As the former Pioneer battles ALS, State Sen. David Tomassoni helps inspire Denver's NCAA hockey title
The five-goal third period the Denver Pioneers produced to win the school's record-tying ninth NCAA hockey title was spurred in part by inspiring words from a former player who is fighting a deadly disease while serving in the Minnesota state legislature.
ST. PAUL — Like so many stories that involve Minnesota hockey or Minnesota politics, or both, this one starts at Mancini’s — the legendary steakhouse on West Seventh Street that is roughly equidistant from Xcel Energy Center and the State Capitol.
Davie Carle was an assistant coach with the University of Denver, and the Pioneers were having a team meal there one year in March, before playing in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. A Minnesota politician ambled over to their table and introduced himself, sharing with the players that he knew a little about Denver hockey.
Long before he spent 30 years in public service, State Senator David Tomassoni was a defenseman on the Pioneers’ blue line, and skated in the NCAA Frozen Four with two of coach Murray Armstrong’s Denver teams in the 1970s. Both times the tournament was in Boston, and both times, the Pioneers failed to bring the big trophy home to the Front Range.
Tomassoni went on to log 16 years playing professional hockey in Italy, and skated with the Italians in the 1984 Winter Olympics before returning to his native Iron Range and winning a seat in the State Legislature in 1992. He quickly earned a reputation as a tireless fighter on behalf of his northeastern Minnesota constituency.
In the fight of his life
A year ago, Tomassoni knew something wasn’t right with his body. He tried to ignore the issues, but they weren’t going away. He sought medical advice. A bevy of tests were run and came back with some brutal news. In July 2021, Tomassoni announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS — a disease for which there is no cure, affecting the connections between the brain and nerve cells. ALS causes irreversible degeneration of the body, but leaves a person’s mind intact.
“I feel great, and I’ll be around for a while longer,” Tomassoni told friends at the time. Indeed, even as the disease has progressed, robbing him of many of the things he can do physically, Tomassoni has been hard at work getting legislation passed to fund ALS research. In March 2022, he was the driving force behind a bill to dedicate $20 million to the ALS battle in Minnesota. And of course, throughout the fight, he has still been seen at the hockey rink.
In October 2021 when Minnesota Duluth hosted Minnesota, he and son, Dante, sat in the top row of Amsoil Arena’s lower bowl, with the elder Tomassoni proudly wearing his Denver hockey hat. He was one of the legislators who worked behind the scenes to help get the Bulldogs’ home ice built a little over a decade ago, and has always been well-respected in the Twin Ports, despite his status as an alumnus of one of the Bulldogs’ conference rivals.
A fitting honor
In December 2021 when the Pioneers came to Duluth for a two-game series, and with Tomassoni’s ALS progressing, both hockey programs felt the time was right to honor the senator for his work on the ice in Denver and in the halls of power in St. Paul. UMD invited Tomassoni to drop the first puck for a game between the Bulldogs and Pioneers. Denver coach David Carle went one step further, and asked Tomassoni’s sons to bring their father to the team’s Saturday morning skate on Dec. 11.
“We surprised him with a jersey with his name and a ‘C’ on it because he was a captain here,” Carle said. “After practice the team circled around him and thanked him for all he’s done for Denver hockey and he shared a few words with the guys.”
Tomassoni later admitted via text message that it was an emotional moment, and words were hard to produce, but thinking about his two disappointing trips to Boston as a Pioneers player, and knowing that the tournament was back there this season, his message was simple and forceful.
“I just have one bit of advice for you,” he said with the team gathered around him. “When you play in the national championship game, win the f—ing thing.”
He had more to say, but his emotions, and the Pioneers cheering and slapping their sticks on the Amsoil ice drowned it all out. Later he got a few moments to speak a little Italian with Denver freshman center Massimo Rizzo, who — like Tomassoni — grew up in a home where Italian was spoken by the elders.
Inspiration for a title
Sen. Tomassoni, in his classic DU jersey, dropped the puck before that game surrounded by family. The Bulldogs won. The Pioneers went on to win a share of the NCHC title. The Bulldogs flipped the script in the conference playoffs and won that trophy. They met one more time in the Loveland Regional, and Denver had the last laugh.
Dante Tomassoni took dozens of pictures that December day and night in Duluth. As a thank you to Carle, he had one framed, showing his father speaking to the Pioneers, and sent to the team offices at Magness Arena in Denver. The inscription read; “David Tomassoni, 1971-1975 — ‘When you play in the national championship game, win the f—ing thing.’”
On Thursday, April 7, the Pioneers upset top-ranked Michigan in overtime, to get to the Frozen Four title game. The next day when the Denver players filed into their hotel banquet room where team meals were served, that photo, and Tomassoni’s message for his old team, was on display.
One night later with five goals in the third period versus Minnesota State Mankato, they did exactly what the senator implored, and won the thing, bringing a record ninth NCAA hockey title back to Denver.
Challenges, and a celebration
Dante Tomassoni watched the Pioneers championship comeback from Florida, where he was playing in a men’s league tournament on a team with two other former Denver hockey players.
In Minnesota, David Tomassoni was watching, too. His ALS has progressed relentlessly, but it has not touched his mind, or robbed his ability to communicate. He can no longer speak and uses a wheelchair to get around, but via WhatsApp can compose messages with his eyes, or with the help of family, and traded texts with the Denver coaches late Saturday night. They showed him the photo, and how it had been a source of inspiration for the team in getting to hoist the biggest trophy
“It was just so cool and so meaningful for the program, our players, for David and his family,” Carle said. “It’s one of those moments of destiny that happen in a championship season.”
Next season, when the Pioneers’ quest for an unprecedented 10th NCAA championship begins, a photo of David Tomassoni addressing their team in Duluth, giving them advice that they followed a few months later in Boston, will hang in the coaches offices. His inspiration will no doubt be remembered for generations to come.