On this Date in Denver History: April Fools’ Day 2013

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.

4 thoughts on “On this Date in Denver History: April Fools’ Day 2013”

  1. Monty walked into a very tough situation three years ago, following the legend of George Gwozdecky. But by being true to himself, Monty is now carving his own niche in DU hockey history with his own identity, and his teams have a bit of a different personality…

    For example, the late Gwozdecky era teams had many highly-drafted players, who often came to DU with their NHL GMs, agents and family members pressuring the coaches for special treatment. Those players may looked at DU as little more than a stepping stone to the next level and didn’t usually didn’t stay at DU very long. Team chemistry likely suffered as result. I think that had a lot to do with Gwozdecky’s post-2005 teams underperforming at the end of the season…

    Monty’s highest-drafted player to date is a fourth-rounder, and many of the better guys on the team are mid-round or un-drafted players. They come to DU with a little more grit, and perhaps chips on their shoulders for being overlooked. And Monty has them playing together, battling for every inch of ice and outworking most opponents.

    If DU wins a title this year, and the top-drafted recruits start selecting DU again, it will be interesting to see if Monty can keep it going.

    Either way, we’ve been fortunate to have mostly terrific coaches at DU. Neil Celley won 60% of his games. Murray Armstrong won 5 NCAA titles. Marshall Johnston probably would have won a title were it not for the silly and vindictive NCAA probation DU was on in 1978. Ralph Backstrom was a .500 coach but did get his 1986 team to a Frozen Four and a #1 ranking for much of that season. Gwozdecky won a couple of NCAA titles and posted many 20 win seasons with many NCAA appearances. And now Monty carries on the tradition….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure you can attribute three players leaving solely to Gwoz’s departure. Shore, a junior, and sophomore Mayfield were 3rd and 2nd round picks respectively. The pro ranks were already on their radar. For Olkinuora, undrafted, but with a dynamite year, the timing was right.

    From what I recall, Gage Ausmus was the first recruit to decommit. He chose to go home to Grand Forks and is now Captain of the Fighting Sioux/Hawks. As for the rest, no idea of the conversations that took place, but they all landed on their skates.. Landon Smith of Greenwood Village now plays for Quinnipiac. Jared Fiegl from Parker got an appointment to West Point. Cody de Pourq is at Bentley and Ray Piggozi at U Mass.

    Gwoz will always have his place DU’s hockey history. But think you could safely say that Monty has made it his program with this trip to the Frozen Four.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have no idea if Viz has ever been in Magness. I do know that Viz is astute on hockey and lives and dies with Pioneer games. Viz been doing this for 30+ years now.

      Like

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