Chasing Monty

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As the NHL regular season wrapped up this past weekend, many of the teams that missed the playoffs began to make new plans to replace their coaches. In a league that is so dependent on attendance, luxury suites, and merchandise sales, a losing season nearly requires teams to consider a change in their head coaches.

Some teams are rewarded for their patience, such as the local Colorado Avalanche who turned their season around under a new coach, Jared Bednar, from a paltry 48 points last season to 95 points this season and a playoff berth. But again, like last season’s extended courtship with the Florida Panthers, expect DU head coach Jim Montgomery’s name to be thrown into a number of NHL candidate pools as teams lower the ax. 

The Sporting News, along with a number of Gotham news outlets, have placed Jim Montgomery on the New York Rangers’ early head coaching candidate speculation lists. Said the News, “It’s rare to see a coach go directly from the NCAA to an NHL head coaching job, but Montgomery has built a perennial power in Denver. The success of Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol, the most recent to make the unorthodox jump, could pave the way. Montgomery led the Pioneers to the NCAA tournament in each of his first five seasons and won a national championship in 2017, bringing along successful NHLers such as Devils defenseman Will Butcher. His name was hot in last year’s round of NHL coaching searches before he withdrew from consideration for the Panthers’ job after two interviews. Montgomery will be in the mix again this year, if he wants to be.”

At minimum, this news is sure to excite NCHC rivals who have had to face the Pioneers over the last five seasons.

Only three NCAA head coaches have made the direct jump from college to NHL head coaches — Ned Harkness from Cornell to the Red Wings, Bob Johnson from Wisconsin to the Calgary Flames, and Dave Hakstol from North Dakota to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Several other NCAA head coaches eventually became NHL head coaches after intermediate stops at other levels, such as Herb Brooks, who went from Minnesota to the US Olympic team to the NHL, and others who became NHL assistant coaches before ascending to NHL head coaches, such as Steve Stirling and Jeff Blashill.

But Montgomery’s coaching success at every level, combined with his NHL playing experience would make him instantly credible in any NHL locker room. Plus, with  Monty’s Pioneer players moving up to the NHL in droves, the Pioneer playing style is seen to complement the direction of the professional game which is built on speed, details, skill and creativity. The Denver up-tempo style, predicated on puck pressure and support, mobile defense, time-and-space management and Montgomery’s relentless Pioneer hockey work ethic, has been duly noted around the hockey world. NHL scouts observe Monty at work on player development in person every weekend during the season.

On top of his on-ice and motivational skills, Montgomery has also embraced the modern PR game and social media with a fresh media relations style that is honest and up-front, as well enthusiastic about promoting Denver hockey history, honoring traditions and celebrating hockey alumni. This approach is different from the dry “coach speak” that is so prevalent in the hockey world, and he has delighted the Denver hockey community after taking over for legendary coach George Gwozdecky.

Monty certainly enjoys his life in Denver, where his program enjoys success on the ice, the growing city of Denver is dynamic and the weather is mostly favorable.  His family is now part of the community and loves it here. And while the financial package at DU is likely north of $500,000 per year, he enjoys a very nice lifestyle without the intense media pressure he’d be under in the NHL. The NHL coaches, besides being under enormous pressure to win, also must travel to up to 70 games per year when you include pre-season, regular season and post-season games,  Such in-season travel is hard on families, especially ones with young children at home, as Montgomery, who enjoys watching his kids grow up while his current travel schedule is largely limited to a few game weekends per month and the odd recruiting trip.

Historically, the NHL is a short term league hell-bent on tradition and tends to discount college coaches in favor of NHL retreads, NHL assistants, and Canadian Major Junior coaches with whom the NHL GMs are already familiar. In a league so dependent on wins and attendance, head coaching hiring decisions tend to be extremely risk averse, as taking a ‘safe’ pick enables a GM to take more proven NHL coaching commodities. For example, Darryl Sutter has already been the head coach of four different NHL teams before he was most recently fired in 2017.  That said, he’ll likely be hired again by some team hungry for an experienced NHL coach. A Montgomery hire by the NHL, especially by a blue-blood, original six franchise such as New York, Detroit or Chicago, would be seen as a serious reach, but it is possible.

As long as Montgomery is here in Denver, Pioneer Nation will be holding their collective breath at the end of every season, as NHL teams consider the talented Montgomery for their bench. And, with NHL coaches now commanding $2-4 million dollars per year on a 3-4 year contract, no one could blame Montgomery if he decided to become one of the 30 head coaches at the highest level of his profession.