To get a feel for just how dramatically George Gwozdecky's life has changed in six months, all you need to do is hear some of the dinner table conversations between the former Lightning assistant and his wife, Bonnie.
"She kind of chuckles, 'Boy, we're in a whole different environment,' " Gwozdecky said. "We're definitely starting a very exciting journey."
In June, Gwozdecky, 62, was at the top of the hockey world, on the Lightning bench during its run to the Stanley Cup final. But as Tampa Bay travels to Denver to play the Avalanche on Tuesday, Gwozdecky is the new coach at nearby Valor Christian High School, working with players involved in Boy Scouts, not business deals. He's running 6 a.m. practices, riding the bus to games — performing a jack-of-all-trades role that includes just about everything other than driving the Zamboni.
"I think it's fun, actually," said Valor Christian athletic director Jamie Heiner. "It totally makes no sense on the outside. But to be honest, it makes a ton of sense when you talk to George."
Until a fateful conversation with Heiner last summer, Gwozdecky didn't know what he was going to do. Gwozdecky and the Lightning had parted ways — amicably, he says — after his contract expired. In early July, he and Bonnie drove cross country to their longtime home in Denver, and Gwozdecky took a few days to decompress. Not many college jobs were available that he was interested in, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to go the pro route.
"After three, four days at home, my wife said, 'You've got to get out of the house. You're getting under my feet,' " Gwozdecky said.
Gwozdecky recalled that a friend of his had interviewed in the spring for the coaching job at Valor before passing on it for another opportunity. Gwozdecky, a two-time national championship coach at Denver University, decided he'd reach out to Heiner to see if he could help advise the school in its search, maybe be part of the board.
One conversation became two, then three. Gwozdecky became more intrigued. A program-builder and teacher his entire career, Gwozdecky saw a fledgling team looking for its fourth coach in four years, having fielded just 11 players last season in going 3-15. The school had a state championship football team and wanted to build its hockey program into a power.
"I said, 'You know what. This is something I can sink my teeth into,"' Gwozdecky said. "I've been with a program all my life. This is no different, other than the kids are a little bit younger. After talking with (Bonnie), we decided to move in with both feet and never looked back since. It's been great."
Under Gwozdecky, Valor Christian has already won more games than it did last season (4-4). The team has 20 players, invigorated by the higher standards and disciplined style set by Gwozdecky. Gwozdecky said one of the biggest challenges is helping the kids understand about commitment level, something typically a given in the college and NHL ranks.
Gwozdecky said he learned a lot in Tampa Bay and was grateful for the opportunity. He said he keeps in touch with a lot of the staff and watches almost every Lightning game. He plans to come to the morning skate Tuesday.
"It was an awesome experience. I wouldn't trade it for the world," Gwozdecky said. "The biggest change for me was going from the head coaching position (at Denver) to working as an assistant on (Jon Cooper's) staff. That was a challenge for me because the decisions that I had been used to making were no longer my responsibility."
Now, at Valor, almost everything is his responsibility.