Soon after he was hired as head coach of the Dallas Stars in early May, completing an increasingly legitimized leap from the NCAA ranks to an NHL bench, Jim Montgomery had arrived for dinner at a local steakhouse when he spied a familiar face. Across the restaurant was Stars captain Jamie Benn, chowing down with his brother Jordie and one of their childhood friends, unaware that Montgomery had just strolled into the establishment.
So Montgomery decided to send a message. Shielded from Benn’s table by a tall, fake plant, Montgomery flagged down a server and ordered them drinks from the bar. “Whatever they’re having,” he told her. “Say it’s from Monty.” When the drinks were delivered, Montgomery peered through the fake plant as Benn scanned the restaurant in confusion. Finally, Montgomery made himself seen. Within minutes Benn had returned the favor with a round of tequila.
Speaking over the phone Thursday afternoon, one day before his first training camp opens in Dallas, Montgomery laughs while recalling this story. What was his takeaway, other than the risk of a mild hangover? “He got to know that I’m a regular person,” Montgomery says of Benn, “and I got to know that it’s a captain I’m going to have fun working with.”
The excitement is understandable. After five seasons at the University of Denver, including two Frozen Four appearances and the 2017 NCAA title, the former journeyman center bolted for his maiden NHL coaching gig, swapping the Rocky Mountains for a smooth landing spot on a Central Division challenger led by All-Star forwards Benn and Tyler Seguin. “I just felt that I had accomplished everything I wanted to at the college level,” Montgomery says. “And that if I found the right opportunity to go to the NHL, with the right people, that I thought it was time to do it.
It is a stark contrast to the task that awaits David Quinn with the rebuilding Rangers. But their mutual paths—Quinn similarly spent five seasons helming Boston University and reached the 2015 NCAA championship game—mean that they will forever be linked in an exclusive fraternity of college-to-pro coaches.The club is swelling in ranks, though. Only three men had experienced that transition until Philadelphia lured Dave Hakstol from North Dakota in May 2015. Since then their ranks have doubled to six. Given that some NHL locker rooms now resemble teenage sleepaway camps instead anyway, the trend makes perfect sense.
“In college, that’s what we do,” Montgomery says. “We deal with that age group.”
Three weeks away from the Stars’ opener against Arizona at home, Montgomery spoke with SI.com about diving into the pro game, sticking to his principles, and airing his grievances about boring hockey on Twitter.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: How was the rhythm of your summer different to college seasons?
JIM MONTGOMERY: Anytime you take a new position, a lot of thoughts run through your mind. How is this going to translate? How quickly are they going to assimilate what you’re trying to teach? You want to give the best hockey players in the world tons of credit, but details are so important. I believe in over-teaching early until I know that they’ve grabbed something. I’m not going to assume that they do, but I do know that I’ve cut down the amount of video compared to college guys.
SI: Where is that line for you? How much is too much?
JM: That’s the line I’m trying to figure out here. I believe that if you want your team to be detailed and execute at a high level, you have to demand and show what those details are. For instance on breakouts, the defensemen being inside the dots instead of rolling outside the dots into the forecheck. That's something I believe in. Talking about it consistently, demanding it so that we’re held accountable to it.
And forwards backchecking through the middle, not letting them get to breakout position from outside the dots. Those are tenants that I’m not going to waver on, because you have to protect middle ice first.
SI: On the flipside, are there certain tenants that you’ve had to scrap because you don’t think they’ll translate?
JM: Not really. I’ve always been a guy who treats players like men and in turn they respond that way. I’m not a guy who was the strict disciplinarian on curfew, on facial hair, on all that stuff previously. So I don't think there’s any of that stuff … there’s a lot of coaches who come, your meeting’s at 9 o’clock and if you’re not there at five minutes to nine, you’re late.
SI: You might be the only coach in history to say that.
JM: No, 9 o’clock is 9 o’clock in my book. I know I’ll be there early, but I know not all people are wired about what I am.
SI: Has that been one unique challenge, building a portfolio on 25 to 30 new guys?
JM: I went through that in Denver, coming into a team with basically zero players who I had recruited or formed relationships with. That’s what I’m encountering now. I think that experience is going to help me out immeasurably.
SI: Did that process at all resemble recruiting?
JM: Yeah, I guess it did. That’s a good analogy, reverse recruiting. It’s beginning to understand relationships and what makes them tick as people. Put the hockey side out of it. Just to know their values and what’s important to them. Is it family? Is it golfing every day, are they fishermen? Stuff like that, so you can remember one thing and they know that I was listening.
SI: Why do you think Dave Hakstol started a trend?
JM: Like anything, it takes people a long time to change. Especially when you’re in the position of a general manager, if you don't go outside the box, there is a lot of safety there. There is opportunity there to not be questioned as much, so when [Flyers GM] Ron Hextall hired Hak, he was taking a leap of faith. I’ve said it many times. Quinner and I are very lucky that Hak has had the success he’s had to give us this opportunity.
SI: What was it about college that made people fearful to go down that route, though?
JM: I think there’s two things why it’s really become easier to make this decision. Over the last 20 years, the percentage of college hockey players having an impact on teams winning Cups, notably the Penguins, has changed people’s opinions.
And then I think the second thing is: Your star players are your star players, but you need to get out a lot of out of your young players, the players between the ages of 18 and 24, because they’re the ones who have to support the depth now. Like Edmonton, Chicago … we’re getting in that situation now where you’re paying four or five guys so much money, you have to develop from within.
SI: Why do you think you’re well-suited to coaching that age group in general?
