From Stanley Cup Finals to a High School Coach


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Valor Christian High’s coach, George Gwozdecky, before a game Saturday in Littleton, Colo.

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Nick Cote for The New York Times

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — In June, George Gwozdecky stood behind the bench during the Stanley Cup finals as an assistant for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He is the only man to win national hockey titles as a player (Wisconsin in 1977), an assistant (Michigan State in 1986) and a head coach (Denver in 2004 and 2005).

But last Saturday night, he was behind the bench in a suburban ice rink south of Denver, before a smattering of fans, watching his Valor Christian High School team beat Palmer, 8-2, in its season opener.

Gwozdecky, 62, had never coached a high school team before, but Valor Athletic Director Jamie Heiner said, smiling, “It’s almost ridiculous to think that he’d be here.”

After completing his two-year contract with the Lightning over the summer, Gwozdecky; his wife, Bonnie; and their golden retriever, Bea, drove back to Denver, where he had spent 19 years coaching the university’s team, the Pioneers.

He did not have a plan for the next stage of his career. A longtime former assistant, Steve Miller, had asked Gwozdecky for counsel about jobs he was considering, which included the opening at Valor. When Miller took a position at the Air Force Academy, Gwozdecky contacted Valor to ask if he could help in its coaching search.

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Until Miller approached him, Gwozdecky had known little about the school, even though his home is only seven minutes from campus. How little? He raised his right hand, the thumb and index finger almost touching.

“I didn’t even know Valor had hockey,” Gwozdecky said.

He talked with Heiner for 90 minutes and then asked if they could meet again the next day because he had more questions.

“Actually, he did more interviewing of me — why I was here, the school history, our desires,” Heiner said, adding that the hockey program was at “a pretty low point” at the time.

Opened in 2007, Valor Christian offers a faith-based college preparatory program on a 35-acre campus that practically gleams. The athletic department is best known for its football team, which has won six state titles in the last seven years, including three in Colorado’s largest division. Christian McCaffrey, the Stanford running back who is a Heisman Trophy finalist this week, was on four of those teams.

Despite some early success, the hockey program was nearly suspended after the 2012-13 season, when 11 seniors graduated and there were not enough students to replace them. The Eagles won only a total of five games over the next two seasons.

But within a few days of talking to Heiner, Gwozdecky said, he knew he wanted the job. He said he loved his two years in Tampa, but he missed the influence he could have on young players, as he did as a college coach between 1981 and 2013.

In August, Valor announced his hiring, which was met by parents and players alike with a mixture of incredulity and elation.

“I grew up a pretty big D.U. fan, so when I heard the news, I was overjoyed,” said the senior goaltender and captain Dylan Wheeler. “Everything I knew before was that he was a great guy and a great coach. So far, he’s been that.”

Although some friends and colleagues expressed surprise that Gwozdecky had taken a high school job, he said coaching and guiding young men “is my comfort zone — it’s what I’m used to.”

Unlike previous Valor hockey coaches, Gwozdecky is on campus every day, working out of a ground-floor office in the athletics building. His players know he is always available — and not just to talk about hockey.

“He’s there for support, even if you just need to go and let off some steam,” the senior center Tanner Glenn said.

Gwozdecky and Heiner continue to develop ways he can contribute to the broader campus community. One of Gwozdecky’s roles is helping the school solve the problem of a scarcity of ice time.

The predicament was so acute last year that the team practiced only once a week. The situation is improving, although one day a week, the Eagles practice at midday 15 minutes away.

Administrators and faculty scheduled a common free period for team members, and Gwozdecky arranged for upperclassmen to drive a car pool so parents would not have to do it.

“Looking back in 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hockey arena on campus,” the assistant athletic director Keith Wahl said.

Gwozdecky, who has the mien of a general and the competitiveness of a middle linebacker, is applying the same principles at Valor that he did in his previous stops.

“To me, it’s all about establishing a culture that will allow us to serve each other,” he said. “For many of the kids here, that’s new, and that can be challenging.”

Two players were benched for the first period Saturday, one because he had not complied with the dress code, the other because he had brought the wrong jersey to the rink. Gwozdecky’s team-building methods include a preseason retreat and team dinners hosted by a parent before each game.

“He approaches all of this in terms of building relationships, of spending time together,” said Eric Malinski, whose family hosted the first dinner. His son Max is a freshman on the team.

Whereas Gwozdecky talks in terms of creating a foundation for success through hard work and selflessness, focusing mostly on incremental improvement, others can imagine his long-term effect at Valor.

Miller, his former assistant, called Gwozdecky a “home run hire” who could develop the program into a perennial national power like Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota, where N.H.L. stars like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews played.

Jim Knowlton, the athletic director at Air Force Academy, who has been Gwozdecky’s friend for years, said: “I could see him really transforming this program, bringing it to a national stage. He’s all in.”

Correction: December 10, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the season after which the Valor Christian hockey program was nearly suspended. It was 2012-13, not 2011-12.



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