'Above and Beyond'
Denver Approaches Question of Motivation As Title Defense Begins
DENVER NBA Hall of Famer Pat Riley — the only figure in the history of North American sports to win a championship as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and executive — famously said that "a champion needs a motivation above and beyond winning."
Last year, en route to their eighth national championship in program history, the Denver Pioneers undoubtedly had that transcendent layer of motivation. They often didn't say it, or they did so with veiled references, but the heartbreak of losing an epic battle with North Dakota in the national semifinals the previous year clearly fueled Denver all season.
And in April, at the United Center in Chicago and a year after that loss, head coach Jim Montgomery and a talent-laden team led by then-captain Will Butcher channeled that motivation into a 3-1 title game triumph over league rival Minnesota-Duluth.
Now, the task of defending that title begins. And during the frenetic buildup to this week's start to the season, the Pioneers have heard ad nauseum about others' expectations for them. To win the NCHC regular season title. To win the tournament title. And to repeat as national champions, just as the program did under head coach George Gwozdecky in 2004-05 — something no team in college hockey has done since.
And, really, why wouldn't they be able to do all of those things? Montgomery — who has increased Denver's win total in each of his four seasons thus far — is back after being approached with job opportunities at the NHL level during the offseason. And Troy Terry (Anaheim Ducks), Dylan Gambrell (San Jose Sharks), and Henrik Borgstrom (Florida Panthers) all turned down offers to sign with the NHL teams that drafted them.
The real question is: after the trajectory that the team forged for itself last year, how much better can they possibly get? Indeed, perhaps the only thing that could stand in these Pioneers' way is a lack of that same level of motivation.
According to Montgomery, though, that won't be a problem at all.
"I think it's easy to find motivation," said the fifth-year head coach, the reigning Spencer Penrose Award winner as national coach of the year. "To be able to be the fourth Denver team to go back-to-back, but most importantly, it's that hunger that drives us to want to be special. We know we're talented. We know that it's going to be hard. Nothing comes easy, and that's what we like.
"How hard is it going to be for us to be an elite college hockey team this season?"
Therein, Montgomery suggests, lies Denver's motivation — not only to be challenged, but to actively seek challenges. Montgomery has already stated that he wants his power play to convert over 25 percent of the time this season (a mark reached by only five teams last year) and that he wants his penalty killing unit to be successful over 85 percent of the time (a mark reached by 12 teams last year). In 2016-17, Denver met neither of those marks.
The bar, then, continues to be raised. And Montgomery has been through this before. No, he was not around to defend the national title he won with Paul Kariya in Maine as a senior — scoring a national championship game hat-trick much like his junior left-wing Jarod Lukosevicius did in April's title game — but he did experience a title defense campaign in 2011-12.
In the 2010-11 season, as a first-year head coach, Montgomery led the Dubuque Fighting Saints to a 45-11 record and to a Clark Cup as USHL champions. The next season wasn't as bright in eastern Iowa, with the Saints managing a 36-20 record before a second-round playoff exit. A year later, Montgomery guided the Saints to a second Clark Cup in three seasons before taking the head coaching job at Denver.
Repeating as a champion is, really, one of the few things Montgomery hasn't accomplished in his remarkable career thus far. And he draws upon the experience of that 2011-12 season at Dubuque.
"I've taken a lot [from it]," Montgomery said. "I thought my second year, we had a real good team coming back. I thought I coached too much based on results, and I didn't enjoy the process. I didn't enjoy the journey, and I think I made players hesitant.
"So I'm making sure [this season] that I'm focusing on details and execution, and what makes us good."
That list is long, of course — a well-balanced offense that will start with the same top line that produced all three goals in last year's title game, an experienced defense that adds an NHL second round pick to the mix this season, and reliable goaltending in senior Tanner Jaillet, just to name a few.
"I feel like our culture in here, that's a huge advantage for us," said returning sophomore Henrik Borgstrom, who has described himself this preseason as being 'stronger on the ice.'
"We are really competitive in practice and in the gym. So being motivated isn't going to be a problem for us. We want to win every game we're playing."
At last, the final days of preparation for the 2017-18 season are underway, with next weekend's season opening series at Notre Dame looming. And with that, Denver begins what promises to be a captivating attempt to repeat as national champions.
As for the Pioneers' motivation to do so? At this point, it's clearly above and beyond winning.
It's just above and beyond.