Q&A with Jim Montgomery
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Jim Montgomery, who turns 44 in June, was named head coach at Denver last week. A 1993 graduate of Maine, Montgomery scored 103 goals with the Black Bears and won a national championship his senior year. He then played 12 seasons of pro hockey, including 122 games in the NHL, but mostly as a prolific AHL player. Currently, Montgomery is still involved with the USHL season, as coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
CHN: Taking over for someone like George Gwozdecky, and the way it went down, was it awkward for you?
Montgomery: It was not awkward for me. It's a wonderful opportunity to build upon the great program he left. I'm really excited about the opportunity to build on the great tradition at Denver and to replace one of the best coaches in the game. He built a great program.
CHN: You had a long playing career, and you could do anything. What is your motivation to coach at this level?
Montgomery: My motivation has never been to coach at a certain level. I enjoy it whether it's this level, or junior, or coaching my kid's team one day. My motivation is to get a group of men to believe in one common goal and do it with a team-first attitude. That's why I love coaching. I love it because I like to see the development of young men, not only as players but as people.
CHN: When did you know it was something you wanted to do?
Montgomery: You know, it goes all the way back to when I was playing at Maine. Being around people who influenced my life like Shawn Walsh and Grant Standbrook, and how they did all those things that I just talked about. They had a vision and knew how to get a group of young men to understand that vision. They knew how to help you get better and to attain those goals. It was just something great to be a part of.
CHN: You played a long time in the pros. Over that time, did your desire to coach ever waver?
Montgomery: It never changed for me because I was gonna play until they told me I couldn't play, or until injuries forced me to stop. I never thought it would be injuries, but that's what happened the last two years of my career. And then right away, that summer when I was done, I wanted to learn from the best, and that's why I went to work with (Notre Dame coach) Jeff Jackson.
CHN: You also coached with Seth Appert at RPI, and he also happened to be in the running at Denver. Was that weird going head-to-head with him?
Montgomery: It wasn't weird. If you knew the relationship Seth and I have as close friends, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. We were communicating by text and phone all while the interviews were going on. I thought that Seth was the front runner, and deservedly so, because of his time at Denver and what he's done at RPI.
CHN: Well, it works out because he stayed at RPI and now you both have a good job.
Montgomery: I tell him, thanks for helping me get a job.
CHN: I have to ask about the Maine situation. Most people, most fans, were assuming you'd be in line for that job. What happened there?
Montgomery: I was disappointed that I wasn't contacted initially. Then the Denver position opened and I felt like when you're a student athlete and you're deciding where to go to school. Maine recruited me the best (as a player). Shawn and Grant had a vision for me, and how I was going to become a better player and person. The same thing with Denver (now). They made me feel valued. I saw what their vision was. So for me, I just got immersed in that process and never thought about Maine once the Denver process started.
CHN: The Maine AD (Steve Abbott) said there was some contact early on.
Montgomery: I reached out to him. It was never them contacting me. I want to make that clear.
CHN: You can see how some people are perplexed by that, considering your status as an accomplished alum at Maine.
Montgomery: I'm very quizzical and perplexed like you are. As an alum of a proud program, I will help in any way I can.
CHN: Are there problems there that would prevent the program from getting back to where it once was?
Montgomery: I personally believe that with leadership, the proper leadership, you can win anywhere. Look at what Lowell has done, Merrimack, what Providence has done in a couple short years. Then you can look at the CCHA and what Ferris did last year. Is it easier at Minnesota, Michigan? Yeah. But you still need leadership.
CHN: Guys like yourself, the players, obviously loved Shawn Walsh. There are others, of course, on the outside who were critical of him for getting into trouble. How do you reconcile that now, looking back on it?
Montgomery: Everyone who played at Maine respected Shawn. He was a great coach, extremely well prepared. Did everyone love him? No. I don't know what coach is loved by everyone. ... As for the NCAA violations, people on the outside can criticize. We would walk around and people would say, "You cheated" — they'd tease you. To me, Shawn — I don't know all the particulars from that time. He obviously made mistakes, but he learned from those mistakes and won another national championship (in 1999) with 13 scholarships. That speaks to the genius of him as a coach. He ran the program the right way 98 percent of the time he was there, and that's how he should be remembered by. And after the suspension, he became a better person, a better friend, and a better father.
CHN: Everyone remembers the 1993 national championship (Maine went 42-1-2 and the NCAA chose to allow Maine to keep its championship, after a review of a number of issues), but of course there was that one game that you guys lost to BU. How much do you think about that game compared to the high of just winning the championship in general?
Montgomery: All the time. We were up 6-2, pounding them, they weren't even in the game. The problem was, we wanted to win 12-2. It was a lesson that was very valuable for us to learn. And they scored three goals off shinpads and skates. Personally, it haunts us. But every season, all that matters is if you win that last game.
CHN: Well, and of course that last game was pretty memorable in its own right, you scoring a hat trick in the third period to comeback against Lake Superior.
Montgomery: That was nice to do, but for us, especially the senior class, I think there was eight of us, we grinded it out for four years. It was nice to collectively come together and win one for everyone in that program.
CHN: Of course, it was a freshman, Paul Kariya, who famously set you up for all three of those goals. When did you know how good he was?
Montgomery: We knew the first practice that he was the best to ever player at Maine. It was that simple. And the culture we had there was incedibly unselfish. No one cared that he got more ice time, that he got more points, and the fact that he was so much better than us.
(Those assists) helped me get a pro contract. To this day, I still have to buy him dinner.