May 23, 2013

Living for the moment, and the moment's not in Maine

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com
Columnist

How do you tear yourself from the embrace of a small Iowa city celebrating the hockey championship you delivered? Jim Montgomery didn't try Monday night.

click image to enlarge

Jim Montgomery says he was never asked to pursue the hockey coaching job at the University of Maine – the school he led to an NCAA title – so off to Denver he goes.

JIm Naprstek/Dubuque Fighting Saints

He lived the moment.

"It's what I preach to my players," said the man who remembers another moment 20 years ago, when the people of Maine made him king. He was the senior captain who scored three straight goals in the third period of an incredible comeback by the University of Maine.

Maine beat Lake Superior State 5-4 that night for the 1993 NCAA national championship. The memories will live for another 20 years.

But remembering the past isn't living in the past. Dreaming about the future isn't living the future, either. That's how Montgomery has gotten through the the past five weeks. It's been one, long breathless rush.

He is the hockey coach and general manager who revived the dormant Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. He's also the new coach of the University of Denver Pioneers, twice NCAA champions.

"It's remembering the journey," said Montgomery. "I can remember who was sitting at my table (for dinner) before we played Lake Superior State in 1993. They are my friends for life."

He might have been Maine's next hockey coach. He wasn't asked, he said again last week. He had a conversation with Maine Athletic Director Steve Abbott but wasn't going to pitch himself.

So he led the Fighting Saints to their second league title in three years, while at the same time helping his wife hunt for a new home in Denver and making plans for the NCAA championship he'll start chasing.

Montgomery was given his first head coaching job in major college hockey back on April 15. For five weeks he led double hockey lives and made it work.

He had made a commitment to the people of Dubuque and the junior players he recruited. How could be expect them to live up to their commitments if he walked away too soon?

Dubuque beat Fargo (N.D.) on Sunday to win the Clark Cup, USHL's version of the Stanley Cup. One day later he was back in Dubuque for the celebration at the ice arena.

Montgomery told a crowd of about 1,200 they were all Saints for Life. That included him.

This week, Montgomery returns to his new office on the Denver campus. He's a rookie replacing George Gwozdecky, who won back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005 in a career that spanned nearly 20 years.

"It's a challenge," said Montgomery. "It's exciting going to one of the top programs in the country. We can win right away."

He might even get more sleep.

Montgomery was on a short list of five candidates when he was asked to go to Denver to interview.

He didn't know he was on anyone's list.

"His success at Dubuque was noticed," said David Lassonde, an assistant coach at Denver who was asked to stay. Lassonde was the goalie coach at New Hampshire when Maine played the Wildcats for the national championship in 1999 in Anaheim, Calif. He was an assistant at Providence before that.

Lassonde and Montgomery hadn't crossed paths much before now. But Lassonde knew of Montgomery, and his honest charisma and straight talk. Montgomery's enthusiasm is infectious.

"We're a private university. It costs a student $50,000 to come here," said Montgomery. "We had problems with depth the past two years. Each year we lost three players who decided to leave the program and turn pro. We've got to keep those players."

Denver saw the answer to its problems in Montgomery and several other candidates.

Denver Athletic Director Ron Grahame was struck by Montgomery's sincerity. Montgomery didn't try to oversell himself. When he was offered the job and said he had to return to Dubuque, Grahame gave him his blessing.

"We expected that," said Grahame. "That's who he is and that why we wanted him."

That Montgomery is in Denver and not Orono will sting Maine hockey fans for a while. Especially those who revered Shawn Walsh, the coach who led Maine to the 1993 and 1999 titles.

Montgomery can't say he would have gone after the Maine job if he was asked. As a private university, Denver has resources Maine can't match. Beautiful facility, great location and a strong tradition. At Denver, Montgomery doesn't have to rebuild a broken program from the ground up.

"I would have liked to be part of the process at Maine," said Montgomery. He wasn't asked, he's living a different moment and that's too bad.

He was a teammate to Paul Kariya, the talented freshman who fed him the passes that led to those three goals in 1993. Both were Hobey Baker finalists. Kariya won the recognition but Montgomery won the hearts of Maine fans the next day.

He wishes Maine well.

 

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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