“Monty” has DU poised for first title since 2005
Pioneers’ upward trajectory continues under their fourth-year coach
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
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.
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.