George Gwozdecky on coaching preps, the UND rivalry, his famous walk across the ice and what’s next
DENVER -- There’s a bar and grill on the east end of campus called ‘Crimson and Gold,’ a nod to the University of Denver’s school colors.
It has murals of former Pioneer athletes painted on the walls and a neon bar sign commemorating the hockey program’s back-to-back NCAA titles in 2004 and 2005, a feat nobody has accomplished since.
A few minutes before noon on a Friday, the front door swings open. In walks the man who was in charge of those two teams, a man behind putting much of the history on the walls.
The wait staff doesn’t recognize the legendary coach, who ranks in the top 10 all-time in Division I wins and has been named the national coach of the year at two different programs.
George Gwozdecky sits down in the first booth. He’s now 65 years old and has been out of the college game for the last six seasons, but he looks the exact same as he did in 2013, the last of his 19 seasons colorfully roaming the Pioneers bench.
Gwozdecky said he feels the same way, too. He has the same energy, passion and desire to win. Now, he’s using that to direct a high school team, Valor Christian, to success. In his third season, Valor made it to the state championship game. He’s now in Year No. 4.
But on UND-Denver weekend, Gwozdecky sat down with the Herald to reminisce about a number of topics from his tenure at Valor to the UND-DU rivalry to his famous walk across the ice in Ralph Engelstad Arena and what’s in his future.
Q. How is coaching preps at Valor?
A. I’m having a blast. I’m really having a blast. My first few months were eye-opening. I think I had to make a bit of a transition, not only to the skill level, but back in those days, we had guys who liked to play hockey, but we didn’t have a lot of hockey players. There’s a big difference. They transitioned from practicing once a week and playing once on a weekend to me coming in and expecting them to practice four days a week, play twice on weekends, be in the weight room twice a week, have meetings and watch video. That was a bit overwhelming for many of those kids.
But the kids who have hung in there since that day have really improved our program. We’re at a point where we can compete with the best in the state. We’re currently No. 2 in the state. I can see, as a program, we’re going to continue to get better and better.
Q. You guys finished runner-up last year at state, right?
A. Yes. Last year, the championship was played at the Pepsi Center and we set a record for the amount of people at the game. Valor played Regis. We had 4,000 people at the game. It tells you that high school hockey is growing in this state in popularity, in competitiveness and in skill level. More and more kids are graduating out of high school hockey and moving to juniors with the goal of hopefully playing college hockey at some level. It’s been really fun for me and a lot of work, because we have a varsity program and we’re in the second year of our junior varsity program.
I’ve had to learn how to reserve ice time and book ice time and schedule games and be the equipment manager and do a lot of stuff that reminds me of my very first coaching position at UW-River Falls. There, I was the assistant arena director and Zamboni guy and assistant coach.
Q. Prior to going to Valor, you spent two years as an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning. You went from coaching in the Stanley Cup Final in the spring of 2015 to coaching high school in the fall. Is that a tough transition to go from charter planes to hauling gear?
A. Our first road game at Valor, we had to play a Colorado Springs high school in Colorado Springs at a community rink. At 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, we had to jump on a school bus. I don’t know if I had ever been on a school bus until that point. So, I’m sitting on a school bus in my suit and my tie, we’re driving down to Colorado Springs, bouncing around, and one of our staff guys jokingly says, ‘Hey, brings back memories of Tampa, doesn’t it?’
It’s not that I was expecting anything. It’s a much different level. If you don’t have the best of everything, you make the best of everything you have. That’s what we’ve tried to do. I appreciate Valor and not only their administration but their other coaches. It’s a great family. I’ve formed some great relationships. It reminds me of some of the relationships I formed at DU, not only with our staff but other coaches in the department. It’s been really good for me to be able to experience coaching at a different age level and to be able to adjust to what they can and cannot do. It’s been a blast.
Q. Have you been to a DU game in person since you left?
A. I don’t think I have. I’ve been to DU for a game, but it was a high school game. My first or second year in Tampa, DU inducted the 2004 national championship team into the DU Athletics Hall of Fame. I was hoping to be able to make it back for the ceremony and be at, at least, one game. But I think we were in Pittsburgh that night. I haven’t been back for a game, but it’s probably more because of our high school schedule. We play on Friday and Saturday nights. I’ll watch games on the rare occasion that I have a night off. I’ll watch games on TV, whether it’s DU or the CBS NCHC game. There are more and more games on TV now with Big Ten Network, too. My wife appreciates having me home on those rare occasions, where we can watch a game on TV.
Q. What was it like watching Denver win the 2017 NCAA title, knowing both that you were let go from the school in 2013 and also recruited Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher and first-line stars Troy Terry and Dylan Gambrell to DU?
A. I was really happy for them. I know how much time and effort and emotion and everything guys at this level commit to performing with the goal of trying to win a national title, and how special it is when you’re able to accomplish it. They are great memories. As many people have said, from this point forward, you walk together for the rest of your lives. It’s so true. For those young guys, and for the number of guys who we were a part of, and for the staff that was still there, we were very happy, very excited and proud. It’s a rare occasion and a great accomplishment.
