Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature / People

Gwozdecky notches 500th win: A look at the coach off the ice

Trust hockey coach George Gwozdecky to know where the thin ice is. And how to skate around it on his way to 350 wins as DU’s head coach and 500 wins overall.

Both marks came Oct. 24 in a road win against Minnesota. Both add to Gwozdecky’s legacy of two national championships at DU, a slew of conference titles and a program that’s one of the most successful in the country.

A great hockey mind? Not so much, Gwozdecky says with a shy smile. More like a guy with the brains to check in with his wife now and then.

“The numbers to me are insignificant,” he says. “The person who deserves the most credit is my wife, Bonnie. This is a very difficult profession for marriages. We’ve had many occasions where Bonnie has sat down with me and said ‘OK, enough hockey, we’ve got to get a better balance in this thing.’

“She deserves the credit because without her, none of this would have been possible.”

There you have it — from an ex-Wisconsin winger who barks with his eyes, snarls at referees and scares opposing teams into thinking his guys chew glass. From a coach who’s survived two decades in a sport with unforgiving fans, unrelenting pressure, complicated strategy and lofty goals. From a guy whose daughter’s friends say he looks “scary” on TV and are shocked he’s actually a “nice guy.” From a coach who credits his wife with the strength to show him the thin ice when the emotional roller-coaster of coaching and his time away from home got out of hand.

“My wife has been an absolute saint,” Gwozdecky says. “She’s been the foundation for Adrienne’s upbringing because of my being away so much.”

Adrienne is the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, a high school junior who plays hockey and lacrosse and steers clear of mom and dad as much as any teen. Her father’s travel cut into Gwozdecky’s parenting over the years, but he’s proud of the results in spite of it. Besides, being on the road is how you end up with 500 wins, not counting hard work and talent.

Gwozdecky, 56, is too modest to brag, but his long-time mentor, Ron Mason, the man Gwozdecky calls “the greatest coach in college hockey history” has no such hesitation.

“You can’t win that many games if you only have only one strength,” says Mason, legendary former coach at Michigan State who has 924 career wins. “He’s a great recruiter and then he can coach guys when he gets them there. He knows how to build a program.”

Mason hired Gwozdecky as an assistant from 1984–89.

“He helped us win the national championship at [Michigan State] in ’86,” Mason recalls. “He’s one of those special guys. What he has you can’t teach. George has that … special feel.”

At [Michigan State], Gwozdecky was “GQ” for his crisp business attire. As a player at Wisconsin in the 1970s, he was “The Flying Alphabet” for the way he screamed down the ice and because his coach couldn’t pronounce his name. At DU, he’s … Coach Gwozdecky. Or sir. Either way, he’s a been fixture at DU since former Chancellor Dan Ritchie hired him in 1994 to breathe life back into the hockey program.

“We’ve done our best,” Gwozdecky says modestly.

That “best” took a lot of patience. Turning the program around didn’t happen overnight, and developing players is slow and uneven.

“Two of the best captains we’ve ever had were huge challenges for us. Bryan Vines captained maybe the best team we’ve ever had here, the ’01 team. Matt Laatsch captained our ’05 national championship team. Terrific young men who back when they were freshmen and sophomores struggled horribly.

“The beauty of college is you have them for four years and you have the chance to work with them and help them mature. Over four years, it’s amazing how these young guys develop and grow. They come in as boys and they leave as men.”

The transformation, of course, happens while they’re “kicking and screaming” or being as Gwozdecky prefers to say, “challenges.” There’s no shortage of issues: maturity, academics, injuries, discipline, training, playing time, professional opportunities and the nagging feeling that the grass is greener somewhere else.

“It’s a constant challenge of trying to figure out what buttons to push,” he says.

And that’s the 20 percent of the day related to coaching. The rest is spent on alumni, fan and media relations; recruiting; fund-raising; conferences and league meetings; and dealing with assistants, rules, academics and staff.

“All those things are very important,” he says, “but they have very little to do with actual hockey coaching.”

Which is why Gwozdecky’s mind flips to hockey strategy when he’s watching TV; why going out to a movie is a rare event and a day in the mountains even rarer; why his boat saw only three days in the water all summer.

It’s also why asking him how he feels about his legacy of 500 wins is so baffling to him.

“I don’t think that way,” he points out. “I’m a little more short-ranged.” And focused on getting his guys to graduation, which Gwozdecky prizes highly and never misses.

“To see them walk across that stage, get that diploma, shake the hand of the chancellor and realize, ‘Wow! I had a great hockey experience, but I got my degree.’ To be able to share that with families is a special day for me every year.”

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