When the announcement was made yesterday that long-time Denver head coach George Gwozdecky would not be back as head coach, and then was further clarified that Gwozdecky had been fired, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a bad April Fool's joke. There had long been rumors of issues and unhappiness between Gwozdecky and the administration at Denver, but the guy had given the program 16 20-win seasons in his 19 years at Denver, and won back-to-back national titles for the school. It was truly shocking to see things come to this.
So now that they have officially split ways, where does each party go from here?
Gwozdecky should have no issues landing on his feet. He's 59 years old, which isn't exactly young by coaching standards, but you'd never guess he's that old by looking at him, and he likely has many, many more years of coaching in him if he so chooses.Any program looking for a coach right now probably isn't worrying about that far down the line. There's obviously not going to be any other coaching candidates out there with a resume to match Gwozdecky either.
There's a few interesting options out there as well. In the west, Alaska-Anchorage's job is currently vacant. I can't see him being all that interested though. I can't see UAA raising the funds to make that job interesting, and with all the challenges the Seawolves currently face in terms of location and facilities, it's not hard to label that a no-win situation.
There are some more intriguing options out east though. The most obvious might be Connecticut, who is currently searching for a new head coach after head coach Bruce Marshall resigned midseason due to health reasons. The Huskies will be moving to Hockey East, and nothing would help raise their program to national prominence more than hiring a big name coach with Gwozdecky's impressive resume. It would be a challenge to build the UConn program from where it is now to a Hockey East contender, and any hockey coach there is likely fourth banana behind football and men's and women's basketball.
The other very interesting option is up in Orono, where the powers that be in Maine are currently deciding the fate of beleaguered head coach Tim Whitehead. Gwozdecky was good friends with legendary Maine head coach Shawn Walsh, and was very close to becoming an assistant to Walsh on the UMaine staff before ultimately deciding to take an assistant's job at Michigan State under Ron Mason. Maine has struggled in recent years, but it's certainly a place that it is possible to win, and hockey is king there.
Meanwhile, where does Denver go from here? I don't envy Gwozdecky's successor to that job. Sure, the Denver program is in pretty good shape right now, but let's look at the challenges facing their next head coach:
1. It's going to be very hard to maintain the level of success Gwozdecky had in Denver, let alone improve on it, which appears to be what Denver's administration expects. It's likely going to be much harder to produce 20-win, top of the conference finishes every year in Denver's new conference.
2. Not only is Denver losing a great coach in Gwozdecky, they're losing one of the best recruiters in college hockey in Steve Miller. Denver is a program that relies on their success to recruit big name players, moreso than their name, unlike a Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan. The Pioneers have also had decent success in recent years finding pretty good players that were willing to walk-on to the program--and pay the ridiculous tuition at Denver--freeing up scholarship money to give full-rides to a higher-number of Grade A prospects.
3. The reaction by alumni to yesterday's announcement has been almost universally negative. Frankly, there just aren't many people left that still remember a time when Denver hockey was relevant and George Gwozdecky wasn't the coach. Whoever replaces Gwozdecky will certainly get a fair chance, but I'd imagine patience will be pretty thin if he can't manage the same level of success as the very popular ex-coach.
Denver likely has enough money that they should have no trouble luring in a big name candidate to take on those risks. And with the quality of coach they'll be able to hire, there's a pretty good chance he'll be successful there too. But it seems like an unnecessary risk to take when Denver had such a successful and respected coach in the first place.
There's a fairly interesting subplot with the NCHC in all of this as well. Gwozdecky, after all, was front and center in the creation of the new conference. He was the head coach representative helping North Dakota athletic director Brad Faison rip the scotch tape off the sign from Kinko's that revealed the conference's new name at their introductory press conference. Now, Gwozdecky won't even make it to the league's first game as head coach of Denver. That in itself isn't a huge deal, but it does make the already thin strands holding the schools in that conference together all the weaker. Miami's distance from the rest of the conference, and their tiny arena seemed to be forgiven much quicker because a Gwozdecky protege was running the program. St. Cloud was allowed into the conference almost out of desperation, but having another Gwozdecky protege behind the bench also helped. If that conference is re-evaluated one, two, five years down the line, those relationships will definitely be looked at in a different way without Gwozdecky around.