez)

But, to Delaney's point, 14 different players have recorded at least one point through seven games. It's partially due to the fact that East has yet to play a game with its full lineup with various players out at one time or another due to club team commitments.

"The good part of that is that kids who normally wouldn't have played are playing vital roles," Delaney said.

So the Angels' depth, already an asset, is growing.

Does it mean the frozen four is within reach? Maybe. It's possible.

One thing is certain, though: Though this high school is already loaded with history, a special season from its first-year hockey team would never be forgotten.

"I do think they realize the history (at the school), and that's definitely something we talk about," Delaney said. "I talk about it as a coach: 'This is the first year, inaugural season, and they'll remember you guys forever if you do something special.'"