JM: One, it’s the only age group I’ve coached. Two, they’re not as comfortable communicating and having hard conversations face to face, because they’re not put in that situation. Everything they do is through a device. That’s no fault of theirs. It’s just the way our world has evolved. So what I find is that a lot of my job is trying to get them comfortable, communicating to each other and showing vulnerability, which ultimately helps develop care and trust.
SI: What’s going to be the biggest challenge in Year 1?
JM: Just preparation time. College we had so much time to prepare for our next game and we usually played the same opponent on back-to-back nights. That’s why we added a second video coach. Preparation to me and changing the way we play is important, because not everybody attacks the same way. Your game plan has to change. It’s not like you’re changing leaps and bounds.
SI: You and David Quinn made the leap into fairly different situations. The Rangers are openly rebuilding according to management, while [Stars GM] Jim Nill talks about an open Stanley Cup window. Does that lessen the time to adjust for you, because the demand to win now is there?
JM: At this level, you don’t have the time to build into something. Three years is an extremely long time in this league. So I wanted an opportunity to be able to take a team, have the opportunity to build toward a Stanley Cup within those three years. I think that’s here, because of Jim Nill and [owner] Tom Gaglardi and because of who our superstars are here.
I know that every team has a ceiling. But that ceiling is determined by the group within the room, and that’s the staff and the people that affect the attitude. The ceiling for this year’s team, who would’ve thought last year that the ceiling for Vegas was the Stanley Cup Final? But that’s why I say it’s the people in the room and the people who influence the attitude and the culture every day.
SI: What have you enjoyed the most so far?
JM: I’m working with really good people. I haven’t seen egos. I was not expecting that. To be honest, the egos I walked into as a player were far more significant, way bigger, 25 years ago than they are today. The players, and I don't know if that’s because it’s a different generation, I’ve been blown away positively by the way they think and also the lack of ego that I’m seeing. They have ego, but it’s not coming through the door like some of the personalities that I saw in the NHL.
SI: What advice did you take from Dave Hakstol when you spoke?
JM: Don’t change. Be who you are. That was the main thing, whether it was from him or the other people I spoke to. The other thing is, it’s a grind. The season is a grind and you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of yourself physically and you’re taking care of yourself by trying to get away from the game whenever you can.
SI: In college you had your seven keys to success. (Issuing 50 hits per game, winning 60 percent of face offs, allowing three or fewer odd man rushes, committing to blocking shots, winning the special teams battle, winning the net-front battle, and taking zero undisciplined penalties.) Have you edited those for the NHL yet?
JM: I’ve whittled it down to five. I eliminated 50 hits and blocked shots. Faceoffs has gone to 56 percent. But everything else is the same.
SI: What is the role of data in your decision-making?
JM: I’ve been very happy with the talented staff I have and management, and some of the numbers they’ve brought to us. We’ve already decided what we’re going to track that’s consistent with how we want to play with our team identity, so that should tell us and our players if we’re playing the right brand of Dallas Stars hockey. And also, it’s going to allow us, I think, to find trends.
SI: What will you track? What matters to you?
JM: We want to be pressuring pucks. When we have them, we want to be able to execute. We want to have more clean entries in the opposition. When I look at the five players on ice, if we have more clean entries than we’ve given up.
SI: I’m glad you brought up devices earlier. You might have the most active coaching Twitter account.
JM: Yeah, again, that’s something I have found, and especially with my staff at Denver, we used Twitter a lot to grab and send messages to group texts, whether it was power play people or culture or the way you want to behave and be known. There’s a lot of great stuff on Twitter. And there’s a lot of crap out there too.
I try to eliminate the negative stuff. I’ve eliminated all political things pretty much, as I could without insulting any of my friends. If you all of a sudden start to unfollow …
SI: Mute button.
JM: ...but there are a lot of friends who post political stuff that I don’t like reading anymore. I like being glass half-full. It doesn’t matter where you’re talking in the world, it’s all become very negative in my mind. But I’ll take things and send it to the leadership corps, or an individual who may be down.
SI: I’ll admit, I went down a rabbit hole of some of your old tweets out of curiosity. Can I read you some? This first batch is from Nov. 9, 2011.
Love how Philly stood w puck in thr zone vs Tampa Bay's 1-3-1 forecheck. It will b the death of hockey and the NHL has 2 make a rule change
— Jim Montgomery (@StarsMonty) November 10, 2011
NHl cannot turn into a half court game like basketball or soccer. It is a game baswed on speed, hitting and instincts, not a NZ trap
— Jim Montgomery (@StarsMonty) November 10, 2011
What Philly is doing will create a NHL rule change that will force teams to pressure the puck instead of retreating, I hope
— Jim Montgomery (@StarsMonty) November 10, 2011
JM: [laughs] I’m a believer that the way the game needs to be played is fluid. When I saw Chris Pronger stand there for 10 seconds, I was like, ‘This is like four-corner basketball.’ I didn’t want to see our sport become a static game.
SI: Less and less so, right?
JM: Like anything in sports, it’s the 1-3-1 that has evolved and now it’s much more pressure-oriented.
SI: Okay. Second one. From Feb. 26, 2012.
Billy Chrystal should host the Oscar's every year, his openings and skits r legendary. #payhimdamoney
— Jim Montgomery (@StarsMonty) February 27, 2012
JM: I really look forward to The Oscars, back when Billy Crystal used to do it. His opening act … the one I remember the best was when he opened with Silence of the Lambs and he had the mask on and everything. He’s just user-talented and the ability to make people laugh in a classy way. I like humor that is non … I don’t like people taking shots at people. I like situational humor and not poking fun at an individual.