Frei: The question wasn’t if Jim Montgomery would leave DU for NHL, it was when

Last December, just before our lunches arrived at the iconic Pete’s University Cafe, a short walk from Magness Arena, I brought up the elephant in the room.

To be more specific, the pachyderm was having a hamburger at the counter.

In previous off-seasons, Jim Montgomery interviewed for NHL jobs at Calgary and Florida, and there was no reason to think the Flames and Panthers would be the last teams to express interest in the Pioneers’ head coach.

So I asked Montgomery about that.

“My family and I love it here,” Montgomery said. “We love me working at the University of Denver. I have a lot of autonomy on who to bring in and all that, and the quality of life here in Denver is just spectacular. For me to even entertain leaving, it’s going to have to be someone that convinces me that they have the right plan and I’m going with the right people.”

That was the stock answer, of course, and Montgomery was coming off a 2017 NCAA championship with the Pioneers. I’d heard it before. To change it up, I considered asking the bi-lingual Montreal native to give it in French.

Yet it also was sincere.

The Dallas Stars made the offer he couldn’t refuse last week. So next season, when the Stars come into the Pepsi Center to face the Avalanche, the stocky familiar figure with the shaved head will be behind the visiting bench.

At least for a while, it won’t seem right.

To repeat: This was the rare instance when a ridiculous firing was followed by an inspired hiring. George Gwozdecky had shrunk his safety net with his militance in seeking a contract extension. NCAA tournament frustration provided the excuse for the DU athletic administration. Then the Pioneers brought in Montgomery, the general manager and coach of the United States Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints. (Can you still be Saintly if you fight?)

What was underplayed at the time was that Montgomery had a lunch-bucket career in pro hockey, mostly in the AHL but also with St. Louis, Montreal, Philadelphia, San Jose and Dallas of the NHL. He also wasn’t a neophyte in college coaching, since he had been an assistant at RPI and Notre Dame.

I also remember how he after he was hired at DU, he insisted on returning to finish the USHL playoffs with the Fighting Saints and was able to celebrate a Clark Cup championship for the second time in three seasons. It isn’t completely parallel, but after seeing so many college football coaches bail out on their teams for bowl games when hired for “better” jobs, it was refreshing.

It has been much-noted that the Flyers in 2015 hired North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol, who also coached in the USHL, making him the first head coach to go straight from the college game to the NHL since the legendary and charismatic Bob Johnson went from Wisconsin to Calgary in 1982. But Hakstol, a minor-leaguer for five seasons, never played in the NHL.

Montgomery knows what he’s getting into — and he’s getting into it with a respected organization, despite the Stars’ failure to make the playoffs in eight of the past 10 seasons. There is talent (e.g., Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg) and there is hope.

NHL coaches are treated with respect when they’re hired … and it often seems that it ends there. Hockey has the scapegoating phenomenon down pat. Montgomery knows that, of course, but the other pattern is that once a coach is on the carousel, only malfeasance or incompetence knocks him off it.

Why would a college coach leave a winning program that has its recruiting operation in high gear?

There is no indication — none — that this was a major issue at DU, but one of the realities of the NCAA game for coaches is that it requires dealing with players, with players’ families, with players’ agents (although they’re officially called “advisors”) and even hovering NHL executives tracking the progress of their draft choices before often swooping in to sign them after one, two or three seasons. If players aren’t getting the ice time their entourage feels is justified, members of entourages can threaten to deliver the player to major junior instead. (Or just do it.)

For a coach, dealing with that process can be one giant pain in the glass.

The no-brainer choice as Montgomery’s successor should be Montgomery assistant David Carle, 28. Considered a big-time recruit, he also worked under Gwozdecky after a heart abnormality forced him to retire as a player before he played a game for DU, where his brother, Matt, won the Hobey Baker Award in 2006 as NCAA hockey’s top player. Montgomery has pointed out, including to Channel 9’s Aaron Matas, that Carle, who immediately became a student coach after DU honored his scholarship, already has been coaching for 11 years. And he adds  that when he had been coaching 11 years, he was about to be DU’s new coach.

Despite the turnover both on the roster and behind the bench, the Pioneers are in good shape.

They have Jim Montgomery to thank for it.

* * *

Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2015 and 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the national champion 1942 Wisconsin Badgers and their wartime heroics, and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” His web site is terryfrei.com. His additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are here and his Greeley Tribune columns and major features can be accessed here.   

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

Just don’t drink the vile mint juleps

A Longhorn, a subpoena, a cassette, a CTE lawsuit against the NCAA

Don’t let Nuggets off the hook of expectations

A great season? Sure, if it’s a forecast of things to come

It ain’t over ’til … it’s over

Avs’ best shot is Bernier stealing a game … or three

Nashville hitting all the right notes as NHL city

The man from Saskatchewan has paid his dues … a lot of dues 

Remember when making the playoffs wasn’t so monumental?

How’s this for half full?

The obligations of stardom for MacKinnon, line

An Avs’ playoff berth can be flashback 

Here come the Knights … now and maybe in postseason

Nathan MacKinnon’s MVP talk becoming more legit

Amid March Madness, how the NBA should emulate the NHL 

Nathan, good intentions, bad idea 

Fourteen years ago, Steve Moore played his final game for the Avalanche

Avalanche going into final month in control of own destiny

Is Duncan Siemens becoming more than an “organization” guy?

At least here, NHL trading deadline was much ado about very, very little

Avalanche standing pat wouldn’t be irresponsible inertia

If the NHL stays away again, USA Hockey should be all-collegians

Just your average Harvard guy from West Vancouver

As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs have stayed in the playoff hunt

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible

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