“Monty” has DU poised for first ti­tle since 2005

Pi­o­neers’ up­ward tra­jec­tory con­tin­ues un­der their fourth-year coach

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Mike Cham­bers

It was per­haps the most somber se­nior exit in the his­tory of Mag­ness Arena. Af­ter an on-ice group pic­ture, the seven se­niors on the Univer­sity of Den­ver hockey team made the short walk from the Zam­boni exit to the locker room. They had just spear­headed a 14th con­sec­u­tive vic­tory over ri­val Colorado Col­lege, fur­ther sub­stan­ti­at­ing the Pi­o­neers’ No. 1 na­tional rank­ing.

But none of the se­niors, who had joined the pro­gram when coach Jim Mont­gomery took over, could muster a smile. Play­ing their fi­nal game at Mag­ness Arena on March 11 was a re­minder of all they had ac­com­plished in their ca­reer, yes, but also how much they’ll miss the man who molded the Pi­o­neers into the fa­vorites to win the NCAA cham­pi­onship this year. The top-ranked and over­all No. 1 seed Pi­o­neers (29-7-4) open tour­na­ment play Satur­day against No. 16 seed Michi­gan Tech in the Mid­west Re­gional in Cincin­nati.

“We came in with Monty, our class, so it’s bit­ter­sweet be­cause we built this pro­gram for his lik­ing,” said se­nior de­fense­man Will Butcher, the team cap­tain. “We did every­thing we could to make this pro­gram as best as we could. And it comes with the emo­tion of, ‘We’re not go­ing to be here to ex­pe­ri­ence that any­more with Monty.’ “

Mont­gomery, 47, was raised in Mon­treal, cap­tained the Maine Black Bears to an NCAA cham­pi­onship and had a jour­ney­man’s pro ca­reer, in­clud­ing 122 games in the NHL. He’s known as a fiery play­ers’ coach who teaches with blue-col­lar tough love to get ma­chine-like ef­fec­tive­ness.

He fa­vors a re­lent­less puck-pres­sure style that the Pi­o­neers have bought into, ad­vanc­ing deeper into the NCAA Tour­na­ment each year he has been at DU. This year, ev­ery­one around the pro­gram be­lieves, is the Pios’ best chance to win their first na­tional cham­pi­onship since 2005.

“The be­lief is there and the guys are ready to go,” said Butcher. “We think it’s this year.”

Mont­gomery looks to bal­ance be­ing a “part­ner” to his play­ers while mak­ing sure they know who’s in charge.

“I’m not afraid to take blame, to say what is wrong — I think I’m al­ways hon­est,” Mont­gomery said. “I al­ways talk about ‘us.’ It’s never ‘them.’ It’s why aren’t ‘we’ do­ing some­thing right and that ‘we’ men­tal­ity lets them know we’re in it to­gether. I think we’ve got­ten con­tin­u­ally bet­ter be­cause the trust level be­tween play­ers and my­self has be­come one.”

The se­niors want to be the lead­ers of the first DU team to win one for “Monty,” who in­ter­viewed for the Cal­gary Flames’ head coach­ing job last sum­mer and could draw more in­ter­est from NHL teams this sum­mer.

Pi­o­neers se­nior Evan Janssen played for Mont­gomery with the ju­nior-A Dubuque Fight­ing Saints of the United States Hockey League — one of the ma­jor feed­ers to NCAA hockey — and was the new DU coach’s first re­cruit.

“He knows ev­ery sin­gle guy and what makes them tick. He knows how to get through to them,” Janssen said. “I’ve been with him for five years now and I couldn’t be any luck­ier. He’s an un­be­liev­able men­tor, not just in hockey but in life.”

Butcher said Mont­gomery’s prac­tices are a class­room.

“For guys who are skilled, he’s a great coach to play for be­cause he loves mak­ing plays. He sets up the drills where it’s sys­tem work, but you fin­ish the play by scor­ing or de­fend­ing,” Butcher said. “My game has got­ten way bet­ter since I’ve been play­ing un­der him. He hits every­thing in his prac­tice. So ev­ery prac­tice you’re hit­ting ev­ery area of your game.”