Q. Do you have any memories from the 2004 and 2005 national titles that stand out?
A. One thing that made those teams unique is that we had big senior classes. Even though maybe our most talented players were our younger players -- Paul Stastny, Matt Carle -- we had our senior class. They were the glue. It was a big, strong class. They were the leaders that showed Carle and Stastny and (Peter) Mannino the way. They gave them the direction, the discipline, the confidence of playing at that high level. Nobody in those senior classes went on to play a high level of pro hockey.
I have multiple great memories of Boston in 2004, because it was the first time. The next year, we kind of rolled the table in the second half of the season through the national tournament in Columbus.
I remember coming back from Columbus just exhausted. We flew charter back. There was a huge snowstorm coming. A bunch of people got stuck in Columbus for a couple days. We flew out that night. We won the national title, went back to the hotel, there was a 45-minute gathering of fans and DU administrators, we got on a bus, got to the airport, flew home and landed at like 2 a.m. The snow was already coming down. We got back to the rink at maybe 3 or 3:30 a.m. I was exhausted. I remember getting up the next day and everyone was snowed in. We weren’t moving. It happened to be a Sunday. I turned on the TV and they were talking about DU’s championship. Then they switched the coverage to the Masters. I remember watching that.
Normally, when you get back, you have all these interviews to do. But nobody was moving anywhere. So it was a nice, peaceful day of rest and relaxation with my wife and daughter. All hell broke loose the next day, but I remember that Sunday being so nice to be able to watch the Masters and, I don’t know if relief is the right word, but have a deep sigh that we won our final game.
Q. Your DU teams constantly met UND in big games -- WCHA playoffs, NCAA regionals, NCAA finals, etc. What do you recall from always seeing UND?
A. I remember someone asking me, ‘How has this rivalry become the way it is?’ I remember thinking about why the rivalry became increased in its intensity, and I think it had to do with the postseason. You can have as many heated games during the regular season as you want, but once you get in the postseason, and you’re playing in the WCHA Final Five, and you’re playing in the national tournament, and you’re playing in the national tournament championship game, and you’re seeing each other over and over and over again in these big games. . .
I think there was a healthy respect amongst the coaching staffs, and at times, a little bit of angst and dislike. But that’s the nature of competitive sports at this level. It got to the point where when we’d look at the schedule before the season, we’d look right away at when we matched up with North Dakota. When’s the first-half matchup? When’s the second-half matchup?
North Dakota was the only school that still had the luncheons. I know Anchorage tried to hang on for a little bit, but everyone else got rid of them. Not North Dakota. I remember every single coach in our league hated the luncheons. They would make every excuse in the world not to go. But I always enjoyed them. I enjoyed them because of the people who showed up to support the team and the series. I thought that was really important. I enjoyed going to Sioux Boosters and chatting with the different people before the game that I’d see every year. I enjoyed talking during the luncheon, throwing a few barbs, and then having either Dean (Blais) or Hak (Dave Hakstol) throwing some back. Those were some pretty good years.
Q. How did you and Hakstol get along?
A. I wouldn’t say that Dave and I were close, but I knew Dave a bit going back to when he was coaching at Sioux City. I respected how he coaches his teams -- very businesslike, very professional -- kind of the way I handled it. I always appreciated when we would get to our league meetings, he thought the same way I did. When we’d get in front of the coaches or executive board, I appreciated his organizational skills, I appreciated how he thought big picture. We didn’t hang out a lot. We’d golf on occasion. I think we always had a friendly and healthy respect for each other. That has carried throughout the years, even after I left and after he left.
Q. I have to ask you about ‘The Walk.’ Do you still hear about the time you walked across the ice in Ralph Engelstad Arena after being tossed out of a game?
A. Yes. Usually about once a year, around the time North Dakota and DU play, someone will post it. There was a lot of reaction and response to that -- a lot of negative, some positive. I think it’s part of the history of the series. As heated as our games could be against Minnesota or Wisconsin or CC, there was always something really special about the North Dakota rivalry. I always remember saying that not only is The Ralph difficult for the opposing coach, but it can be really tough for the officials. I can appreciate that. You’re only human. I clearly remember that night. I just didn’t think we were getting the balance of calls. Before the game really got out of hand -- we were really hanging on the precipice of getting blown out. . . at least I felt like the ice was tilted -- I felt something had to change. Certainly, throughout the building, it started getting louder and louder and louder. For teams and officials, I think that can have an effect.
I remember someone was taken down in North Dakota’s zone. The play comes back down the ice and I had enough. I’m getting pretty vociferous and I remember there was a stoppage in play and a conversation between (referee) Todd (Anderson) and J.P. Testwuide. J.P. comes over to the bench and says, ‘He just tossed you out.’ I remember thinking, ‘I get it, but you chicken…, you don’t want to come over to the bench and tell me?’ He’s staying on the far side of the rink. He won’t come over to tell me, so I decided I’m going to try to make a point.
