Casey: At Valor, Gwozdecky back in his comfort zone — mentoring youth hockey players

Valor Christian hockey George Gwozdecky

George Gwozecky, the new hockey coach at Valor Christian. (Ryan Casey/CHSAANow.com)

HIGHLANDS RANCH — This is where George Gwozdecky belongs.

Yes, he's that guy who roams the bench with a resume of national championships — that's plural — backing him up.

Yes, he exudes the same passion from his time leading one of the best collegiate hockey programs in the nation at the University of Denver.

And yes, he absolutely is the NHL-level coach who spent the last two seasons as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But Gwozdecky, now 62, just fits as a mentor of young hockey players. It's who he is.

And so on Monday night, when he met parents for the first time in his new role as the head hockey coach at Valor Christian, it made sense. Gwozdecky is in his element in a roomful young hockey players and their parents.

This is exactly why George Gwozdecky — who has 592 career wins as a college coach, who has won four collegiate national championships (one as a player, one as an assistant, and two as a head coach) — is now coaching high school hockey.

"That's been kind of my career path for the majority of my career," Gwozdecky said on Monday. "To me, it's about helping these young guys — whether they're in high school, whether they're in college — helping them develop a more mature attitude toward life, and (helping them learn) the valuable lessons that higher education teaches, as well as hockey teaches.

"The only two years I didn't have that type of opportunity were the two years I spent in the National Hockey League — which were two great years. Nothing against it. But my comfort level certainly is the more expanded role of hockey and affecting young peoples lives."

Valor Christian hockey George Gwozdecky

Gwozdecky meets with players on Monday night at Valor Christian. (Ryan Casey/CHSAANow.com)

On Monday, Gwodecky told parents of how he was drawn to Valor, which is just five minutes from his house. He told parents he wanted to give their kids "a foundation for future greatness."

He mentioned how the school's culture of excellence was something he couldn't pass up.

"In my 30-plus years of coaching Division I college hockey, I have recruited many different high schools, many different prep schools — private, public — and I don't believe I have ever experienced a kind of atmosphere that Valor has developed here on their campus," he said.

Many have speculated that Valor would be a pit stop, or a holding pattern, until another job opened up. He met that thought head on.

"I can tell you: this is not a one-and-done thing," Gwozdecky told the parents. "I am here to build a program."

A few minutes later, he added, "This school is serious about hockey. You guys should be excited about that."

And that resonated with the parents. It resonated with the players. Because here was a guy talking not just about winning hockey games, or even one season. He was talking of building a family within a program.

This is, after all, a program which is 5-31-0 over the past two seasons. It's not Valor Christian football.

And yet Gwozdecky wants it to be. He specifically singled out the school's ultra-successful football team, and girls basketball — which last season won a title — as programs he sought to model his after. (To be fair, Gwozdecky already has a great history of building collegiate programs at Wisconsin-River Falls, Miami of Ohio, and DU.)

In his new role, Gwozdecky will be on campus at Valor Christian full time. He has an office in the athletic building above the football field. It's yet another sign of his commitment to building a program, but Gwozdecky said it was a sign of the school's commitment to hockey.

"Believe me," he said, "if it was just, 'Hey, here's a little stipend, we want you to coach the team this year,' I wouldn't be here.

"It's the commitment they've made to hockey on their campus," he continued. "We're going to get a full commitment from the school, and certainly that means me being full time, me being here on campus, me being here to have an office where I can sit and talk with the kids. I can mentor them, I can help supervise their workouts. I can be here to help work with the other staff in whatever I can bring them.

"It's part of a family. I've always, during the years that we've been successful — whether that's at Denver, Miami, Michigan State or River Falls — that family atmosphere, those people, those coaches, and that staff coming together was hugely important. For everybody. That's why I'm here. And that's why I have an office here."

Already, Gwozdecky is bringing a part of that family atmosphere to Valor. He said on Monday that Kyle Ostrow, who played for Gwozdecky at DU from 2007-11, will be an assistant.

Asked what he knew of high school hockey in the state at this point, Gwozdecky went back to 1994, when he was hired as the coach at DU.

The sport at the high school level "was almost non-existent" at that time, he said. "But based upon the Avalanche and the impact the Avalanche had, it started to grow. And, in fact, probably 'grow' is not a great word. It exploded. There were more arenas being built. High school hockey was being reintroduced to the state, to the region, to the city."

And yet, as the hockey community in Colorado knows, "If you're an elite player, at 15, 16, 17 years old, you're probably playing club hockey," Gwozdecky said. "For many reasons."

It's there that Gwozdecky may spark a major movement in high school hockey's growth.

"At this point, for our program, we understand that," Gwozdecky said. "I think, at least our vision, and perhaps the vision of a lot of schools, is to be able to continue to build their program so that the elite players at that age level have a much more difficult decision to make: 'Should I play for my club team, or should I play for my high school?'

"There's a lot to be said for playing high school hockey," the new coach added. "Maybe not right now at Valor, but we're going make it a tough decision. Hopefully sooner than later."

Valor Christian hockey George Gwozdecky

Gwozdecky addresses Valor parents. (Ryan Casey/CHSAANow.com)