When the Bruins introduce Jim Montgomery as the 29th head coach in franchise history next week, one of the chief talking points for general manager Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely is sure to be his knack for connecting with young players.
The supposed inability to get the most from Sweeney’s draft picks is one reason why Bruce Cassidy is no longer here. Getting the most out of fledgling talent has always been a coaching strength of Montgomery’s, from his five years and one national championship at the University of Denver, to his successful but abbreviated stint with the Dallas Stars, to his rejuvenating role as an assistant on Craig Berube’s staff with the St. Louis Blues.
In fact, Montgomery was great with young players even when he was a young player. I was fortunate enough to witness it.
As a fifth-year senior and alleged student at the University of Maine in 1992-93, I was the men’s hockey beat reporter for the student newspaper, the Maine Campus. Looking back, it was the lucky break of my life to that point. Covering that particular team opened so many doors. I’m certain I would not have ended up here, with this fulfilled dream of a job, had I not had the fortune of covering that team and that group of characters, especially the brash and impossibly charismatic coach Shawn Walsh, a quotable, accessible rascal.
Walsh’s Black Bears were a buzz saw on Bauers. Eight players from that team made the NHL, including much-hyped twins Chris and Peter Ferraro, forward Patrice Tardif (once traded in a package for Wayne Gretzky), and both goalies, Garth Snow and current Bruins goalie development coach Mike Dunham, who combined for 24 NHL seasons.
Some of those who didn’t were superb college players, including 46-goal scorer Cal Ingraham and future Hobey Baker finalist Chris Imes.
But two superstars set the pace. Montgomery, the 23-year-old senior captain from Montreal who already spoke like a coach, and a quiet, preternaturally gifted left wing from North Vancouver, British Columbia who arrived on the Orono campus as a 17-year-old and departed having produced a freshman season that will never be duplicated.
If you saw Paul Kariya play for Maine, you’re nodding in agreement. And if you didn’t, man, did you miss out.
Kariya scored an even 100 points — 25 goals and 75 assists, or the output of some entire first lines at other programs — while becoming the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker award. Montgomery, his center and a Hobey finalist himself, scored 95, finishing his career with a still-standing school record of 301 points.
Their final moments as teammates are part of college hockey lore. In the national championship game against Lake Superior State, Montgomery scored a natural hat trick in less than five minutes in the third period, bringing back the Black Bears from a 4-2 deficit to prevail, 5-4. Kariya assisted on all three goals. (The Lakers goalie was future Bruin Blaine Lacher. Makes sense, right?)
The Kariya/Montgomery heroics put a fitting exclamation point on a 42-1-2 season. If there’s ever been a better team in the history of college hockey, I’ll patiently allow you to make your case, then I’ll pat you on the head and tell you how adorably misguided you are. I know, Terriers loyalists, Boston University handed them their one loss. The blemish is barely perceptible given the ending.
The national championship game was the ultimate confirmation of the connection Kariya and Montgomery had on the ice, that seemingly telepathic sense of where the other was at all times. Off the ice, they were just as tight, often spotted with their girlfriends at El Cheapo’s, Pat’s Pizza, and a few other fine local establishments. (Montgomery, who received treatment for alcoholism after losing the Stars job, was known to party at Maine. That didn’t exactly make him an outlier in Orono, or for that matter, college.)
When Kariya was awarded the Hobey the day before the national championship game, Montgomery joined him on the podium.
“I couldn’t have done this without the support of my teammates, especially Jim Montgomery,” said Kariya in his speech. “He’s like a big brother to me. He’s taken me under his wing and led me through my first year of college hockey. I wouldn’t be here now without his support.”
In his rare quiet moments, Walsh would note with some gratefulness how much Montgomery’s presence made the adjustment to college — and then fame — easier for Kariya, whose confidence off the ice was initially masked by shyness. When asked why he chose Maine over other suitors such as Harvard and Boston University, Kariya said the climate reminded him of North Vancouver, he liked the business school, and going to college in a big city didn’t much appeal to him.
During recruiting, Walsh seized upon that last part. Driving back from Hockey East media day in Boston before the 1991-92 season, Walsh began dictating a recruiting letter to send Kariya.
“Dear Paul, just sitting here stuck in the awful Boston traffic and thought I’d check in . . .”
His passenger who told me that story estimated he was driving around 90 miles per hour north on I-95 at the time of dictation.
Walsh, with a major assist from ace recruiter Grant Standbrook, got Kariya to Maine. But Montgomery is the one who best connected with the future Hall of Famer once he was there. Befriended him, mentored him, and soon enough, made college hockey history with him.
Forgive, if you will, the spin-o-rama of nostalgia from this old Black Bear. I’m just thrilled to see Montgomery get this chance. Thirty years ago, I witnessed how good he was with young players, and people in general. I saw the best of the guy, every day.
I am as certain as certain can be that the Bruins will, too.