It's hard to get lost at Colorado College. The picturesque campus
in Colorado Springs takes up a tidy 90 acres at the foot of Pikes
Peak, and a groggy undergrad can make it from bed to British
Poetry in less than 10 minutes. The enrollment at the respected
liberal arts college (barely 1,900) isn't much higher than the
average SAT score (1,260) of its academically inclined students.
Class size is capped at 25, so there aren't any mass gatherings
in which jocks and slackers can doze unnoticed in the back of a
lecture hall. "My first class here had seven kids," says Tom
Preissing, a senior economics major and captain of the hockey
team. "There's nowhere to hide."
Opponents must have a similar feeling when they face Preissing
and the Tigers. At week's end Colorado College was 23-4-5,
comfortably atop the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and
ranked first in the national polls. In addition to Preissing, the
country's top-scoring defenseman (with 38 points), Colorado
College's sparse student body also includes junior left wing
Peter Sejna, the country's leading scorer (30 goals, 34 assists)
and a top candidate for the Hobey Baker Award. "It's little
Colorado College," says Don Lucia, who stood behind the Tigers'
bench for six seasons before taking over at Minnesota in 1999.
"But when it comes to hockey, it's like a Big Ten power."
Colorado College's low national profile belies a hockey tradition
dating to the 1930s. The school hosted the first 10 NCAA
championships, from 1948 to '57, and won national titles in '50
and '57. But that second championship was the Tigers' last NCAA
tournament appearance for 21 years. By 1993, on the heels of an
NCAA investigation into recruiting improprieties, some at the
school were calling to drop the sport.
Lucia, with current coach Scott Owens as an assistant, saved the
program by leading it to the 1993-94 WCHA title in his first
year and to the NCAA championship game in '96. Since taking over
three years ago, Owens, a goaltender for the team from '76 to
'79, has made the Tigers a perennial powerhouse by scouring North
America for players who'll be comfortable on the school's
neighborhood-sized campus. "Kids who want a Big Ten atmosphere
won't enjoy this," he says. "But we offer a chance to play
big-time hockey, live in a beautiful part of the country and get
a great education."
In recruiting, Owens's hands are often tied by the school's cost
(upward of $35,000) and emphasis on study. But athletes are
helped by the block plan, in which students take courses one at a
time, in 3 1/2-week segments. The schedule is intense--classes run
from 9 a.m. to noon every day--but most players flourish under
it. Owens's teams have had a 100% graduation rate.
Players like Preissing and Sejna, who flew under the national
radar as freshmen and then developed into stars, are the
program's lifeblood. Preissing was a forward at Rosemount (Minn.)
High and had played just a year and a half of defense in junior
hockey when he arrived in Colorado Springs. Sejna, a mathematical
economics major, left his home in Slovakia when he was 18 to play
for a junior team in Des Moines. He came to Colorado Springs two
years later because he liked the idea of learning English at a
small school. Both players are undrafted free agents who could
strike it rich with an NHL team this summer. (Seven current
Tigers have been drafted, none higher than the fourth round.) "I
don't want to think about that stuff right now," says Sejna, who
can return for his senior year if he doesn't like the NHL offers
he receives. "We have a chance to win a championship here."
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO D-LIGHT Preissing (20) leads the nation's backliners in scoring.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO
Hobey Baker candidate Peter Sejna (right) is the nation's best
undrafted college free agent. SI special contributor Pierre
McGuire ranks the next four collegians who fit into that category
and could sign with a team this summer.
PLAYER, POSITION SCHOOL
1. Chris Kunitz, LW Ferris State (Mich.)
Pure shooter (26 goals at week's end) needs to become more physical
to be an NHL regular.
2. Bryce Cockburn, F Northern Michigan
Solid two-way performer plays a physical game and excels at shutting down top opponents.
3. Peter Hay, F UMass--Lowell
Has good hands and, at 6'5", 205, the size to be a top power forward, but he's raw and a clumsy skater.
4. Nick Deschenes, F Yale
Good scorer (eight goals, ten assists) with skills, smarts and size (6'3", 223 pounds).