Jim Montgomery leaving but leaves lasting legacy in Denver

Photo courtesy of Maddie MacFarlane Photography

They always tell you to leave everything better than when you found it. Whether you’re a kid learning to respect your surroundings or a regular adult houseguest, it’s just common courtesy to leave things in better shape after you’ve left. That’s never a thought that crosses your mind when it comes to sports, though. In sports, it’s about winning. For proud programs, it’s about winning championships. In his five years at the helm of the Denver Pioneers hockey program, Jim Montgomery found a way to bridge the gap and do both.

In case you missed the news yesterday, Jim Montgomery is leaving his post as head coach at DU to take the same job with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. The general consensus was that it was never a matter of if ‘Monty’ would take a head coaching position in the NHL but a matter of when. Two days ago, when became now.

It’s impossible to reflect upon Jim Montgomery’s time at DU without looking past his coaching record and on-ice results all the way back to April 13, 2013, when his name surfaced as the next head coach of the Denver Pioneers. It was just 12 days after legendary head coach George Gwozdecky was fired by the DU brass.

It wasn’t like the Pioneers were struggling. They were in the middle of the ‘Tenzer Streak’ and had made the NCAA Tournament in six straight years, albeit with a number of unceremonious first-round exits. No, Denver wasn’t struggling but the program had certainly become stagnant. It had almost been a decade since the 2005 national title and though most wouldn’t admit it at the time, the Crimson & Gold faithful were growing restless.

But still, after losing a legend like Gwozdecky, fans were taking their emotions out on the new coach. “What a great role model. Court ordered community service is the new standard”, said one LetsGoDU (version 1.0) reader about an earlier DWI charge against Monty. “With all due respect, Montgomery has absolutely no business being coach of the Pioneers. This should still be George Gwozdecky’s job.” said another.

Pioneer Nation was angry.

Montgomery would have been forgiven had he chosen to just block out all the negativity, focus on his team, and isolate himself from the local hockey community.

But that’s not who Jim Montgomery is.

He embraced Pioneer Nation – even when we were less than welcoming. He publicly honored Denver Hockey alumni and doubled down on Denver hockey traditions like the student hockey ticket campout and DU’s Orange-Lemon Game. While he changed the way Denver played, he openly praised his predecessor, George Gwozdecky. He honored DU hockey history whenever he had a chance.

He was accessible and open.

Over his first two years, crowds were sparse – even with results that far exceeded expectations. But slowly, the Montgomerys reeled everyone in. It’s easy but far too naive to simply attribute that to never missing the NCAA Tournament and winning at least 20 games in each of his five seasons. Sure, the on-ice success helped, but Denver’s love and adoration for Montgomery and his family went far beyond the ice.

His wife, Emily, and two sons, JP and Colin, quickly became community regulars on and off the ice. Monty embraced former DU hockey icons like the Magnuson family and Jim Wiste, the former owner of the formerly hockey friendly Campus Lounge. He traded humorous barbs with broadcaster Jay Stickney on the hockey pre and postgame radio shows. He even became a US citizen while he was at DU. Montgomery made Denver his.

He demanded excellence from fans and regularly exhorted the DU student section to get loud. He was even disappointed when the crowd wasn’t big enough or loud enough for the national championship banner raising celebration last October. These demands weren’t empty, though. He demanded that same passion of himself and his players.

Those demands only delivered five straight NCHC Frozen Faceoff and NCAA Tournament appearances, two Frozen Four appearances and NCHC Frozen Faceoff championships, and, of course, Denver’s eighth national title. Montgomery didn’t demand the most of fans, his players, and himself just because it seemed like something a coach might do. He did it because he knew how to win. He had a ‘proscess’ that stretched far beyond the ice.

Montgomery opened up his life for all of us to see over the past five years and we, yes we, are all better off for it. Denver hockey is better for having Jim Montgomery lead it for five years. Monty woke a sleeping giant and put Denver back on top of the college hockey world.

It wasn’t enough for him to restore a championship tradition at Denver. It mattered to Montgomery to leave Denver better than when he took over and that’s exactly what he did. The Crimson & Gold faithful, even the last, most reluctant ones to jump on the bandwagon, will forever be thankful for the Jim Montgomery era in Denver.

It’s been an incredible five years. Thanks for everything,  Monty and good luck in Dallas.