Former University of Denver hockey coach George Gwozdecky is the only person to coach in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final after becoming the first to win NCAA championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Now, he’s seeking hockey’s Holy Grail at the prep level in Colorado — and beyond.
Gwozdecky, who resigned as a Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach in June, has been named head hockey coach at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, athletic director Jamie Heiner announced Friday.
“He is truly about something bigger than the sport and we are absolutely thrilled to have him join our team,” Heiner said of Gwozdecky in a statement.
Gwozdecky, 62, has lived in Highlands Ranch since the beginning of his 19-year stint as DU’s head coach. He led the Pioneers to national titles in 2004 and 2005 and, at the time of his surprising April 1, 2013, firing, was college hockey’s only coach to produce 20 wins in 12 consecutive seasons.
Gwozdecky spent the past two seasons with Tampa Bay, working under Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper. Tampa Bay lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games on June 15.
Gwozdecky sought another challenge, and through a friend, he learned about Valor and the Eagles’ big dreams for hockey. The school will lean on Gwozdecky in its fundraising efforts to build a multi-use facility that would include an ice arena — on campus or in the area.
Valor hockey will field teams in the Colorado Prep Hockey League (fall) and Colorado High School Activities Association (winter) and strive for the kind of national prominence achieved by schools such as Regis Jesuit and Cherry Creek. The Raiders (pure) and Bruins (mixed schools) won the USA Hockey Tier II prep national championships last spring.
Regis is considered the private school success model in hockey, and Valor hopes to follow suit with Gwozdecky at the helm. Schools including Cherry Creek, Mountain Vista, Ralston Valley and Dakota Ridge excel at hockey because they draw from in-district schools that don’t offer the sport.
“My story of coming to Valor is truly amazing,” Gwozdecky said in a statement provided by Valor. “I was serving as a reference to a friend and an associate on a coaching position at Valor, and the more I learned of the school, the more intrigued I became personally.
Gwozdecky spoke to school officials about their goals with the program, then was sold.
“I am truly excited to apply what I have learned in this great sport, and the lessons of a lifetime of coaching to the Valor student athletes I will have the privilege of working with. I’m anxious to get started,” Gwozdecky said.
Gwozdecky was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and played hockey at the University of Wisconsin, winning the NCAA title with the Badgers in 1977. He also won the Division I championship while a coach at Michigan State in 1986.
Gwozdecky began his head coaching career in 1981 at Wisconsin-River Falls, winning the NAIA national championship in the second of his three years. After his time at Michigan State, he moved on to become head coach of Division I Miami (Ohio) in 1989, leading a downtrodden program to a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1993.
He joined DU before the 1994-95 season and led the Pioneers to the NCAA Tournament in 12 of his 19 years, including the last six.
“George’s tenure in hockey and his accomplishments as a player, coach and program builder, are so significant,” Heiner said. “But what has impressed us most is the care and concern he has for young people to nurture and help them grow into competent, caring leaders.”
Valor’s hockey team finished 3-15 in CHSAA last season, finishing with only 11 available players. Head coach Sam Shooster resigned this summer because of family and business conflicts.