Rocky Mountain Low
Commentary: Gwozdecky Was Stunned by Firing, And Rightly So
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
George Gwozdecky's firing stunned me and most everyone else. Now, in the aftermath, we're only left to ask "Why?"
Particularly in light of the class Gwozdecky showed during his good-bye press conference Tuesday (one in which Denver officials decided not to attend), it's hard to understand. Could there be a better ambassador for a college program? One who wins 20 games every year, has two national championships under his belt, and runs a tight, clean program?
You can count those on one hand.
Yet here we are.
The three most common theories for Gwozdecky's firing are: a) his contract demands were too high, and Denver no longer wanted to pay their hockey coach that much money; b) personality clash, partly over him alienating the university with all the contract talk, and his flirtation with Ohio State a couple of years ago in order to get leverage; c) the school was fed up with him losing first-round NCAA tournament games.
Or perhaps some combination of the above.
Unless there's something bigger we don't know, any of these three reasons are foolish — particularly the last one.
When a school makes a move like this — unless the situation is just so irreparable that they can't continue — they better have an equal replacement lined up. It's hard to imagine the situation was that irreparable, and there's no apparent backup plan. So the only conclusion we can draw is that this was a foolish move in every way.
The matter of wins and losses is so silly, I'm putting that aside for now.
The personality clash and potential alienation over the contract maneuverings are somewhat understandable, but not worth firing over. All of that was behind closed doors, and it clearly did not have a negative effect on the Denver hockey program. Gwozdecky continued to get a bevy of great players, and run the program with the same type of class and professionalism and dignity that he always had.
That leaves me with the semi-conspiracy theory out there — the one where Denver's administration no longer wanted to pay their hockey coach that much money, with the emphasis being placed moreso on other sports. People point to the salary being paid the men's basketball coach at Denver, Joe Scott, and wonder if the administration is putting their attention there now, at the expense of hockey.
With such a storied program that gets good crowds, it's hard to fathom this would be the approach. But, more importantly, Denver was an instrumental force in the creation of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which begins play next fall. The whole point of Denver's move was to raise the bar when it came to competing with the new Big Ten.
Why would the administration be behind such a bold move, and then chop the legs out from under it? It's so non-sensical, there must be something we're missing, but damned if I know.
If wins and losses is the reason, it's the exact opposite of the de-emphasis theory. You can't be de-emphasizing a sport, then also be upset about the wins and losses of a 16-time, 20-win coach. So it can't be both. And if it is about wins and losses, the Denver administration has portrayed a mentality that you normally see from impatient fans, not people who should know better.
Yes, Denver lost to RIT in the NCAAs. So did New Hampshire, that same year, a program led by a coach in Dick Umile who has been there 23 years and never won a national title. Some UNH fans call for his head every year, and they are just as dumb. Red Berenson, another two-time champ, lost to Air Force in the NCAAs and hasn't won a title in 15 years. Jack Parker went 17 years between his first and second championship, and another 12 years until his third. Jerry York went 17 years between his first and second championship. Rick Comley went 16 years. These are all among the coaches with the most wins in history. Don Lucia hasn't won titles in a long time either. These are all big-time programs, but ones that get how difficult it is to win every year when all these big guns are competing against each other.
College hockey often toes the line between the insular, mom-and-pop, homespun sport, and a big-time NCAA business. But the cutthroat, winning-is-the-only thing mentality has infiltrated college hockey as it has other big-time college sports.
It's a natural phenomenon that, as something gets more and more popular, it also gets more and more business-like and cutthroat. It's a gradual process, but one that has smacked college hockey hard the last couple of years in obvious ways. Two years ago, there were nine coaching changes in Division I, a symbol of this must-win mindset. This coincided with the creation of the Big Ten and the subsequent college hockey schism, one whose repercussions continue to reverberate, and will do so for many more years.
The irony here is that Gwozdecky was at the forefront of this very same mentality, as a key player behind the formation of the NCHC. In a way, then, did Gwozdecky die by his own sword?
But again, that only illustrates how insane it would be to jettison Gwozdecky for those reasons.
By every measure, Gwozdecky ran a class program. Players did not get in trouble, and if they did, Gwozdecky would suspend them on his own, with no hoopla. How many other coaches would've suspended a player for violating a team rule on the eve of the national championship game, as Gwozdecky did with Lukas Dora in 2004? How many coaches would've done that and still had the support and admiration of his team, including the player he suspended? Players grew on the ice, and as people. His program was clean. He did not stockpile recruits then run the "mistakes" out of the program, like many other coaches do.
So none of it adds up, on any level. The three possible reasons we mentioned at the top are, in order — inexplicable, unnecessary, and foolish. What are we left to think?
That will take a lot more digging, and pondering.