The University of Denver Pioneers are set to play game one of their Gold Pan series this weekend at Ball Arena for the first time ever. The Pioneers are no stranger to such a big stage. The program hosted an outdoor game in the Battle on Blake in 2016, the Loveland Regional at Budweiser Events Center, and their most recent national title commanded country-wide attention as Denver tied the University of Michigan for nine national championships – the most of any program.

For sophomore defenseman Sean Behrens, it’s not even the biggest stage he’s played on this month. The Colorado Avalanche draft pick, selected 61st overall in the 2021 draft, recently returned from the 2023 World Junior Championship to round out his second year at DU.

Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The tournament came on the heels of an eventful offseason. After becoming a national champion in April, he attended the Colorado Avalanche’s development camp in July.

Also at camp was Denver head coach David Carle.

“It was cool for him to be there, and I think he went in the same way as (I did): wanting to learn, and take things from there and bring them here to Denver,” said Behrens. “He’s been able to do that and help me.”

Carle spoke about the positive relationship forged between the University of Denver program and the Colorado Avalanche organization.

“We’re really looking forward to playing the game down there at Ball Arena, and we couldn’t do that without their support,” said Carle. “It’s a really good partnership, and they’ve really shown that they’re the leader of hockey in this community. They’ve gone above and beyond to really make it a community which I think is critical to the success of all of us.”

At camp, Behrens was roommates with current Colorado Eagles defenseman, Wyatt Aamodt. Though his first games after the leap to the American League were a bit of an adjustment, Aamodt has carved out a role for himself in the top-four of the Eagles’ d-corps.

Like Behrens eventually will, Aamodt made the transition from the NCAA to the professional league. Last season, they played one another in the title game. Aamodt was the captain for the Minnesota State Mavericks.

“He was an awesome guy to have there,” said Behrens. “He was an older guy at Development Camp, so he really helped me and a lot of other guys find our way around. He did an awesome job being a leader there.”

He soaked up the experience at development camp. “It was awesome to be around those coaches,” he said. “You learn a lot there about the next level. Going into that, you want to go there and impress. For me, it was going in to take out what the coaches had to give and to learn and develop. That’s helped me a lot this year throughout the first half and World Juniors.”

In August, he attended the 2022 World Junior Championship tournament hungry to get the experience he had hoped for in December before a positive COVID-19 test sidelined him from the tournament that was ultimately rescheduled for that summer.

Unfortunately, he experienced more adversity. From a healthy scratch to the seventh man, an injury eventually forced him out of the tournament prematurely. USA would fall 2-4 to Czechia in a quarterfinal upset.

Like many things with Behrens, he viewed the experience through a learning lens.

What can this moment teach me?

“With the summer and getting COVID, it’s to take nothing for granted,” he started. “Those were experiences you look back on – and they sucked at the time – but now looking back on it, I’ve grown a lot from them. They’ve helped me a lot throughout this year knowing you have to be at your best all the time.”

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s practice or games because nothing is given to you. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it doesn’t matter who you are. You have to go into every game at your best.”

Come December, he would get another chance. He was named an alternate captain for Team USA at the start of the 2023 World Junior Championship tournament.

“That’s something that I’ve worked into my game here in Denver,” he explained. “Being a leader, not being afraid to step up in locker rooms, take charge, and say what’s on my mind. That’s something that I picked up here (at Denver).” 

David Carle corroborated this too.

“It’s a great honor for him to have that opportunity and good experience for him to have to go through that,” he said. “He’s someone that we see to play a similar leadership role as he continues to age through our program.”

Not unlike the summer tournament, Behrens started on the bottom pairing.

“You start down the lineup and you want to play as much as you can, you want to make as much of an impact as you can, but it’s (also) accepting what role you’re put in,” he explained. “Throughout both tournaments, going through that helped me (to) find my identity on the team and find out where I fit on that team, even though it’s not the same as here in Denver.”

He didn’t remain on the bottom pairing for long – just pre-tournament play and two regular games. In the tournament opener, Behrens was named Player of the Game with a goal and an assist in spite of it all.

By the third game against Switzerland, he was moved to the top pair alongside New Jersey Devils’ first-round pick, Luke Hughes, and it’s where he would stay.

“That’s what’s special about those tournaments, you have to have guys who are top guys elsewhere come in and play a bottom-six role/ bottom-pairing role,” he said. “That’s something that I embraced. As the tournament went on I was able to grow out of that, but at the start, it was something that helped me.”

“That’s how I went into that tournament,” he added. “Knowing that you aren’t going to be a top offensive guy, but taking care of my own end was big and something I really wanted to focus on. I knew the offense would come playing with guys that have that much skill and the guys that can make plays.”

Team USA experienced heartbreak in their 6-2 loss to Canada, but they still had a chance in the bronze medal game against Sweden. The final game was a buzzer-beater. USA snagged the bronze medal in a thrilling 8-7 overtime victory. USA scored two back-to-back late in the third to earn a one-goal lead, but Sweden tied it up with 22 seconds left. USA’s Chaz Lucius scored the game-winner in overtime.

Behrens emerged as a standout, reliable defender for Team USA at the end of it all. He finished with a goal and two assists in the tournament and finally saw this one through to completion.

“It’s always an unbelievable experience being able to put on that jersey,” he said. “Having the opportunity to represent your country, especially on a stage that big was awesome. To have success there (and) win a bronze medal with guys you played with for four years, some of your best friends, it was an awesome way to cap that off.”

