Blast From the Past
Montgomery, Jackson Have Long History
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At some point Thursday night, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson and Denver coach Jim Montgomery will shake hands. They'll do it last. At the very end of a line. After the game between their two teams has been decided.
After every other handshake is exchanged. Jackson and Montgomery will come face to face.
It won't be the first time the two met in the Frozen Four. The handshake will, however, represent the latest watershed in a friendship that began 12 years ago with a little bit of luck and the help of a college hockey legend long since dead.
Montgomery and Jackson have been linked since 1993. Their friendship started years later.
It was 2005. Jackson hadn't been the head coach at Notre Dame for much more than a week when his phone rang.
After seven years split between USA Hockey, the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm, and the New York Islanders, the man who led Lake Superior State to three consecutive Frozen Fours and two national championships from 1992 through 1994, was back in college hockey as the head coach at Notre Dame.
Charged with turning a fledgling program into one worthy of its storied name, Jackson was in the process of filling out his staff when his phone rang.
When Jackson answered the phone, he heard an unfamiliar voice connected to a name he was never quite able to forget after one fateful night in Milwaukee 12 years earlier.
"It's Jim Montgomery," the voice said.
In an instant, it was 1993 again.
* * *
Standing behind the Lake Superior State bench at Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Jackson couldn't hear a thing. There was 11:06 left in the third period. His Lakers trailed Maine, 5-4, and the 17,704 fans clamored in awe of what just happened. After all, it was only 20 minutes prior that the Lakers led, 4-2, after a dominant second period.
Maine, however, scored three goals in a span of 4:35 to take the lead midway through the third period. The Black Bears held on to clinch the program's first national championship.
All three Maine goals came from Montgomery.
"I'll never forgive him for scoring those goals against us in 1993," Jackson said.
Since that day, the two have shared a place in one of college hockey's greatest stories — the 1993 national championship game. Jackson remembers hearing Montgomery's name earlier, though. The first time, it was spoken by the late Shawn Walsh.
Walsh, a long-time friend of Jackson's going back to their time at Michigan State, was Montgomery's coach and had built Maine's program from nothing into a national power in the late 1980s into the 1990s. Montgomery's heroics turned Walsh into a coaching icon. Defeating his friend's program didn't sour things between Walsh and Jackson in the least. Before the 1992-93 season, Walsh told Jackson something that would shape the lives and legacies of all three men.
The pair would routinely meet in Traverse City, Mich., in the offseason and discuss a number of things related to team building, player development and other topics at least somehow related to college hockey.
"Shawn Walsh and I were pretty good friends," Jackson said. "And Shawn and I were considered to be two of the good, young coaches way back in the late-'80s and early-'90s. We were both passionate coaches, and we would always get together and have our own little coaching clinics.
"We had a topic one time 'Which former players or what current players do you think end up being good coaches?' I remember Shawn talking to me about Jim Montgomery."
He recalled this conversation with Walsh during the phone call while Montgomery, recently retired from a 12-year professional hockey career, detailed his desire to move into coaching. Without any experience, Jackson was hesitant to give Montgomery a role as a full assistant. He did, however, mention the volunteer assistant position often given to young coaches trying to learn on the job. It didn't pay anything, and it was nothing but work.
It was perfect.
It was the first conversation the two men ever had. It turned into one of the most important moments in Montgomery's career.
"He said that all he could offer was a volunteer position," Montgomery said. "Then, he talked about Shawn Walsh and how years ago Shawn had told him that I would make the best head coach of all the players he had coached."
Four days later, Montgomery was in South Bend. A two-hour conversation ended with a handshake. Montgomery had his first meaningful coaching position. He actually turned down a full-time, paid assistant coaching position at Mercyhurst to serve under Jackson because of his reputation and the positive words he heard from Walsh years ago.
"My day-to-day responsibilities were working with centers on faceoffs, pushing pucks around to make sure they were in the right spots and doing scoring chances postgame for video," Montgomery recalls.
