New Lightning assistant Gwozdecky says of being fired by the University of Denver, 'There will always be some wounds'
New Lightning assistant George Gwozdecky said he did not expect to be fired in April by the University of Denver. And while he said, "There will always be some wounds," he added, "But I've got a lot more positive feelings about our years there and the people that I've worked with and the great players that I've worked with rather than with one person's decision."
Gwozdecky, 60, was fired after 19 seasons with the Pioneers and national championships in 2004 and '05. He won at least 20 games in his final 12 seasons, but the team exited in the first round of the NCAA playoffs in five of the past six seasons.
"The consistency of success I was proud of," Gwozdecky said. "That's a lot of work by our assistant coaches and staff and players. So, yeah, (being fired) kind of caught me off guard."
Gwozdecky was in Tampa Tuesday and spoke on many topics, including the adjustments he will have to make coaching the pros; how he uses Bruce Springsteen as part of his motivational speeches; and how Marty St. Louis in his final game for the University of Vermont -- in 1997 against Denver in the NCAA regionals -- forced the Pioneers to change their defensive scheme.
On adjusting to the pro game: Coaching, whatever level you're at, whether it's pee-wee, college or pros, it's all about developing relationships and helping players get better. The one thing I found out about working with elite athletes, they're hungry to learn. They want to get better and it's rare that I've found anybody who is resistant to improving. My biggest chore at this point is to figure out who's who and get to know these guys on a more personal level and go from there.
On earning the players' respect: There's no question. As I said before, you develop the trust by developing the relationship. You might have a little bit of credibility coming in, but how quick the people figure out what you're all about is how you talk and how you relate to them. The X's and O's stuff is pretty simple, but it's all about helping these guys get better, whether it's a veteran or a rookie who is trying to make it. In my life, the biggest treasures are my family and relationships with others. That extends into the locker room as well.
On gaining that philosophy: To me, that's one of the key foundational concepts of any family is to have those strong relationships where you can trust each other through good and bad. Every team in the National Hockey League has great talent. Every team in college hockey has talent. A lot of times when you get to that elite level the difference in what makes one group of talented players better than the other is those little intangibles, how they feel about each other, the relationships they have established. That's the key to success.
On that philosophy meshing with Lightning coach Jon Cooper: Oh, yeah, Jon is a sharp guy. He's a guy that relates really well to people and makes them feel very comfortable. He's got a quick wit and, like all of us, when it's time to get down to business it's 'let's get after it.' He also knows there's a good balance between being able to have fun when you're not working.
On how he hooked up with Tampa Bay: About two weeks before the draft, I sent a little two-line note out to a few of the general managers in the league. ... I sent it out to Steve and probably a dozen other GMs in the league. It was probably a couple of weeks after the draft that (Lightning GM Steve Yzerman) sent me a note back saying, 'Hey, I just got your e-mail. I had it in my kept file. I'll speak with Jon and see if anything is available. We'll get back to you.' That was it. Probably in mid July Jon called me and we started chatting. I had a number of conversations with people who said, 'Hey, we'll get back to you if something happens,' but, really, the only serious conversations were with Chicago and Tampa.
On the shock of being fired by Denver: My better half, she's still on the war path. I say that a little bit sarcastically because once we decided -- once Jon and Steve offered us the opportunity and we decided this is what we wanted to do -- she was all in. But with her, and I think with me, there will always be some wounds. But we've got 19 years of great memories. I think we did things the right way. We had success. But like in any part of life, whether it's the National Hockey League or college hockey, sometimes things just don't work out. The bosses have their prerogative to make decisions based on the direction they wanted to go.
On if he saw the split coming: No. I had been assured that the contract was going to get done.
On if Denver was as forthcoming as it should have been: Oh, I don't know. I've learned that sometimes you take things for granted. Hockey at DU, we weren't high maintenance. We just kind of did our job and every year it's, 'Okay, hockey is going to the national tournament. They've won 20, 22, 25, 26 games and they're selling out every game. So, that's kind of the golden goose. We don't worry about them.' ... The focus of concentration was on other sports. You didn't really have to worry about men's hockey. I wish I could give a better answer or give you a better understanding, but I really don't have one.
On any lingering hard feelings: I don't think you ever get over being jilted, whether it's your first high school dance and you ask the pretty girl in the corner and she says 'get lost.' That's kind of tough to take, the rejection. But I've got a lot more positive feelings about our years there and the people that I've worked with and the great players that I've worked with rather than with one person's decision.
On how the game should be played: Generally speaking, I want to compete hard. I want to be able to compete for 200 feet of the ice. I want to play with some grit. I also understand that not everybody is able to play that way. You've got guys who are great role players who have to play with grit in order to survive and give us a chance to win. You've also got guys who are just pure goal scorers. You've got to be able to work with everybody to be able to figure out what their best role is, how you can tweak them just a little bit so that they can play as well all over the ice as they do in front of the net or on a faceoff. So, just competing hard, competing with some grit, being able to play with a feeling you can be creative at times in certain areas of the ice and everybody has a responsibility not only offensively but defensively. It's not complicated, but when it works it's really effective.
On what is on his Ipod: From anthems to not too much hip-hop and everything in between. I grew up in the Beatles era in the '60s, but Springsteen, Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Abba. I'm telling you, it's a wide genre of stuff.
On a band he'd like to jam with: I'd want to be with The Who. Just to be able to reck your instruments after every concert, there you go.
On using Bruce Springsteen in pregame pep talks: Every couple of years I would give a pregame speech, usually in a game where it's one of the opponents who are way down in the league. I would talk about when I first saw Bruce Springsteen when he was a nobody in 1975 in Madison, Wisc. He played in front of 200 people. I had never heard of him. The ticket was $2.50 and I went with a buddy of mine. The concert was unbelievable. For three hours he just, I mean he gave everything. I became an instant fan, and 35 years later I'm at the Pepsi Center in Denver, which is the next time I've seen him in concert. I'm watching him perform 35 years later with the same energy and the same passion and the same drive and the same demand of himself and his band to give the audience the best he possibly can. I'm thinking, 'That's the definition of greatness.' The difference between good and great is just a little bit more. He is, in my mind, just another example of why he is great because of the passion he displays.
On Marty St. Louis, who had eight shots on goal for Vermont against Denver in the 1997 NCAA East regional quarterfinal the Pioneers won 6-3: Didn't have much tape on him. I heard they were really good and I heard he was a dynamic player with (Eric) Perron at center. We're game-planing against Vermont. It's the first game of the national tournament. Okay, we're better than Vermont. We're going to use our defensive scheme against these guys and we'll shut them down. But I remember how (St. Louis) was so dynamic that first 20 minutes, I said, 'Okay, we're a good defensive team but we're changing this whole thing.' He made a huge impact on me in that game, especially those first 20 minutes. He was good and he continues to show that.