He was happy to have family in attendance for the important moment. After spending two major holidays living out of a suitcase in a hotel, he was also grateful to return to Denver’s campus. After all, he had another national championship to chase.

He returned to DU in the second game of a series against Alaska Fairbanks on January 7th. Denver dropped the first game of that series 1-3. In his return, the Pioneers won 7-2, and Behrens had two assists.

“To have him back, he’s a massive piece to our team. He’s good on the power play, good in all situations, and he’s just an unbelievable hockey player. He helps us win games. As you (can) see, two games he’s back and we win both,” teammate Carter Mazur said after Denver’s weekend sweep of Miami.

“It’s a big confidence booster and that’s what we’ve seen in (him),” said Carle.” He looked really sure of himself on Saturday coming back into that game against Fairbanks, and I would expect that to continue in the second half.”

“He makes people around him better,” Carle added. “When he’s on the ice, good things happen, and he really enjoys defending as well. He takes pride in boxing people out, getting into people, and having good gaps. It drives our transitional play and our possession game.”

On the surface, his production has tapered off compared to last year’s pace. He has two goals and twelve assists through 21 games. His shooting percentage is comparable and more of his production has come from five-on-five play compared to his contributions on the powerplay last year.

He wears contact in the neutral zone to drive play up ice. He’s still utilized on the powerplay, but it’s his reliability on the penalty kill and confidence in his own end that has impressed.

One of the first units out on the penalty kill, he has proven a trusted defender in high-risk situations. He’s positionally sound. You can watch him apply his high IQ at the netfront to read the play, assess shooting lanes, make blocks accordingly, sweep away pucks, and clear. He has careful habits: controlled entries and exits and good gap control.

He’s more attentive to the defensive details.

“He’s becoming a more complete 200-foot defenseman which makes it easy for us to put him on the ice in all situations,” said Carle. “He’s bigger, he’s stronger, with a little more confidence to be able to do what he does.”

Behrens acknowledged this in his own assessment of his year so far.

“I’ve taken steps in the right direction in a lot of parts of my game,” he said. “Defensively I’ve been a lot more consistent, closing on guys, transitioning pucks. Offensively the numbers haven’t been there, but I’ve been creating a lot. (While chances haven’t) necessarily been going in, (I’m) moving pucks while creating more five-on-five and I can still do a better job of that.”

Last year, he cited closing guys out along the boards more quickly as an area of focus. In Development Camp, his skating looked improved. Faster, more mobile.

“It’s a lot of little (details on) footwork. Coach Dallas Ferguson does a great job telling you little things to do: not taking a turn too wide or too sharp. It’s knowing when you have to be in the right position That’s gotten a lot better, and just being a little bit more fluid of a skater has helped me,” he explained.

He also skated with skating coaches a couple of times this summer. It’s not something he’s done religiously, but it has helped.

Assistant Coach Dallas Ferguson sets Denver’s powerplay.

“We like things to run through him,” he started. “His skill set with being able to think the game and think sequentially really helps on the powerplay. The other asset is bringing pucks up the ice. It’s being in charge in the offensive zone, but also an ability to make the first play up the ice too (that) really helps with the efficiency of getting set up.”

“He’s really smart and he’s really competitive,” Ferguson added. “When he starts to look at, ‘What other things can I can bring to my game that can help me be a better defender?’ You start looking at his efficiency, how he can use his competitiveness, which means using his body. By keeping his feet in good positions underneath him and not getting too extended really helps with his ability to defend bigger people and the ability to angle too.”

“You watch Behrens off the rush, he’s really good at getting into people and his timing of it is his hockey sense. The ability to keep his feet underneath him gives him a little bit more balance and a little bit more power when he starts to get into these bigger players.”

Assistant Coach Tavis MacMillan and Dallas Ferguson played hockey with the Avalanche’s Director of Amateur Scouting, Wade Klippenstein. The trio has a connection that goes back to their time as players at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Behrens was recruited to play for Denver when he was in ninth grade.

By the time of the 2021 draft, MacMillian and Ferguson had plenty of insights to add to Klippenstein’s thorough research of Behrens ahead of his second-round selection.

Behrens is in contact with the Avs Director of Player Development Brian Willsie and Development Skills Coach Steven Reinprecht pretty regularly – every few weeks or so.

“It’s awesome to have them close, whether you have to talk to them or whether it’s going out to dinner to see what they think of where my game is at and some things I can improve on,” Behrens said. He said he can talk to them about little details of his game or even just life things.

As for his next steps?

“I haven’t had any conversations about that yet,” he said. “For me, it’s helping this team win another national championship, bringing the tenth national championship to this school.”

At the end of the year, he’ll have a conversation on whether to stay at DU or sign with the Avalanche and turn pro.

“That’s something that we’ll get to down the road, but right now I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on this team here.”

The Pioneers have ten more games down the stretch before they embark on their playoff run. Behrens was named the NCHC’s defenseman of the week on January 16th, and in five games back, he’s put up six points: a goal and five assists.

He will be a key player in Denver’s playoff ambitions. No matter the outcome when his season is over, a Colorado Eagles lineup hurting for defensemen after the departures of Danil Zhuravlyov and Rob Hamilton certainly has a place for him should he choose to make the professional leap.

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