"Sometimes in practice, I'd have a question about why we just ran a drill or why he did whatever he did. And one time, it must've been the third week of practice, he turned and said, 'Write all the questions down and save them for after practice. We've got work to do.'"
Montgomery left Notre Dame after just one season, confident he was ready for an assistant coaching job. He found one in Troy, N.Y., under then-Rensselaer coach Seth Appert. When Montgomery left Notre Dame, Jackson knew he wouldn't go another decade without coming across his new protege this time around.
Also, he knew Walsh was exactly right all those years ago. As a coach, Montgomery was a star on the rise. The tenacity, commitment to detail, and willingness to learn and improve that every successful coach needs were all apparent in Montgomery. They were the same traits, among others, that made Walsh successful. All of these attributes have been present in the teams Montgomery has led as well.
* * *
Montgomery left RPI after four years for his first chance to become a head coach, leading the expansion Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. He won a championship in his first season and another in his third. In the spring of 2013, the Denver job opened. The position at Maine had come available just days earlier following the firing of Tim Whitehead — Walsh's replacement.
His success, along with his name and a sterling recommendation from Jackson, made Montgomery a prime candidate for both positions. Many believed Montgomery was the clear choice to become the coach at his alma mater. The call from Maine never came, though. Montgomery reached out, but there was no response. When the opportunity to take over for George Gwozdecky at Denver came, it was an easy decision.
"I was disappointed that I wasn't contacted (by Maine) initially," Montgomery told CHN in 2013. "Then the Denver position opened ... Maine recruited me the best (as a player). ... The same 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.
"I reached out to (Maine athletic director Steve Abbot.) It was never them contacting me. I want to make that clear."
Now, in his fourth season leading the Pioneers, Montgomery coached Denver to the NCHC's regular-season championship, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and a second straight Frozen Four.
"Anybody that knows him is not surprised by the success he’s having. But he was fortunate," Jackson said of Montgomery. "He took over a pretty good program. It’s not like that program was downtrodden. I mean he took over a good program, and I’m not going to say he made it better, but he got them back in the Frozen Four rather quickly. They're back again this year, and they have a good nucleus of players that he's built that program around. They play a good college hockey game. They’re fast and all. They play like he played."
Every step of the way, Jackson has been there as a mentor for Montgomery. They exchange phone calls throughout the year. They talk about common opponents and new ideas. They discuss some of their favorite shared memories. Walsh surely comes up every so often.
The legendary coach, who led the Black Bears to national titles in 1993 and 1999, passed away in September 2001 after being diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a rare form of cancer, in June 2000.
With his death, Montgomery lost a mentor. Jackson lost a friend.
"Shawn told me, I may have been 30 at the time, to let him know when I was a year away from retiring," Montgomery said. "He said he would have a spot on his staff for me."
When Jim Montgomery was still a player for Maine, Walsh told a colleague and friend that his young captain may well be a star in the coaching world one day. He told that player to give him a call when he wanted a shot at pulling the strings. His death made that impossible. His relationship with both men, however, led Montgomery to take a chance and reach out to Jackson. Walsh died five years before it happened, but that call has his fingerprints all over it.
"Even though I'd never coached before, he was intrigued and asked me to come to Notre Dame so we could meet because of what Shawn had told him," Montgomery said.
"It's been a mentor-pupil relationship mixed with a lot of humor ever since. ... It didn't matter if it was when I was at RPI or when I took my first head coaching job or when I got to Denver. I call Jeff for guidance about any situation that comes up. Obviously, as they relate to coaching but other things too. Contract negotiations. If he's playing an opponent that I'm coming up against soon, I call him, and he does the same with me."
Thursday night, Jackson and Montgomery will meet for the third time as head coaches. They tied each of the first two. The connections they share go back two decades to one of the most memorable moments the NCAA tournament has ever produced.
Now, they're just old friends, opponents, sure, but friends. Bound forever by their connection to Shawn Walsh, a phone call and a couple hockey games neither will ever forget.