It was back in 2005 when Denver head coach Jim Montgomery had an important decision to make.
Would he take a paid assistant coach position or learn under Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson as a volunteer coach?
Montgomery chose the latter, working part-time jobs and volunteering his time to learn from a coach who he considers to be great.
"I think I was very lucky and fortunate that during the first year of my career I was able to work for and under Jeff Jackson and the entire staff that is there, Paul [Pooley] and Andy [Slaggert],” Montgomery said. “I learned organization skills, I learned how to cut video. I learned A to Z how to run a program at a high level. It was the best decision I ever made to go there as a volunteer.”
Fast forward to today, and the two will be standing behind each respective bench at the United Center when Denver and Notre Dame face off in the Frozen Four Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. ET.
This Frozen Four story about the pair doesn’t start now, but back in 1993, when Montgomery played against Jackson’s Lake Superior State team while a member of Maine’s squad. With the help of Montgomery’s three goals in the third period, the former NHLer secured the national title for his team, defeating Lake Superior State 5-4.
With a relationship and friendship already established, one would think Thursday’s game could bring a range of emotions. For Montgomery, he said he’s simply happy. The two have even exchanged texts leading up to the game. The Spencer Penrose Award winner for national college coach of the year said he reached out to Jackson about an article the he believed “captured our relationship pretty well and how it's been tied together through Shawn Walsh.” Walsh, who passed away in 2001, was the head coach at Maine while Montgomery was there and a friend of Jackson.
Montgomery’s positive attitude toward facing a former mentor is what he believes “shows how his relationship with Jackson is special.”
“I learned from a great coach because he's here again for the sixth or seventh time in his career, and I've managed to get back here for the second year in a row,” Montgomery said. “So whatever he taught me, I've been able to apply, and I think both teams play with a lot – I guess the same way, and we don't beat ourselves, and we're hard to play against.”
Despite the sacrifice it takes to be a volunteer coach, Jackson noted how vital it can be to get your foot in the door.
“You're creating a network of contacts, and that's what I did when I was first starting in coaching. I think that that's where you build up relationships and help yourself become a better coach,” Jackson said. “Jimmy certainly paid his dues in the early years to make himself a good coach.”
Jackson added that among the many great things about coaching hockey – seeing former players head to the NHL, become All-Stars or hall of famers, or even seeing former players become doctors, presidents of companies and family guys – there is also witnessing what former assistant coaches go on to do or as Jackson put it “People who help you, and hopefully you help them.”
“We get along great. He's a great young coach. He's got a great future ahead of him. He's got all the right aspects to being a great coach. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him,” Jackson said. “Tomorrow we'll go head to head, and whatever happens happens. I remember a lot of great games between Shawn Walsh and Ron Mason too. Those things happen. It's part of coaching. You develop coaches, and you end up competing against them.”
On Thursday night, when the final buzzer goes off in the United Center, this full circle story could be coming to an end, or maybe just starting a new chapter.
“It's the relationships that you establish, and [coaching] been my life, and to see him be successful is a great part of that.”