Photo Credit: John Leyba, The Denver Post
“Gwoz was fired.”
I received that text from a friend three years ago today. Three years ago today, April Fools’ Day, George Gwozdecky was fired as the head coach of the University of Denver hockey program. The 19 year tenure of the second-winningest coach in program history had unceremoniously ended.
On April Fools’ Day.
After the initial shock of the news, there was a hesitant laugh at the timing. There is no way they actually fired him. This is just one intensely cruel though effective April Fools’ joke played on the fans by the DU athletics department. Good one, DU.
I mean, 12 straight 20+ win seasons, six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, two relatively recent National Championships, and many alumni in the NHL? You can’t just fire that coach, right?
As it turns out, we were wrong. It was no April Fools’ joke. It wasn’t some elaborate hoax. George Gwozdecky was no longer the head coach of the University of Denver hockey team.
All of a sudden, the great DU hockey team was without a leader and critics came out of the woodwork to give their two cents on the firing. At the time, it was all warranted. What the hell was the DU Athletics Department thinking?! You’re firing one of the best coaches in college hockey!
“People can say what they want, but he’s Pioneer hockey,” former DU defenseman Matt Laatsch said in the Denver Post story about Gwozdecky’s firing. “Sad day for me and sad day for a lot of teammates. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Coach and his entire staff, past and present. Coach and those guys made the program what is is. Just a shame. A shame.”
“The University of Denver will have a tough time running a program as clean as his and having the success that he’s had,” another former Denver defenseman Nick Larson said in that article.
These former players said what everyone was thinking and feeling. You don’t just fire a coach like Gwozdecky and get away with no criticism. Even the program paid the price when players like defenseman Scott Mayfield, goalie Juho Olkinuora, and forward Nick Shore left early for professional opportunities rather than stay and play for a coach that didn’t recruit them.
At the time, it was hard to blame them. The Pioneers had just been bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the first round for the fifth time in six years, which was later cited as one of the reasons for Gwozdecky’s dismissal, and there was much uncertainty surrounding the program.
The feelings of shock and disappointment hung over the campus for days after the announcement. It was all anyone could talk about. The formidable Pioneer hockey program was without a leader. How was this going to affect the on-ice product? Will people continue showing up to games?
But the most important question at the time was, who is going to lead the Pioneers into the NCHC, the fledgling conference that had Gwozdecky’s fingerprints all over it?
The answer to that question was Jim Montgomery, the former college assistant and head coach/GM of the young Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL.
As soon as Montgomery was announced as DU’s next head coach, there was a collective “Who?” that was let out by most DU hockey fans. Monty’s reputation didn’t exactly precede him.
It’d be an understatement to say most fans were skeptical during Montgomery’s first season. Even when the Pioneers defied the odds to win the NCHC Tournament as the 6 seed, fans weren’t convinced that Monty was the right guy.
At the time, there was a feeling that Montgomery would try to wipe Gwozdecky’s fingerprints off of the program. No one wanted to part with the man who was responsible for some of the best years in program history. It was hard to say goodbye to a person fans trusted for nearly 20 years.
Now, just three years later with the Pioneers getting ready to head to Tampa for their first Frozen Four in over a decade and first since Gwozdecky was dismissed, it’s not hard to see that this was the right move for the program.
Montgomery didn’t change the direction of the program, he built on the legacy that Gwozdecky left. The success of the past three years could not happen without the foundation that Gwozdecky built during his 19 years at the helm of the DU hockey program.
Gwozdecky led the Pioneers out of the doldrums and into the promised land. It is thanks to George Gwozdecky that Denver is seen as a national power in college hockey. It’s Montgomery who has the task of keeping it that way.
I’d say an NCHC Championship and a Frozen Four appearance (and maybe more) in his first three years is a pretty good start.