I had my galoshes, so I knew I wasn’t going to slip. I remember walking across in the direction of the penalty box, he was standing there, and then he starts skating away. One of the linesmen came up and said, ‘George, where are you going?’ I said, ‘I want to talk to Todd. He won’t come to us.’ That’s all it was.
My only. . . I don’t want to say regret. . . my mistake, a lack of understanding of the rules, was that I went up to the press box and watched the game from there and I was communicating on headphones with one of our assistant coaches on the bench. That was my bad. I didn’t know the rules regarding what you could or couldn’t do. I was reprimanded for that, because I was supposed to be out of the game. I went up there -- and it’s not like I could do a whole lot, give faceoff information, (radio guy) Jay Stickney could have done the same thing I did -- but that was my mistake. I didn’t know the rules.
The rest of the stuff, I don’t want to say it was premeditated at the time, but it felt like it was my only real course of action. Most of the North Dakota people didn’t agree with it, and I completely understand.
Q. I think, at the time, North Dakota fans were mad, but a lot of those people are laughing about it today.
A. At the time, we had a guy doing a blog, a former DU student, he would update it every day. His blog had a lot of humor in it. I remember him putting together a 45-second clip of the timeframe I was on the ice and put it into the movie ‘Bridge Over The River Kwai’ and added music. It was very creative on his part. The whole thing created some issues, but I don’t know if I ever regretted it. I was initially fined. I can’t remember if the fine was rescinded or if I paid it. But I know the game was pretty competitive after that. I think it wound up in a 1-1 or 2-2 tie.
Q. Have you climbed on the dasher boards yet at Valor?
A. We have a big group of officials that handle high school hockey, club hockey, junior hockey and even some DU games. They mean well but, at times, get lazy. There were times where I got a little frustrated. We’re playing at 8:30 on a Saturday night. We have three or four officials who have already done three or four games that day. They just want to get out of there. I’ve learned to understand that. They’re tired. They’re fatigued. But I’ve learned to be able to communicate with them and remind them of some things they’re obliged to do during a game. I think that’s helped. But my standing on the dasher boards, that was reserved for the WCHA.
Q. I will always remember that you did interviews after that game. It’s the only time in my career where a coach got ejected and still talked to the press.
A. I always remember when I was a player at Wisconsin, when I was a sophomore or junior, (head coach) Bob Johnson took over the Olympic team. The assistant coach was named as interim head coach. He was a really good recruiter, a really good assistant coach, but a horrible head coach. He lost his mind every game. He was just emotional, running off and saying stupid things. That always stayed with me. I thought, if I ever want to be in that position, I have to be able to remain composed and poised, even if I might feel like I’m stressed to the max. I can’t give off that sense that I’m losing my mind or I’m not organized or that I don’t know what’s going to happen next, because of how it’s going to affect the team.
I think Dave (Hakstol) was the same way. He was intense, well-prepared, competed hard and always seemed composed. Except for the one moment with the finger in Minnesota. We all have our little moments.
Q. Since you’ve left, there have been a bunch of other college hockey fixtures who have left -- Hakstol, Blais, Jack Parker, Dick Umile and Red Berenson to name a few. Is that strange?
A. It’s different. You grew up with a lot of those guys, cut your coaching teeth with many of those guys. You fought and recruited against them. For me, those were the good old days. In talking with many of my former assistant coaches, recruiting has gotten even uglier, as you’ve probably heard. The old saying is there’s no honor among thieves. It has become even more challenging. They tell me that as much as I might not have liked some of the aspects of recruiting back in the day, it has gotten even worse now. I feel bad for the game at this level. I know how competitive it is. Maybe it’s bound to go this way, because of the money involved. But it’s unfortunate.
Q. Will we ever see you behind a college bench again?
A. Never say never. Certainly, at my age, people who are hiring coaches, even though they’re not allowed to use age as a factor, I think it’s only human nature. I’m 65 right now. I feel like I’m 50 or 55. I still have the same energy levels. I still have the same drive. I enjoy what I’m doing. I don’t know what the heck I’d do if I wasn’t coaching. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate so much what Valor has allowed me to do.
A couple years ago, the opportunity at Michigan State was real. My interest was piqued. It probably would have been a pretty good opportunity. I guess my answer is, I don’t know how to further clarify it, other than saying that it would have to be a good fit.
Like Hak, I’ve experienced different levels. I’ve enjoyed both levels and had success at both levels. So, you never know. If I’m going to be at Valor for the next 10 years, I know I’ll be happy. It’s 10 minutes from my house. I can get home at 6 p.m. at night. I can set the table for my wife, who works part time and doesn’t usually get home until 7 p.m. I can have the table set, the oven warming, the wine on the table and we can watch North Dakota and DU pound each other’s brains out on TV that night.