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Gwozdecky’s coaching tree stretches far and wide

DU hockey coach George Gwozdecky talks with his players during a game with Boston College in 2010. Photo: Rich Clarkson & Associates

It is the sort of trip down memory lane George Gwozdecky simply has been too busy to take.

Sitting on the cusp of his 400th victory as the head coach of the University of Denver hockey team, Gwozdecky is about to begin his 18th season at DU. He has collected four Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament championships, three WCHA regular season crowns and a pair of NCAA national championships. His record is 398-239-55 going into the 2011–12 campaign.

Putting together a resume like that requires constant focus on the future, not periodic trips into the past. So, when Gwozdecky was asked recently to list all his former assistants and players currently in coaching or managerial roles throughout the hockey world, it marked the first time Gwozdecky had ever sat down with pen and paper to recount all those he helped steer into the business since his own coaching journey began more than 30 years ago.

Once the task was complete, Gwozdecky came to one irrefutable conclusion.

“It means I’m getting old,” Gwozdecky quips. “But it also reminded me that to be successful at this level, you cannot do it by yourself. I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by very talented people. I looked at that list, and a lot of great memories came from it. I’m so proud to see that list and see how successful all those guys have become.”

The list of Gwozdecky protégés is highlighted by former DU assistant Seth Appert, who led Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 16 years last season, and Rico Blasi, a former player and coach under Gwozdecky who has led Miami (Ohio) into the ranks of the nation’s elite.

Gwozdecky’s coaching family grew a little this summer after assistant Derek Lalonde left the program to become the head coach for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. Enter new assistant coach David Lassonde, a veteran assistant from New Hampshire whose primary on-ice chore will be to help maintain the Pioneers’ run of excellence at goaltender.

“There is a reason why our goaltending has been so good,” Gwozdecky says. “First with [Appart], and then with [Lalonde] and now [Lassonde], with their ability to recruit goaltenders and then teach them at DU. I was looking for that specific background.”

Although Lassonde is just the latest in an ever-growing list of Gwozdecky assistants, one figure from DU’s staff remains the root of Gwozdecky’s expanding coaching tree. Associate head coach Steve Miller is in his 21st season on Gwozdecky’s staff. Miller has considered taking head coaching jobs elsewhere on several occasions throughout his DU tenure, Miller continues to bring in one highly-ranked recruiting class after another as the program’s recruiting coordinator.

“We get teased by the rest of the staff that we’re like an old married couple,” Gwozdecky says. “We fight. We argue. We get over it and then do it all over again. No question, Steve is one of the best coaches in the country, and I don’t know if there is a better evaluator of talent or character. He’s been one of the best things to happen not only to me but to DU hockey.”

Gwozdecky’s former players and assistants are serving a number of roles including front office officials, coaches or scouts. The list features 12 former assistants, including St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko and Princeton coach Bob Prier, as well as 14 former players. (Blasi counts on both lists, as he also played for Gwozdecky at Miami (Ohio).

Blasi, an assistant during Gwozdecky’s first four seasons at DU, presents an interesting example of how far the reach of Gwozdecky’s influence extends. Blasi long ago became a decorated head coach in his own right — he is in his 13th season at Miami, which is one of the nation’s elite programs — and some of his former assistants are making impressive career moves as well. Former Blasi assistant Jeff Blashill is in his first season as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings, one season after he led Western Michigan to its first appearance in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association title game since 1986. Former Miami assistant Chris Bergeron is now the head coach at Bowling Green.

“The ‘Gwozdecky Tree’ is pretty big now and I know it is something he’s proud of and we are all proud to be a part of,” says Blasi, whose RedHawks will become conference foes with DU when the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference begins play during the 2013–14 season.

“I started as a [graduate assistant] with him and that’s another thing you learn — how to help people grow and mature in their careers,” Blasi says. “I played for him at Miami and then went to DU before coming back here [to Miami], and the things you learn are all about building relationships, learning to build a program. He has a pretty good blueprint for success, and even today, some of those lessons still ring true today.”

Appert believes the impressive level of success enjoyed by Gwozdecky’s former protégés stems not from any particular bits of advice Gwozdecky may have imparted, but from the meticulous attention to detail DU’s coach gives to all aspects of the Pioneers’ program.

“I knew the first time I sat in this chair [at RPI] that I was ready to run a program,” Appert says. “That’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes. We all do. But what I did know that what I took from George is how to run a program. I’m talking about how to act — how we look on the blue line during the national anthem, how we look in public, how to deal with the media, how to deal with alumni.

“These things can be tough for a new coach. For me, they were easy, and that is because of [Gwozdecky]. His approach is more about a ‘daily excellence’ approach and the success in life that leads from that.”

Here’s a look at Gwozdecky’s former coaches and players at work in the hockey world:

Seth Appert, head coach, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Enrico Blasi, head coach, Miami (Ohio)
Bob Motzko, head coach, St. Cloud State
Bob Prier, head coach, Princeton
Joe Piscotty, director of video scouting, Anaheim Ducks, NHL
Greg Drechsel, scout, Columbus Blue Jackets, NHL
Matt Cady, director of hockey operations, Miami (Ohio)
Drew Famulak, associate head coach, Ferris State
Chris LaPerle, assistant coach, McGill University (CAN)
Steven Palmer, assistant coach, Muskegon Lumberjacks, United States Hockey League (USHL)
Michael Zucker, assistant coach, Omaha Lancers, USHL
Derek Lalonde, head coach, Green Bay Gamblers, USHL
Mike Mudd, general manager, Worcester Sharks, American Hockey League

Chris Bergeron, head coach, Bowling Green
Nick Larson, head coach, Colorado RoughRiders
Scott McConnell, head coach, Chicago Steel, USHL
Angelo Ricci, director/head coach, Colorado Thunderbirds
Matt Laatsch, scout, Anaheim Ducks, NHL
Mike Corbett, assistant coach, US Air Force Academy
Brian Gifford, assistant coach, Colorado Thunderbirds
Jason Grahame, assistant coach, Rocky Mountain RoughRiders
Ryan Hacker, head coach, Sartell-St. Stephen (Minn.) High School
Gavin Morgan, assistant coach, University of Alabama-Huntsville
Barry Schutte, assistant coach, Bowling Green
Bryan Vines, assistant coach, RPI

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