Mont­gomery had to scram­ble to sign tal­ent af­ter re­plac­ing Ge­orge Gwozdecky, who was fired April 1, 2013, af­ter the pro­gram’s fifth first-round NCAA Tour­na­ment exit in six years. Still, Gwozdecky’s teams had won at least 20 games for 12 sea­sons in a row, an NCAA record at the time. The fir­ing was sur­pris­ing, and it was ap­par­ent that in­house hag­gling over his con­tract had shrunk Gwozdecky’s safety net as the Pi­o­neers’ back-to-back na­tional cham­pi­onships in 2004 and 2005 got smaller in the rearview mir­ror.

Dur­ing the spring Gwozdecky was fired, the Pi­o­neers lost three play­ers early to the NHL and a hand­ful of in­com­ing play­ers who had com­mit­ted to DU changed their plans. Af­ter a slow start in Mont­gomery’s first sea­son, the Pios grad­u­ally im­proved, went 4-0 in the in­au­gu­ral Na­tional Col­le­giate Hockey Con­fer­ence play­offs and ad­vanced to their sev­enth con­sec­u­tive NCAA Tour­na­ment.

Al­though DU was blown out by Bos­ton Col­lege in the first round, the sea­son was deemed a huge suc­cess con­sid­er­ing the ob­sta­cles Mont­gomery faced. And Pi­o­neer fans, many of them still Gwozdecky loy­al­ists, were com­ing around to the view that DU ad­min­is­tra­tors were both for­tu­nate that Mont­gomery was avail­able and de­served credit for be­ing will­ing to con­sider a can­di­date with­out col­le­giate head coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, al­though he was an as­sis­tant at two schools and ran the show at Dubuque.

A year later the Pi­o­neers elim­i­nated Bos­ton Col­lege in its NCAA Tour­na­ment opener be­fore los­ing in the quar­ter­fi­nals to Providence, the even­tu­ally na­tional cham­pion. Last sea­son, DU ad­vanced to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005 be­fore al­low­ing a goal in the fi­nal minute of the third pe­riod in a 3-2 semi­fi­nal loss to North Dakota.

This sea­son, the Pi­o­neers are loaded with tal­ent and just one win shy of reach­ing 30 vic­to­ries for the first time since 2004-05, the last time they won the na­tional cham­pi­onship.

“We’re ec­static where the pro­gram is,” said vet­eran DU as­so­ciate ath­letic di­rec­tor Ron Gra­hame, a former goalie both for the Pi­o­neers and in the NHL. “The way Monty has man­aged it, and the suc­cess that he’s had … We ex­pect to be at the top … be at the Frozen Four. That’s never phased Monty, be­cause that’s his ex­pec­ta­tion as well.”

Mont­gomery re­al­ized he was on trial when he took over the pro­gram.

“When I first got here, you have to prove your­self with the group — they have to have suc­cess. Well, we’ve had all kinds of suc­cess now, and when I come up with a new idea, they don’t ques­tion it,” Mont­gomery said. “They go out and try to do it, and they know if they don’t think it’s right af­ter we tried it, we’re go­ing to talk and come with a bet­ter plan. I just think the com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trust is why you see them play so hard. They have own­er­ship in the team.”

DU goalie Greg Ogard care­fully places the blades of his skates on the red car­pet be­tween the “sa­cred” let­ters of their team logo on their locker room floor at Mag­ness Arena be­fore a game this sea­son. The hockey team is su­per­sti­tious about step­ping on the let­ters. Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

DU hockey coach Jim Mont­gomery talks to his play­ers be­tween pe­ri­ods dur­ing a game against ri­val Colorado Col­lege this sea­son. Mont­gomery’s suc­cess could make him a tar­get for an NHL team dur­ing the off­sea­son.

Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

Den­ver de­fense­man Will Butcher says it is a bit­ter­sweet time for him and the other se­niors on the team as the Pi­o­neers try to cap­ture the pro­gram’s first na­tional cham­pi­onship since 2005.

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