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Lumber Kings Alumnus Jim Montgomery Gets Another Chance at Coaching in the NHL

Jim Montgomery is on his way back to the National Hockey League.  The St. Louis Blues recently hired the former Pembroke Lumber King to be an assistant coach, a reunion of sorts as Montgomery returns to the organization that gave him his first crack as an NHL player.

It was almost 30 years ago when Montgomery made his NHL debut with the Blues in the 1993-94 season. Now, the Blues are offering Montgomery another chance to coach at the highest level of the sport after a devastating departure from the game.

Montgomery’s road to the NHL is a story of determination and perseverance.  He was never drafted and never played major junior hockey. Instead his path took him through a small Eastern Ontario city where he met a gruff Junior A coach who had a profound impact on him and planted a seed that maybe some day he would be a coach, but as a teenage boy his first focus was to gain a scholarship to play hockey in the United States.

Playing minor hockey in Montreal, Montgomery knew some other players who had made their way to Pembroke from his hometown including Peter White, Bruce Coles and Glenn Painter. He had heard good things about Pembroke and decided to travel to the city to learn more about the Lumber Kings.  He believed that playing for the Lumber Kings would help him get noticed by an American college scout.  The Lumber Kings were a favourite destination for scouts in the 1980’s because of the success the club was having.  By the time Montgomery arrived, the Kings were in the midst of a run that included six championships in eight years in the Central Canada Hockey League.

His first impressions were good. “I just loved the rink. I loved the small town feel and I loved the tradition of excellence that Pembroke had,” Montgomery said in a 2018 interview. He also liked his new coach, but admitted he was a bit fearful of Jim Farelli. “He had a gruff voice.  His arms were huge. He was intimidating.”

As one of the stars on the team, Farelli had Montgomery playing on his top line. He also played on the powerplay and killed penalties, sometimes spending the full two minutes on the ice. With that much ice time and with great linemates like Brian Downey, Montgomery racked up the points. He finished the season with 53 goals and 101 assists and complimented his 154 point season by collecting 115 minutes in penalties, demonstrating the grit he likely inherited from his father, Jim Montgomery Senior, who was an Olympic boxer.

Montgomery says his Dad really liked Farelli.  Both men were “old school” tough, but straight shooters. Years later when he began coaching hockey, Montgomery adopted some of Farelli’s approach to communicating with his players. “That was my greatest takeaway from Jim. All of us respected him because when he was being tough on us we knew he cared, but he was just being honest with us.”

Playing in Pembroke paid off. Montgomery secured a scholarship at the University of Maine where over four years he again put up strong offensive numbers.  That earned him a professional contract and sparked a pro playing career that would last for more than decade.  While much of his career was spent in the minor leagues, Montgomery did suit up for 122  NHL games with St. Louis, Montreal, Philadelphia, San Jose and finally Dallas.  That last stop in Texas would lead to another reunion when he got his chance to take over an NHL bench.

When it was time for Montgomery to hang up his skates, he started to think more seriously about coaching.  He tiptoed into coaching while playing his final season with the Missouri River Otters, acting as an assistant coach while still contributing as a player.  A year later in 2006, he joined the coaching staff at Notre Dame and then spent four years as an assistant with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He left R.P.I. for a head coaching role, and that first experience of being fully in charge produced a championship.

Over three seasons as the head coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, Montgomery won two titles, but it was his success at the University of Denver that really got him noticed as a prospective NHL coach. From 2013 to 2018, Montgomery’s teams were always among the top NCAA clubs and in one of those years they were national champions. He had reached the pinnacle of college hockey and was ready for the big stage. By the spring of 2018, Jim Montgomery had been named the head coach of the Dallas Stars.

In his first season with the Stars the team was ten games over .500 and was knocked out in a grueling seven games series with the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, St. Louis Blues in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The Stars were a team on the rise, but the club got off a rough start the following season. The sophomore NHL coach was in trouble, but not because the team was struggling, but because his own life had hit rock bottom. Montgomery was a man who was in trouble and needed help.

32 games into his second season of coaching the Stars, Montgomery was fired by the club.  In the days after the dismissal there was mystery about why he had been let go, the club only offering it was for behaviour inconsistent with the core values of the Dallas Stars and the NHL. A few weeks later, the rest of the story was known.  Montgomery admitted he had checked himself into a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse, saying “Losing my job as head coach of the Dallas Stars was a wake up call. It was also the appropriate call.”

Just like Jim Farelli had taught him. Jim Montgomery was being honest with himself. He needed to seek professional help to get his life back on track. In his statement, Montgomery said, “The team’s decision to end my role forced me to look into the mirror and decide whether I wanted to continue living a damaging lifestyle or get help. I decided to get help.”

The team that Montgomery was forced to leave in the hands of his assistant coach Rick Bowness is now in the Stanley Cup Final.  Who knows if it would have played out this way had Montgomery still been behind the bench of the Stars, but the silver lining in this story is that Montgomery has been welcomed back into the NHL coaching fraternity. In an interview conducted by the Blues, Montgomery said, “Sometimes it takes an unbearable consequence in your life to happen to have an unbelievable breakthrough, and that’s the way I look at it. I’m just thankful for what happened because now I’m a better person and obviously a better husband, father and son.”

Now nine months sober, Montgomery is excited about the chance to return to the game that he loves.  For those who watched him play junior hockey in Pembroke it is an opportunity to root once more for the underdog.  Nothing has come easy for Montgomery but the battle he is now facing is much tougher than winning a hockey game. It’s real life and we’re all hoping Jim Montgomery will be okay.

In his last shift with the Lumber Kings in the spring of 1989 while playing in the Centennial Cup playdowns against Thunder Bay,  Montgomery was assessed a match penalty and game misconduct after he speared an opponent who had butt-ended him. That competitive spirit to never backdown from a fight helped him build his professional career in hockey.

The young man who chose an alternative route to the NHL is now in his early 50’s. He has a lifetime of experiences to draw on as he recalibrates his NHL coaching career. More importantly, he has surrounded himself with a support network to help him move forward. There’s a lot of people rooting for Jim Montgomery, including those who were there when his hockey career started to unfold in Pembroke.