Montgomery's Return the Biggest for DU
He doesn't wear them, but Jim Montgomery has a couple rings.
He picked one up a couple decades ago, carrying Maine back from the brink with a third-period hat trick in the 1993 national championship game to claim the program's first title.
His second came just a few months ago. In his fourth season as Denver's head coach, he turned his team into a juggernaut at some point. The Pioneers went 33-7-4 and cruised to a national championship.
Getting both of those rings came with some bumps along the way. In both instances, there was Montgomery, first as a captain then as a coach, to keep the team focused on the immediate goals that lead to the ultimate reward.
In the offseason, Denver faced the possible departures of more than one key player with remaining eligibility. Losing Will Butcher and eight other seniors was one thing. Losing sophomore Henrik Borgstrom, juniors Dylan Gambrell and Troy Terry, and senior goaltender Tanner Jaillet was something entirely different. All of them chose to return. It was another person remaining at DU that may've been the most important — Montgomery.
In May, he interviewed for the Florida Panthers vacant head coaching position. The process seemed more like due diligence than anything else. Montgomery is certainly a rising star in the coaching world. He never seemed like a realistic choice for the Panthers, though. Ultimately, they went in a different direction, and Montgomery returned to Denver.
Borgstrom, Gambrell, Terry, and, to a lesser extent, Jaillett were all very real flight risks. But players always leave in college hockey. Teams have contingencies. There's no accounting for production specifically, but good coaches know how to soften the blow.
Losing a coach as suddenly as DU could've lost Montgomery can set a program back for years. Nevermind this year. The Pioneers almost certainly would have lost at least one of Borgstrom, Terry, or Gambrell if Montgomery left. Probably all of them. But he returned. DU's best players did, too. And they look more than willing to work as hard as they did a season ago.
"We talked about it being a new year," Montgomery said. "The team in the dressing room this year is trying to win this year's championship. Last year has nothing to do with this year's success. We have to learn and grow throughout the year just like we did last year. We're well ahead of the curve offensively from where we were last year, but we're not where we were defensively. Last year, we had the best goals against in the country. That's something we want to replicate. ... We know we have a rock in net, but we have to be better. (Against BC), we were great, and that's what I'm happy about. Borgstrom, Gambrell, Terry, (Jarid Lukosevicius), Finlay, they're gonna make plays. But if everyone looks that way when we don't have puck, we're going to be a really good team."
Montgomery didn't inherit the kind of reclamation project the nation's other top young coaches did. Think Mike Hastings at Minnesota State, Norm Bazin as UMass-Lowell, or Nate Leaman at Providence. In the those instances, their predecessors coached a combined 28 seasons and made one total NCAA tournament appearance. Montgomery replaced George Gwozdecky, who ran DU's program for 19 years, made 12 NCAA tournament appearances, won six WCHA regular-season and tournament titles, and, of course, guided DU to two national championships.
The Pioneers were merely in need of a tuneup when Montgomery arrived. He provided it and even more. The Pioneers were always a threat. Since the beginning of Montgomery's second season, they've been a machine. Now that the target is on DU's back, Montgomery is drawing on the lesson he learned under Shawn Walsh during that 1992-93 championship season in Maine.
"I've thought about it a lot, just how Shawn handled us," Montgomery said. "This is, by far, the most talented team I've had at Denver. Just focusing on our habits and details constantly. One thing I always noticed about Shawn was that he never changed his identity. He never took his foot off the gas pedal. As Denver's coach, that's what I'm trying to do. I talked to Scotty Bowman about how so many years, he's come back with championship teams, he said it's details. You have to hold players accountable early. If you don't, the season can go the wrong way real fast."
Last weekend, DU continued its early-season success. The Pioneers went into Boston and took wins from both Boston University and Boston College. Friday night, DU dominated early but allowed Boston University back into the game. The Pioneers needed a game-winning goal from Troy Terry with 16.4 seconds left in regulation to get a win. Saturday, it was all business. The Pioneers smashed an average BC team, skating to a 6-1 win. Still, Montgomery knows there's more. There has to be.
"We're gonna get better," Montgomery said after Saturday's win. "That I can tell you. Tonight, our checking skills were the best of the year. They were good in our first game of the year at Notre Dame. I thought it was even better tonight. We gave up on one odd-man rush. If we do that. If our forwards are committed to coming back like they did tonight, then, the other way, we have time and space to make plays. We have some players who can make plays."
Montgomery was obviously pleased to get two wins. The response from Friday into Saturday said it all, though. The message isn't about the result. It's about the process. Getting a win against BU in Agganis Arena is something any team will take. Montgomery doesn't just want results.
"We didn't think our details and our habits were great (against BU)," he said. "(Saturday night), we executed great on everything. ... From our goaltender on out, our communication was the best I've seen it all year as far as talking.
"We weren't happy with ourselves after reviewing film and seeing how we didn't handle BU's pressure as well as we should. It was a learning moment for us to get better. And we did. I give credit to our leadership group and our entire team for their willingness to learn and not be happy. That's hopefully something that will continue throughout the year."
The focus is on the short term every day. Every drill. Every practice. Every shift. Every game. DU is always focused on where they are and where they want to be. Confident in the understanding that doing the right thing now means they get a chance to play for trophies down the road.
Programs like Denver prepare themselves for early departures. No one assumes the production swap will be one for one, but there's always a plan in place. When a star sophomore signs early, there's likely a pretty good player from the USHL or national development program ready to replace him.
On the other hand, it's truly impossible to simply bring in a new coach and keep moving. Head coaches and their assistants establish the baseline for a team and program's performance. When a player leaves, you bring in another one. When a coach leaves, it's time to start from scratch.
Henrik Borgstom. Dylan Gambrell. Troy Terry. These names are DU's present. They cannot be part of the Pioneers' future. Remaining the kind of program people believe can make the Frozen Four every year is a possibility for Denver even when those stars move on. That is, as long as they keep Jim Montgomery around.