The Valor Christian High School boys hockey team is whizzing around the rink on a Monday afternoon at the Ice Ranch in Littleton. With the start of their winter season weeks away, the Eagles are fine tuning some issues in the offensive zone. So far, they’re skating hard but playing sloppy.
Valor Christian head coach George Gwozdecky, who’s standing and observing along the boards, looks like he’s seen enough when one player blasts a pass to no one in particular. He blows the whistle dangling from the neck. He skates toward a whiteboard attached to a post on the other side of the rink. His players huddle around him. Each takes a knee.
“The execution is brutal,” Gwozdecky says as he doodles on the whiteboard. “You’ve gotta open up. Don’t turn your back on the puck.” The players watch Gwozdecky attentively. They nod their heads, and when he’s done, start the drill over.
This is Gwozdecky’s second season coaching Valor Christian, a private high school located in Highlands Ranch with a student body of 981 kids. It’s a seemingly odd post for one of the winningest college hockey coaches ever. In 19 seasons as the head coach at the University of Denver, Gwozdecky won two national titles (2004, 2005), won 20 games or more 16 times and compiled a 443-267-64 record. He’s 12th all-time in wins with 592. And he’s the only man ever to win national titles as a player (Wisconsin in 1977), assistant (Michigan State in 1986) and head coach.
It’s a little jarring to see him coaching a couple dozen teenagers you can smell as soon as you walk into the building. Surely Gwozdecky would be happier guiding another college program with a fancy facility? Or working with the most talented hockey players in the world in the NHL as an assistant, like he did with the Lightning for two seasons?
“It’s been a great blessing for me to be around these kids and these parents,” Gwozdecky says. “Their vision for what they want to accomplish with hockey is similar to mine. It’s been fun to see it slowly starting to take shape, slowly starting to see it take fold. We’re taking baby steps. But baby steps in the right direction.”
Gwozdecky, 63, sounds like a man who’s at peace in his professional life.
The Eagles finished 10-8-1 last winter season and qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 2013. It marked progress for a program that Gwozdecky admittedly didn’t know existed until a couple months before he took the job.
“I didn’t have a clue. Didn’t have a clue. And I live eight minutes away (from the school),” Gwozdecky says. “The first time I knew they had a hockey program was when Steve Miller called me in April (2015).”
At the time, Miller, Gwozdecky’s long-time right-hand man at Denver, was figuring out his next career move. He considered going into NHL scouting. The head coaching job at Valor was also a possibility.
“I just mentioned to George that Valor was looking for a head coach,” Miller remembers.
Gwozdecky offered Miller his advice and didn’t think much of the Valor job until a couple weeks later. He and his wife, Bonnie, returned to Colorado in April 2015 shortly after the Tampa Bay Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks. Two years as an assistant with Tampa Bay had run its course.
Gwozdecky was at home not doing much. By that time, Miller decided to take the Director of Hockey job at the Air Force Academy. So Gwozdecky’s wife, Bonnie, suggested he go to Valor to ask about the opening. One conversation with Valor athletic director Jamie Heiner turned into two, which turned into three.
“And all of a sudden I asked, ‘Would you ever consider me?’” Gwozdecky said.
The adjustment took some getting used to at first. For one, the job required more patience. College and NHL players don’t miss practice because they have a conflict with Boy Scouts, or usually have part-time jobs that require working around. High school players do.
There were also the more mundane parts of coaching at the high school level that Gwozdecky simply never dealt with at Denver or other stops. He’s responsible for ordering equipment, delivering gear and organizing team activities. Parents have stepped up to help, but it’s still a bit odd for Gwozdecky.
“I don’t have a secretary. I don’t have an an assistant coach,” Gwozdecky says. “… There’s so much you don’t have to do in the National Hockey League. You don’t have to get Steven Stamkos’ mom and dad in charge of the sandwiches after the game.”
Overall, things seem to be going well. Gwozdecky is getting a handle on the things he was never in charge of before the Valor job. The instructional aspects of his job are going well, too. The Eagles look much improved in year two. They went 14-1 in the high school fall league that just wrapped up; the season before Gwozdecky arrived, Valor won one game in its winter league.
Those who know Gwozdecky well say that while it’s still a little strange to see him coaching high school hockey, they’re not surprised to learn that he’s enjoying the experience.
“It is weird,” says Colorado Avalanche forward Joe Colborne, who played for Gwozdecky at Denver from 2008-10. “It was weird for me to see him with the Lightning just because I’ve pictured him being at DU for the rest of his life. … And to see him coaching high school. It was kind of surprising to me until I saw him at (former DU player) Drew Shore’s wedding. His passion for the game hasn’t dwindled at all. He’s such a good teacher and educator of the game. It really wasn’t surprising when I talked to him and he said how much he’s enjoying it. He’s looking at it as a new challenge, and he’s having a great time with it.”
Colborne is one of several former DU players who were upset with how Gwozdecky’s time at Denver ended. DU fired him with one year remaining on his contract in April 2013.
“I don’t think he was treated the way he should’ve been with all the things that he did at DU and in Denver in general,” Colborne says. “But true to the guy he is, he left with his head high.”
Gwozdecky doesn’t sound bitter about how things ended at Denver. It allowed him to chase new opportunities. He says he’s still happy simply to get in the rink and do what he loves — coach — even if the stakes aren’t quite as high.
“It was a shock without a doubt,” Gwozdecky says. “But we’ve moved on.”
“So do I miss all the people? The spectators? I don’t really know if I can recall a whole lot of difference. Certainly when you’re in a smaller community rink, the atmosphere probably isn’t as luxurious. The locker rooms are a little smaller, a little smellier. But when you’re able to have success when you score or win a game, or when you’re dealing with losing a game, it’s all the same. It’s all about the group and working with them and trying to figure out how it’s going to get better.”
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