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.
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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.
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