Former University of Maine hockey star Jim Montgomery has guided his University of Denver men’s hockey team to an NCAA Tournament berth in his first season behind the bench.
Now his Pioneers will play an opponent in the Northeast Regional on Saturday that Montgomery, a two-time All-American and Hobey Baker Award finalist at UMaine, is very familiar with: the Boston College Eagles.
Game time is 4 p.m. at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
Boston College junior left wing and Hobey Baker Award frontrunner Johnny Gaudreau and sophomore defensemen Mike Matheson and Teddy Doherty all played for Montgomery when he was the general manager-coach of the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints in the United States Hockey League.
“It will be fun but it won’t be fun to see them out there against us,” said Montgomery, who won two championships in three seasons with the Saints.
The road to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t easy for Montgomery, who replaced George Gwozdecky as the Pioneers coach in April and went on to compile a 20-15-6 record.
The Pioneers went 3-6 to finish the regular season and were the sixth seed in the fledgling National Collegiate Hockey Conference. They knew the only way they could qualify for the NCAA Tournament was by winning the conference tourney to claim the automatic berth.
They lost the first game in their best-of-three quarterfinal series at Nebraska-Omaha 4-3 but bounced back to oust the Mavericks 5-1 and 2-0 before edging Western Michigan 4-3 in the semifinals and beating last-place Miami by the same score in the title game.
“It has been a taxing and frustrating season because I haven’t been able to get us to play consistently well. But we have a great goaltender (Sam Brittain) and an elite defense corps that led us to a successful season,” said the 44-year-old Montgomery. “Four of our defensemen are power-play quarterbacks and there aren’t many teams that have that.”
His defensemen have scored 36 of their 110 goals.
His team picked a perfect time to string together its longest winning streak of the season.
“What’s great about college hockey is the results in the playoffs are immediate,” he noted.
Montgomery said he hasn’t been able to “devote as much time to strictly coaching” as he did in the USHL.
“There are more demands like fundraising and working with the boosters and stuff,” said Montgomery, who had been an assistant coach at Notre Dame and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.). “There are only so many hours in the day.”
He said he had to be careful to “find the right balance” and not “overtax the players.”
“I had to keep them fresh,” said Montgomery, who is the University of Maine’s all-time leading scorer with 301 points and who had his No. 19 hockey jersey retired. He captained Maine to its first NCAA championship in 1992-93.
Montgomery, who had a 12-year pro career including 122 NHL games, enjoyed the challenge of “figuring out the pieces to the puzzle” and he said he loves living and coaching in Denver.
He said he is trying to schedule a home-and-home series with Maine first-year Maine coach Red Gendron, whom he played for when Gendron was an assistant at Maine. He said he feels the Maine program is in great hands with Gendron.
Montgomery knows his Pioneers will have their hands full with BC.
“I don’t think we could beat them in a best-of-seven series but we can in a one-shot deal,” said Montgomery, who went 8-6 as a player against BC. “We’re hard to play against. We’ll have to manage the puck well and manage the ice well. And we can’t let Gaudreau beat us. We have to limit his time and space with the puck. He plays his best in the big games.”