Whenever an organization hires a new leader, it’s seen to a certain extent as a chance to start anew with fresh blood and equally fresh ideas.
That’s what Denver is banking on with Jim Montgomery, the school’s new head coach that was introduced to media members in the Colorado capital April 15.
Pioneers fans are weary following the controversial firing April 1 of George Gwozdecky, Denver’s head coach of 19 seasons who won back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005. As for the school’s acquisition of Montgomery, however, there’s short-term bad news and long-term good news.
The bad news: The Montgomery era at Denver has not yet officially begun. The 43-year-old will not officially start with the Pioneers until two days after his current team, the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, finishes its Clark Cup Playoffs run.
The good news: Montgomery has experience rebuilding hockey teams in his own brand’s image.
The city of Dubuque, Iowa, has a solid hockey history, having first supported Fighting Saints hockey between 1980 and 2001. When the club returned to Dubuque in 2010 after a nine-year absence, however, a new coach was needed to press the proverbial restart button and teach his own brand of hockey to the city’s revived team.
That’s where Montgomery came in.
The 2010-11 campaign was Montgomery’s first as a head coach anywhere. His relative inexperience as a bench boss — he had also previously been an assistant at both Notre Dame and Rensselaer — wasn’t an issue, though, as that season saw Dubuque win its first USHL postseason championship with either incarnation of the Fighting Saints.
What’s even better for Montgomery and the Pioneers is that the ball has hardly ever stopped rolling. Dubuque has not suffered a single losing season in its three years under the Montreal native’s tutelage, and the Fighting Saints won the 2012-13 Anderson Cup as the USHL’s regular season champion.
Whereas he had to build Dubuque’s team from nothing, next season’s Denver roster is already almost set for Montgomery ahead of his official arrival. He hopes, however, that getting the Pioneers to quickly buy into his system like he did with the Fighting Saints will pay off just as it did before.
“There are some similarities between what I’ve done in Dubuque and what I’ll do in Denver,” Montgomery said. “But there are some extremely talented hockey players at DU, and I think there are 22 of them right now on campus. When I inherited the job in Dubuque, we had zero players.
“It’s similar because I am going to instill my beliefs and my values, and how I’m going to want our team to play will be very similar to what it’s been like in Dubuque, and I’ll hold players accountable. But I know I’m walking into a situation where I have a team already in front of me.”
Montgomery will have a tough act to follow at DU in his first college head coaching job, but that test of his abilities — and the task of coaching under the microscope so soon after the public scrutiny that enveloped Gwozdecky’s dismissal and the aftermath thereof — is what hooked him when Denver approached him about its vacancy.
“That’s why I wanted the job, because of the success that the whole 60 years of Denver hockey has had from the Murray Armstrong era through to George Gwozdecky’s 20 years,” Montgomery said.
“That’s what made the job so appealing, that they have the infrastructure there to win at a high level. If you look at my past, you know that I love to win, and I understand the process of how to go about that and I’m excited about the new challenge at the college level.”
Montgomery had ambitions of moving up from coaching juniors into doing the same at the collegiate or professional level. Several jobs piqued his interest, including an opening at Maine — the school from which he graduated in 1993 — but DU beat the Black Bears to him.
“I obviously would have been very interested, just because I have tremendous pride in the program at the university,” said Montgomery, one of only three Maine players to have their jersey numbers retired in Orono. “But I was already in the middle of the interview sessions with Denver when that job [at Maine] came open.”
Now that he knows where his future’s taking him, though, Montgomery is excited to meet the challenge head-on once he finishes what he began in Dubuque.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Montgomery said of balancing the hiring process at Denver with his present commitments with the Fighting Saints, “but it’s been a great whirlwind.
“I’m excited about Denver and also excited about finishing off what our team here in Dubuque has done. It’s been a great season so far, and we want to finish it off with a championship.”