It had to be an April Fools joke. That’s the only explanation that made sense as news broke that George Gwozdecky would be leaving his post as head coach of the University of Denver hockey team after 19 years. Initially, it was reported that Gwozdecky had resigned and a delicately worded press release from the school didn’t make it much clearer.
However, the hockey team’s Twitter account later clarified that Gwozdecky was released from his contract. So, fired.
The news caught the entire college hockey world off guard. How was this possible? If anyone had job security, you would think it would be the coach that brought the two most recent national titles to DU and the only head coach in the country to lead his team to 20-plus-win seasons in each of the last 12.
According to the Denver Post, Gwozdecky was fired due to lack of success at the NCAA tournament and an inability to agree to terms on a contract extension.
So that’s it. One of the most respected and successful coaches in the college game is gone and the reasoning behind it really couldn’t be any less sufficient.
The Pioneers have had early ousters in the national tournament in five of the last six years, which for a program of Denver’s stature is admittedly poor. That said, the NCAA tournament — especially in the last decade — has been a veritable crap shoot. The single-elimination format and increasing parity has made making it to college hockey’s championship game a somewhat remarkable feat.
Look at the Frozen Four this year. Three of the four teams have never been there before and Yale hasn’t been since 1952. We’ve seen miracle runs by RIT and Bemidji State in recent years as well. This trend may only continue after realignment takes hold.
Success in sports is measured in titles and Denver hasn’t been back to the Frozen Four since winning it all back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. DU is the last school to go back-to-back by the way.
Even with that in mind, however, Denver annually fields a team that has an opportunity to play for a national title and most programs can’t say that.
Denver has become one of the elite programs in college hockey due in part to its rich tradition, but mainly due to the last 19 years of Gwozdecky’s guidance.
Even though titles are what matter most to schools, Gwozdecky’s influence reaches far beyond winning. Denver has become a destination program for many elite players with NHL aspirations.
The problem with attracting players like that is some of them will leave before their eligibility is up.
Three players from last year’s team left early for NHL contracts and all three — Beau Bennett, Drew Shore and Jason Zucker — scored their first NHL goal this season, less than a year removed from Denver.
Add those three to the lineup this season and things are different. However, their NHL success only helps recruiting in the long run and programs that develop NHL talent get better recruits, plain and simple.
In the increasingly contentious battle to keep players from bolting to major junior, Denver is one of those programs where NHL teams feel comfortable leaving their prospects. They’ll develop there. That’s hugely important in today’s college landscape.
Gwozdecky has also run a clean program, devoid of recruiting violations or players running afoul of the law, for the most part. He has made a point to recruit players out of the state of Colorado to ensure the school is doing its part to honor the development of the local youth hockey organizations. The players that don’t make it to the NHL almost always make it to graduation, too.
However, with winning being a priority as it should be in sports, Gwozdecky’s recent stretch may not be ideal, particularly not when gunning for an extension. That said, his track record over the last 12 seasons winning 21 or more games, suggests a pattern of winning.
With Jack Parker now retired, Gwozdecky would’ve been part of an exclusive fraternity of seven active head coaches that have won national titles. Seven.
Additionally, the timing of this firing couldn’t be much worse. The Pioneers are headed to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season and with that transition already difficult, it’s harder when a new coach will be charged with navigating this uncharted path.
That’s just another in a long line of what makes this move so confounding.
Firing a coach due to a lack of success in what has become essentially a coin-flip tournament shows such a lack of perspective. It’s shortsighted and it might even be stupid. This seems more like a money issue and perhaps a clash of egos, but in this ever-unpredictable college hockey landscape, Gwozdecky wasn’t wrong to expect a reward from his employer.
It has been widely known in college hockey circles that Gwozdecky sought a contract extension. According to the Post, Gwozdecky and his agent have been working towards an extension since 2009. That’s a long time to wait for a contract, especially as one of the seven active coaches to have won a national title.
If the school’s granting of an extension was contingent solely on the national tournament, there is a serious problem with how the athletic department at the University of Denver is doing its business.
[Updated] During his remarks in his farewell press conference, Gwozdecky said that he expected Denver to come back to the negotiating table after initial talks four years ago, but that athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes never did. This is a somewhat remarkable revelation. Not knowing what Gwozdecky wanted, it’s hard to believe the two sides were so far apart that DU wouldn’t even come to the table to discuss the options. Such indelicate handling of the program should be of grave concern to those that care about Denver hockey and its future.
You fire a coach if you think you can do better. The only thing that can be said about Denver’s next bench boss is that he will likely be younger and cheaper than Gwozdecky and perhaps bring a fresh perspective to the job.
The fashion in which Gwozdecky was dismissed puts both the university in a bit of a bind. If Gwozdecky couldn’t keep his job after 19 years of service and a history of winning, how is the next guy supposed to live up to those expectations?
Denver is still an elite program and it will be a sought after job, but the candidate pool could be thinned after how this was handled. If DU is looking for an established head coach with a lot of experience, they might be looking for a while.
Among the candidates to replace Gwozdecky, current assistants Steve Miller and David Lassonde could get consideration. Former assistant Derek Lalonde, currently the head coach of the Green Bay Gamblers and one of the best recruiters in the land while at DU, should be a lead candidate as well. Former DU assistant and current RPI head coach Seth Appert is another name that will be thrown in the mix.
For Gwozdecky, he’ll probably have options relatively soon. “I’m not done coaching,” Gwozdecky said in his press conference Tuesday, repeating himself for emphasis.
For some schools with coaches on the hot seat, Gwozdecky’s availability could be what leads to making a change. Perhaps Gwozdecky will take the year off and wait for the right opportunity. Whatever the case, he’ll have good options.
Now Denver has to go into damage control and it won’t be easy. The administration is already being ripped by former players in the press and on Twitter. Gwozdecky was the face of the school’s marquee team and even non-player alumni can’t be pleased he’ll be gone.
This is also bad, bad news for recruiting. A lot of players come to Denver because of Gwozdecky and his track record. The Pioneers are expecting a solid class next season led by defensive prospect Will Butcher, who would be the heir apparent to Joey LaLeggia as the team’s go-to offensive blueliner once the Edmonton Oilers pick moves on. Butcher is being heavily pursued by the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. This kind of turnover isn’t helpful in that recruiting battle.
Hockey is one of those sports that so many athletic departments get wrong due to a lack of understanding of how things work. A lot of times, coaches are allowed to overstay their welcome at certain programs because the athletics department doesn’t pay much attention. That is another reason why it is so shocking to see a successful coach forced out. It usually takes years of futility for something like this to happen.
Denver may have been running in place for the last few years under Gwozdecky, but they were running in a place most other programs won’t be able to touch, particularly after realignment. With this move, Denver might not be running there for long, either.
This post was edited to reflect comments made by George Gwozdecky in a press conference after it was first published.