BOSTON — Jim Montgomery was at his lowest point after he was fired by the Dallas Stars for what he has since admitted was a drinking problem.
Three years later, he is at the top of the NHL, coaching the Boston Bruins to the best record in NHL history. It wouldn’t have been possible if not for the lessons learned during his exile, his rehab and his climb back through the coaching ranks.
“You’re filled with guilt and shame. You’re not even thinking about when’s your next job,” Montgomery said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was at the nadir of my life. Then you start building yourself back up and you start to get your life in order first and work on yourself. And then you start getting back. And you become better at everything.”
A native of Canada who led Maine to the 1993 NCAA title — scoring a third-period hat trick in the final — Montgomery played in 122 NHL games over six years before he turned to coaching. He won two U.S. junior titles and led Denver to an NCAA championship before he was hired by Dallas.
In his first season, the Stars made the playoffs for the first time in three years. In his second, he had a team that reached the Stanley Cup Final.
But he wouldn’t get there with them.
Montgomery was fired 32 games into the year for what the team called unprofessional conduct. He has since admitted to binge drinking to the point of blackouts, and conceded that he deserved to be fired. After going through rehab, he began working his way back.
Montgomery spent two seasons as an assistant in St. Louis, the team that signed him as a player out of college. He made himself a better coach, he said, absorbing what he could from every system he worked in along the way.
When the Bruins gave him his second chance as a head coach, he brought those lessons with him, creating his own “system” from the bits and pieces he picked up.
He also came out of it stronger as a leader, and more empathic.
“You become a lot more aware and mindful of how other people are doing,” Montgomery said. “I’m talking about someone, maybe they’re off, and they’re off because, well, maybe their dog passed away, their grandmother’s ill. And that’s where I think I’m a much more aware and much more in touch with how other people are doing.”
Montgomery’s predecessor, Bruce Cassidy, led the Bruins to the seventh game of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final and at least 100 points in each of his full, non-pandemic seasons in Boston. But some players bristled at his coaching style, and the front office concluded that younger players couldn’t develop under Cassidy’s harsh glare.
Montgomery – so far, at least – has fronted a softer image.
“I definitely see a guy who has worked really hard on making the right approach to being the best coach that he can be, and person off the ice,” defenseman Brandon Carlo said. “The jokes that he makes, the things that he does are pretty funny. And it’s allowed us to connect with him on a different level, just on a personal level as well.”
Carlo declined to provide any examples of Montgomery’s humor, but categorized the 53-year-old coach’s sense of humor as “definitely dad jokes.” Told of this, Montgomery laughed and confessed to telling jokes that might tend toward the corny and dated: “I do a lot of that.”
So instead of chewing out defenseman Connor Clifton for taking too many chances on the ice, Montgomery good-heartedly calls him Kenny Rogers, after the 1978 song, “The Gambler.” He drops in references to Mike Bossy, the Hall of Famer who led the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s, or Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur.
“Some of these guys don’t know who Mike Bossy is or was, or Guy Lafleur,” Montgomery said with a chuckle.
“He’s done a very good job of that, making it light in here and making it fun,” Carlo said. “Especially in the moments where we are having success.”
Five months after taking over in Boston, Montgomery’s office at the team’s practice facility is still largely unadorned, with a picture of his children the only personal touch among hockey charts and diagrams. He said he would eventually like to add some memorabilia that recognizes the Original Six franchise’s long tradition of success, which includes six Cup championships but none since 2011.
In the meantime, he is trying to create more.
Montgomery’s smooth transition has helped the Bruins weather what was supposed to be a rough fall, with top forward Brad Marchand and top defenseman Charlie McAvoy missing the start of the season due to injuries. The expectation was that if the Bruins could remain competitive early, they could pick up ground once reinforcements arrived.
“This is a real easy group,” he said. “Everybody cares about everybody. And I’m not talking teammates with teammates only. That happens. But it’s also how they treat equipment managers, everybody who’s involved. There’s a lot of communication up and down the ladder.”
“And then,” he added, “you’ve got the talent on the ice.”
Montgomery said no one expected these kind of results so early.
“But we try and stay in the present,” he said. “Because if you’re worried about the future — when are these three guys going to get healthy? — well, then you’re not thinking about how you’re going to get better that day.”
(Associated Press/Photo: Boston Bruins)