Neitenbach brings passion behind Buffs’ bench
Aside from a couple years playing juniors out of state, you might say Jeff Neitenbach has Colorado hockey in his blood.
Now in his first year as head coach of the University of Colorado’s American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) team, Neitenbach is nothing but excited to lead the young Division I program to national prominence.
And with its elevated status – the Buffaloes are only in their second season as a D-I outfit – the bar has most certainly been raised.
“It means recruiting, off-ice workouts, video – almost the same commitment expected from an NCAA Division I athlete, without the scholarship,” said Neitenbach. “We have to find a good balance between work and fun.”
Neitenbach’s path to CU – both as a player and now coach – began in the Hyland Hills Hockey Association, where he spent his entire youth career.
You didn’t have to twist any arms getting him out on the ice.
“Hockey as a kid was the greatest thing in the world for me,” said Neitenbach, a Brighton native who credits his father, Bryan, Mic Prochazka and Brian Riva as his greatest mentors growing up. “When I first started playing at Hyland in 1990 (as a 5-year-old), it was all I wanted to do. Even when I wasn’t at the rink, I had my rollerblades on playing with the neighbors.”
After attending CU for two years, Neitenbach joined his brother, Andrew, to play junior hockey in Coeur D ‘Alene, Idaho. The two came back home to skate for the Buffs.
Jeff’s coaching career began as an assistant with the Western States Hockey League’s (WSHL) then-Boulder Jr. Bison (now Colorado RoughRiders) under then-head coach Brent Cullaton.
Neitenbach, who also had the opportunity to play handful of games with the Central Hockey League’s Denver Cutthroats from 2012-14, served two years with Boulder before learning about the coaching vacancy at CU last summer.
He jumped at the opportunity.
“I always knew I’d like to give it a shot and see how I could do as a head coach, so I figured now was as good a time as any,” said the 29-year-old. “I sent in my resume, and got the job.”
It hasn’t been easy for the injury-plagued Buffs this season. Regardless, Neitenbach is encouraged with his club’s team-first mentality.
“This year’s group is awesome,” said the coach. “We’re pretty lucky with the crop of freshman we have, and the returners are very solid.
“I like the youth we have, mostly freshman and sophomores; they’ve all bought in and put in the work to compete. Despite all the injuries, this group keeps coming to the rink and going through the wall for each other.”
He’s also thankful for the opportunity to have Andrew assist him behind the bench.
“It’s awesome,” said Neitenbach, who also works for his father’s general contracting company. “We’re on the same page, so that works out well. We played well together and see the game the same way, so I can look at him and he knows what I think he should do or tell him what I think.”
With close to 20 players from Colorado on its roster, it’s no secret CU values recruiting locally. It’s especially keen on the WSHL, which is home to three Colorado teams.
“Having that league in our backyard is huge,” said Neitenbach, whose club rosters close to a dozen players who toiled in the junior circuit. “It gives me the chance to drive 15 minutes to scout local guys and teams coming in. Getting to see those guys play in person can’t be beat.”
And when they do arrive on the Boulder campus, Neitenbach expects accountability first and foremost, on and off the ice.
“The decisions you make don’t just affect you; they affect the boys, the team, your brothers,” he said. “I have three younger brothers that I’d do anything for, and I want these guys to be like that – a family, a group of brothers.”
Neitenbach’s experience with the Cutthroats – they suspended operations after last season – came thanks to Cullaton, who became the team’s assistant coach and general manager after leaving the Jr. Bison.
One day, Cullaton called Neitenbach and asked if he wanted to skate with some of the other Cutthroats coaches for some unorganized shinny to have a little fun and stay in shape.
“A week later on a Friday night after one of their games, he called and asked if I wanted to play tomorrow; there’d been an injury,” said Neitenbach. “Of course I said yes, went to the pregame skate, and was in the lineup that night.
“I thought I’d play one game, maybe two, but I was there for a month and a half.”
Neitenbach played 25 games for the Cutthroats, picking up two goals and two assists.
“The game was quite a bit faster than men’s league and college club hockey, but I adjusted pretty quickly,” he said. “I was playing with former NHL guys and real professionals.
“It was pretty fun, but grueling. I learned firsthand being a third-line guy on a minor-pro team is a tough job.
“I was grateful to Brent for the opportunity.”
Having been a part of the game at virtually every level, Neitenbach is amazed how much hockey has evolved across the state.
“To be completely honest, looking at Colorado now, it’s crazy,” he said. “There are programs everywhere, and so many opportunities for boys and girls to play.
“I think USA Hockey is doing a great job getting kids involved who otherwise wouldn’t.”
And Neitenbach has a great opportunity of his own at CU.
“We’re lucky to be in a great conference (the Western Collegiate Hockey League) within the ACHA that allows us to play the best teams in the country who push us every game to get better,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for the program.”
– Brian McDonough