Breaking Bad: DU Edition

A DU hockey game from 15 years ago has fans of the popular television show wondering what’s up for the series finale.
September 2013

So you might have heard about it already: The penultimate installment of the television hit Breaking Bad features a college hockey game that some folks think teases this Sunday’s series finale. But—at least for fans of Colorado hockey—it wasn’t an ordinary game. It was a University of Denver matchup with the University of Wisconsin. From February 13, 1998.

You can read all about the research behind that here, but these are the facts: Wisconsin won the game 7-4 after DU squandered a 3-1 road lead with 13:16 left in the third period. On paper, it seems like a pretty epic collapse—which would go well with a pretty epic television show that has its main character, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), going through his own significant fall.

I’ll leave it for others to decide what the episode means, but I wanted to know the story behind that game. To get the facts, I talked to someone in the University of Denver’s athletic department who put me in touch with Steve Miller, a DU assistant coach who was also a coach on the Pioneers staff that day more than 15 years ago. He first heard about the Breaking Bad episode when someone at the university told him about it. “Now it’s gone viral,” he says. “I clicked on [an online story], and I was laughing.”

So what does he make of the DU-Wisconsin matchup redux? “I think the game has to do something about a rapid downfall,” Miller says. “Something is going to happen, and it’s bad for Bryan Cranston.”

Here is Miller’s recollection of that DU game, which has been edited for clarity:      

“That was a tough year. We lost 26 games [that season] and the next year, we won 26 games. We went through some turbulent times.

“Wisconsin was having a good year and we were struggling. But the second half of the year, in February, we beat [Colorado College] and tied them and they were top five in the country. We were playing pretty good that February. We took a 3-1 lead against Wisconsin with about 13 minutes left. It seemed like were in total control, but it just collapsed. Everything. You name it, it happened.”

“It was definitely crazy. We went up 3-1 and I said to myself, `Well, I guess we’ve got this one under control.’ And then two minutes later…. It was a [Wisconsin] goal, and then we got flustered. I grew up in Wisconsin, so I went to the Dane County Coliseum all the time. Great Dane, that was the nickname. I knew how loud that place could get. It was a tough, tough place to play.

“I was up top, in the press area, so I watched it unfold. We couldn’t get the momentum back. It just happens. You lose the momentum and guys try to get cute and you turn over pucks. You play against a good team, and before you know it, they’re coming back at you. A big thing about that rink was when the momentum changed and the fans got into it. It was 8,600 people. That coliseum was tight and packed. When you can’t communicate on the ice, then that makes the game almost impossible. It becomes a one-man game. You’re getting dummied. You have no answer.

“It was 3-1. Then 6-4. We got within 5-4, but then they scored two open-net goals. Paul Comrie made it 5-4 for us on a penalty shot. There’s 1:32 left, and it’s 5-4. So we still got a chance to tie. And then they score two open-net goals. Coach [George] Gwozdecky, one of his go-tos over the years was if they scored an empty net goal on us, the goalie was still staying out. We’re still trying to score. Most teams put their goalie back in, but we’re still trying to score. We’re trying to win.

“When the roof fell, it didn’t collapse all the way. It’s 5-4, and we have some time left. We’ve got a minute to get back into their zone and score. It wasn’t like we were up by six goals and all of a sudden…we’re up by two. And I’ll say this: The 3-1 lead was a little misleading. Wisconsin was playing better than us. They weren’t scoring, but they were getting better chances. [Denver’s] Bryan Vines didn’t score a lot of goals in his career—he was a great defender—but he scores to put us up 3-1. It didn’t feel like a 3-1 game, though. We didn’t feel like we could put the game to bed, even if we were up by two on the road. This was not one of those games.”

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock