April 9, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

His Team

Montgomery Recreated DU in His Image

 (photo: Neil Ament)

(photo: Neil Ament)

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer (@JoeMeloni)

CHICAGO — Jim Montgomery struggled not to smile.

His Denver team, the nation's best from the first puck drop until the last, just went ahead, 3-1, in the second period of Saturday's national championship game.

All three of DU's goals came from Jarid Lukosevicius. All three in a span of 7:39. His first two goals gave DU a 2-0 lead, his third put the Pioneers up by a pair after Minnesota-Duluth pulled one back.

After the hats were cleared from the ice, the scoreboard high above the United Center ice flashed an interesting fact.

The last hat trick in a national championship game?

Montgomery.

Twenty-four years ago as a senior forward at Maine, Montgomery's third-period hat trick turned a 4-2 deficit against Lake Superior State into a 5-4 lead and an eventual win. Montgomery didn't see the scoreboard. He didn't react at all. Then, he heard a shout from his left, coming from down the DU bench.

"It was Troy Terry," Montgomery said. "He started yelling to me about the scoreboard."

The sophomore, who assisted on two of Lukosevicius' goals, urged his coach to take a quick look.

His eyes lifted ever so slightly, and a small grin slowly overtook his face. Part of him wanted to enjoy the moment. He knew an even bigger thrill awaited if he and team remained focused.

"I was just thinking about what was going on between the boards," he said. "I heard them mention the scoreboard, and I thought they were just talking about the score. Then I saw it."

After he wrestled the smile from his face, the keen focus and understanding of the moment returned.

Montgomery wasn't thinking about hat tricks, whether they happened in 1993 or 2017. His players weren't either. The focus was on the trophy and closing out a lead. Finishing what they started last October.

DU closed it out, escaping a late third-period rally from UMD, and winning the program's eighth national championship with a 3-2 win over the long-time rival Bulldogs. The Pioneers not only overcame UMD's constant onslaught that shrunk a 3-1 lead to a 3-2 advantage, they also played without defenseman Tariq Hammond for the final 16:50 of regulation following a collision that sent him foot first into the boards.

The national title was, of course, Denver's goal for the 2016-17 season. For Montgomery, it was more of a culmination of his last four years, slowly reshaping one of college hockey's great programs in his image. He arrived with DU in a bit of a decline. He reversed course. It couldn't just be about getting some wins, though.

DU was always a strong program. Montgomery wanted it to be his program.

"It was about making Denver my kind of team and program," he said. "I am very fortunate to have inherited a strong program that had a lot of incredible coaches and players. But when I got here, there were a lot of selfish penalties taken. A lot of players who didn't put the team before themselves."

DU hadn't exactly collapsed since it won consecutive national championships in 2004 and 2005. The Pioneers weren't the same, though. After missing the NCAA tournament in 2006 and 2007, DU qualified for the next six fields of 16 under George Gwozdecky before he was fired following the 2013 season. They won just one tournament game in that time.

Montgomery didn't fare much better than Gwozdecky in his first year. The Pioneers lost a first-round NCAA tournament game. They've since improved each season, winning a game in 2015, advancing to the Frozen Four in 2016 before their national title this year.

"I knew things needed to change if we were going to get back to the elite level that Denver was before," he said. "The culture needed to be selfless and not about all the individuals."

"He sets the standard for all of us," DU senior Matt Marcinew said. "It's unbelievable. ... He's the reason we're here. We can't say enough about coach Montgomery. He's so structured, detail-oriented. He knows the game inside and out. He's the reason we're here."

In the locker room after the game, the selfless group Montgomery created revealed itself fully.

As captain Will Butcher spoke, his teammates' celebration halted entirely. He spoke passionately about the team and presented a hard hat to Hammond, apologizing to Lukosevicius for choosing their fallen brother first. There, obviously, were no complaints. No objections. Just a bunch of young men who decided Denver and a national title meant more than any individual recognition.

Their commitment to that process resulted in a number of prizes, though. Butcher won the Hobey Baker award Friday night. Tanner Jaillet won the Mike Richter award as the nation's top goaltender. Butcher and freshman Henrik Borgstrom were first-team All-Americans. Jaillet was on the second team.

When asked about each honor, the players started first with their coach, their teammates and their program. Montgomery wanted to recreate Denver when he arrived. He wanted to make the program his own. There can be no question now. When Montgomery speaks, his players listen. When his players speak, they sound like Montgomery.

Jim Montgomery fought back a smile Saturday night when a minor moment of humor crept into the game that would ultimately define his team's season. He regrouped quickly. His players did the same. The focus was on finishing what they started after last year's heartbreaking loss to North Dakota in a national semifinal. The journey began even sooner for Montgomery. Saturday night, he was rewarded with a national championship.

He hasn't stopped smiling since.

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