TAMPA — George Gwozdecky arrived for a meeting the morning of April 1 expecting to discuss a contract extension to remain the University of Denver head coach, a position he’d held for 19 years.
Instead, the conversation took a completely different turn.
Gwozdecky’s tenure with the Pioneers, a program he led to NCAA titles in 2004 and 2005, was terminated.
Four months later, however, the 60-year-old is embarking on a new path in his coaching career, joining the Lightning for his first NHL stint.
The transition from college to the pros should be seamless for a coaching veteran of 32 years.
“Coaching at whatever level you are at, whether it’s pee wee, college or pros, it’s all about developing relationships and working to be able to help young players get better,” said Gwozdecky, who was in Tampa on Tuesday to get acclimated to his new surroundings and find a place to live.
“The one thing I’ve found about working with the elite athlete, they are hungry to learn, they want to get better. It’s rare that I found anybody that is resistent to improving. For me, the biggest chore is being able to figure out who is who and get to know these guys on a more personal level and go from there.”
Gwozdecky makes up for his lack of NHL experience in other areas of his coaching resume.
In 19 seasons at Denver, Gwozdecky was the national coach of the year in 1993 and 2005 and led the Pioneers to 12 consecutive 20-win seasons. Including his time at the University of Miami (Ohio) and Wisconsin-River Falls, Gwozdecky ranks 11th all-time in NCAA wins with 593.
He is the only coach in NCAA history to win a national championship as a player (Wisconsin in 1977), assistant coach (Michigan State in 1986) and head coach. He also led River Falls to the 1983 NAIA national title.
“He has coached numerous high-profile NHL players: Matt Carle, Tyler Bozak, Paul Stastny,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Combine that with his ability to win at every coaching stop in his career, we could not pass on a guy with that kind of resume. He’s a winner and that’s what we are looking for.”
Gwozdecky’s dismissal from Denver caught many in the hockey world by surprise, including Gwozdecky. There will always be some wounds from the way his tenure ended, though he holds no grudge against his former employer.
“I don’t think you ever get over being jilted, whether it’s your first high school dance and the pretty girl in the corner says, ‘Get lost,’ ” Gwozdecky said. “That’s kind of tough to take the rejection. But certainly I’ve got a lot more positive feelings about our years and the people I worked with, the great players I worked with, than with one person’s decision.”
In mid-June, Gwozdecky reached out to about a dozen NHL teams, which led to discussions with Chicago and Tampa Bay.
He opted to join the Lightning.
“He brings a wealth of experience to the bench and we feel he will be a valuable addition to the organization,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said.