My alma mater, the University of Denver, is known for its hockey. (This year's roster boasts 10 NHL Draft picks, and the program has seven NCAA championships.) The team is shooting for another championship this weekend when they host the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the first game in a best 2-of-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff series. If they win, they go on to the WCHA Final Five tournament for the fifth consecutive time.
I caught up with head coach George Gwozdecky, a hockey behemoth in his own right. He is the only NCAA coach to win a hockey national title as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. He's a two-time national coach of the year and three-time WCHA coach of the year—and he's led the Pioneers to two NCAA national champion titles and four consecutive NCAA tournaments. Can he pull it off again this season?
DU has home-ice advantage this weekend for the WCHA playoff games, but the team is 1-9 against Wisconsin in those games. What adjustments are you making to pull out a win?
Our record and what’s happened over the course of a number of years with Wisconsin really has no bearing on this series. At our most recent series, three weeks ago, against them, we had a better opportunity to evaluate how they’re playing. That’s what we’ve been focusing on.
What's your playoff game coaching philosophy?
Whether it's this level or the pro level, when you get to this time of year and you’re in the playoffs, the one thing everybody recognizes is that defensively the game becomes a lot more difficult for offensive teams because defense is really ranking up. The game becomes more challenging for the top and offensive players of both teams because by that time of the year everybody has figured out ways to challenge the top players and how to stop those players. More times than not, it’s the second-line players, the supplemental players, the guys who normally aren’t the big go-to guys in hockey that are major factors in outcomes of games.
Players are starting their professional careers at younger and younger ages. How does losing guys to the NHL affect the team and your coaching?
It's a delicate balancing act for our coaching staff to try to predict and project who might be leaving. Unlike the old days where you had your guys for four years, nowadays your best players are gone after their sophomore or junior years and that can be a challenge. Our assistant coaches come as good as there is in this business as far as being able to predict and determine and be able to have a contingency plan in place if, and when, that happens.
Hockey has a long season. What does it take to get through it?
It’s the longest of any college sports that the NCAA has. You need to be in great condition. You need to be fortunate to avoid long-term injury because that’s a major factor. In any sport, if you don’t have your best players in the lineup, your chances to be successful diminish. We’ve had to deal with some of those long-term injuries, and we’ve been able to handle them so far. It shows our balance and our tenacity.
You’re the only coach in NCAA history to win a hockey national title as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. Does it feel different to win those titles as a player versus a coach?
Oh, yeah. Completely. As a player, there's great joy. As an assistant coach or as a coach, when you win that title, whatever it is, league or national, there’s more relief and perhaps a little more satisfaction. Not as much joy or excitement as there is when you're an actual athlete playing.
DU has a winning record since you’ve been with the team, and you have a long resumé of accomplishments as a coach. What do you think makes a good coach?
I think you need to know how to work with people and manage people and communicate, and you have to be fortunate enough to have a boss who is patient because we haven’t been hugely successful from day one. There have been challenges that we’ve had, whether they be records or other things over the course of 18 years here at DU. And we're really fortunate to have some top-quality student athletes, guys who really value an education, who are really good players, and who fit the right profile for a student athlete at DU. I don’t care how good of a coach one thinks he is: The bottom line is you have to have really, really talented student athletes. If you have that, that’s a pretty good format for success.
What do you look for in players?
Certainly from a hockey standpoint you have to have the skill level—but without a doubt, the character is so important in any successful endeavor, especially on a team where you’ve got certain players who have to adapt to different roles they may not be used to. When you have character people willing to play as hard as they possibly can for each other, you've got a winning formula.
You've been behind the bench at DU for 18 years. What do you enjoy so much about college hockey?
The thing that I take very seriously is the opportunity to hep young men develop a more mature attitude toward life. Not just in hockey life, but in overall maturity. This is an important step in a young man's life; he’s going to be lucky to be able to play hockey after college, and even if he's good enough to play in the NHL, his hockey career is going to come to an end some time. At that point, he's going to have to be able to become a regular [guy], join the work force, if you will. So my hope is that the things that he’s learned being a part of our program over the four years will help him be successful once his hockey career is all done.
You’ve accomplished a lot in your hockey career, both as a coach and a player. What’s on the bucket list?
I learned many years ago that driving a zamboni is not as easy as it looks. I almost put a zamboni through the boards one time. So maybe learning to drive a zamboni.
—Image courtesy of University of Denver Pioneers Athletics