Bergh, CC Look to Elevate Performance
There is, undoubtedly, an atmosphere of pressure at Colorado College — pressure to improve on the Tigers' single-digit win totals from the last four seasons, to finish higher than last place in the NCHC, and to return to the form that saw the proud program in Colorado Springs reach 14 of the 17 NCAA tournaments between 1995 and 2008.
It's a high pressure situation, yes, but scientifically speaking, the Tigers actually play with less pressure than any other Division I college hockey team — that is, at a lower atmospheric pressure given the altitude of the Broadmoor World Arena, which sits at over 6,000 feet above sea level, in the shadows of mountains like Pikes Peak that tower well above 14,000 feet.
Why does this matter, exactly? For one, a lower atmospheric pressure has very serious physiologic consequences — a reduction in the inspired partial pressure of oxygen, for instance, meaning that with each breath, less oxygen is available in the bloodstream to be distributed to muscles and other tissues.
But as Chapman and colleagues have written in the Journal of Experimental Physiology, "chronic exposure to altitude stimulates the acclimatization process, which results in a number of physiological adaptations that improve oxygen delivery to working muscle and exercise performance at altitude." Among those adaptations? An increase in red blood cell mass and hemoglobin content, meaning there are more blood cells available to carry oxygen.
And for Colorado College — already off to a strong start to the season, with three straight wins heading into a road trip to New Hampshire — that extra oxygen may be just the lifeline it needs.
"I knew I had to step up and be a leader on the team," said junior captain Mason Bergh of his offseason. "I spent a month and a half out here [in Colorado Springs], working with our strength and conditioning coach Steven Woodworth, training at altitude. A lot of the other guys did as well.
"We have an edge when we go down to sea level. Our whole team feels it when we go down there. Hopefully, teams feel the altitude when they come here, and we have to take advantage of that edge that we have. We're obviously acclimated, and we've been preparing for this, getting conditioned at altitude. It's an edge that we have to take advantage of."
In the preseason, head coach Mike Haviland noticed the manifestations of physiologic change, too.
"I think our guys have done an amazing job in the offseason," Haviland said. "We're in the best shape we've ever been in since I've been here. They blew the skating and the fitness in the weight room out of the water."
In the preseason, the Tigers put their acclimatization to the test with an exhibition contest in Breckenridge, CO, at over 9,600 feet above sea level against Canada's Lethbridge University. And though Bergh admitted that some moments in CC's 3-1 win felt like "breathing out of a straw," perhaps the extra red blood cells have paid off at a more reasonable altitude as the official season has gotten underway.
Last weekend, the Tigers swept Alaska-Anchorage in Colorado Springs, a weekend highlighted by four goals from Bergh — including a hat-trick on Saturday night, the first three-goal effort by a CC player since January 2015, and the first at home since October 2011. Saturday's 3-2 win over the Seawolves also completed CC's first weekend sweep since December 2015 — also the last time that the Tigers won three games in a row.
"The biggest thing for me is being able to play with guys who are similar minded," said Bergh, who was named the NCHC Offensive Player of the Week. "I've found some good chemistry playing with Trey Bradley and Nick Halloran. We're all pretty similar minded. We're all creative with the puck, but we've been working on the small details to help us be successful. That's something we need to continue to do."
Colorado College is one of just two teams in the country — the other, Boston College — without a senior on its roster. That leaves the noticeably quicker, stronger Bergh — and his classmates — as the on-ice leaders for a team desperately looking to turn its fortunes around.
"It's hard," said Bergh, a native of Eden Prairie, Minn.. "You don't want to be the team that's losing that many games, but we just focus on the positives. Last year we were playing one of the toughest schedules in the country and we were able to take down some top-10 teams. We try and focus on the positives, but we do use the negatives to build off those. Coming into this year, we wanted to say 'enough is enough.'
"And so far it's been good, but we're just getting started. We have to build off our first three wins here."
CC heads to sea level altitude in New Hampshire this weekend, and the Tigers are already looking for a fourth win this season — a number the program didn't reach until late December each of the last two seasons, and not until early January in 2014-15.
During that time, of course, the altitude of Colorado Springs hasn't changed a bit. Perhaps more notably, other variables may have — attitude, conditioning, and acclimatizing not just to altitude but to the demands of college hockey itself.
For the Tigers, those may be the early storylines to their 2017-18 campaign.
And at the very least, it's a breath of fresh air.