Jim Montgomery reached the pinnacle of college hockey on Saturday night.
Nearly a quarter-century after registering a third-period hat trick to spark the University of Maine to its first national championship, he was again basking in the glow of a Division I title.
This time, Montgomery is a champion coach, having led the University of Denver to victory over Minnesota Duluth at the United Center in Chicago.
It’s quite a contrast to a different turn his career might have taken only four years ago.
In 2013, Montgomery appeared to be a no-brainer candidate for the vacant head coaching position at UMaine, where Tim Whitehead had been fired after an 11-win season.
Montgomery was coming off three seasons — and two championships — with Dubuque of the United States Hockey League. He also had five years of experience as a Division I assistant.
A lot of UMaine fans have sputtered ever since that Montgomery would have resuscitated a Black Bears program that was, and still is, languishing.
Fans’ complaining has intensified as UMaine’s struggles continue under former Black Bears assistant Red Gendron.
“Just think where the program would be if Montgomery had gotten the job. Look what he’s done at Denver,” they have reasoned.
I don’t buy that argument. Here’s why …
It is a matter of record that UMaine wasn’t interested in Montgomery. UMaine didn’t ever approach him about the job.
Apparently, a driving while intoxicated conviction — seven years earlier — had erased any chance he might have of being seriously considered.
It was the most important job interview Montgomery never received. Given a chance, he might have impressed the search committee and convinced them that he was the right man for the job.
Instead, it was Denver that embraced Montgomery’s potential and hired him on April 15, 2013.
Denver was, and remains, a dream job compared to UMaine.
Prior to Montgomery’s arrival, the Pioneers had made six straight NCAA regional appearances under former coach George Gwozdecky, averaging almost 24 wins per season during that span.
Despite reaching the Frozen Four in 2007 under Whitehead, the Black Bears failed to make the NCAA tournament five times in the next six seasons and have not done so since.
The Pioneers, despite several consecutive one-and-done trips to the NCAAs, remained in the conversation as a program that was consistently competitive at the national level.
Montgomery also is paid considerably more than what Gendron earns at UMaine.
Gendron faced a much more difficult rebuilding job in Orono. Even he likely did not fully understand the magnitude of the challenge he would encounter.
And though his experience far outweighs that of Montgomery, it is looking more and more — after four seasons and a 49-83-17 record — like Gendron and his staff may not be capable of putting UMaine back on the Division I hockey map.
Given the vast differences between the UMaine and Denver programs, both in 2013 and today, we will never know whether Montgomery would have succeeded in Orono.
But the job he has done coaching Denver to a championship, though impressive, pales in comparison to the monumental task Gendron or his eventual successor faces trying to restore UMaine to respectability.
This story was corrected on April 12 to reflect that UMaine reached the Frozen Four, but did not play in the national championship game in 2007 and that Whitehead became the interim head coach in 2001.