The two boys rode in their dad’s car, while the two girls jumped in mom’s for the nearly 10-hour drive.
It was late June, seven months after Jim Montgomery had been fired as head coach of the Dallas Stars after an undisclosed, alcohol-related incident, and he and wife Emily were finally leaving Dallas and taking their four children to their new home in St. Louis.
They had narrowed their choices to St. Louis, where Montgomery played for the Blues, his wife was from and they’d eventually meet, or Denver, where he coached college hockey for five seasons.
“St. Louis won,” Montgomery said. “For our kids to have cousins to play with … the decision to come here for our kids’ benefit was really the deciding factor. So we drove our two cars here, plopped right in, and started to live.”
This was a new life for them all, but especially the 51-year-old coach, whose departure from Dallas was the subject of curiosity from coast to coast, and even when that settled down, he was now coping with the new world of sobriety. Getting back on track and having his family at his side were his only priorities.
There were NHL teams that inquired about Montgomery’s availability, but none were seen as good fits, in part, because they would take him out of town. But then on Sept. 4, the Blues announced the departure of assistant coach Marc Savard and Montgomery’s friends began texting him about the possibility.
“They were the best team in the West all season long,” he said. “You don’t think there’s going to be an opportunity to be with the best team in the West.”
But while he was nine months sober, was Montgomery ready to be thrust back into a sport where long road trips and nights in hotels beg for vices? And even if he were ready, would the Blues even be interested?
After many a night of personal introspection, Montgomery learned the team that plays just 20 minutes from his home did wish to speak with him. And after three phone calls, two breakfasts and one trip to a coffee shop, he agreed to a two-year contract Wednesday to join Craig Berube’s staff, a moment that brought out raw emotion when he told his kids.
“My 11-year-old, J.P., jumped up, started screaming and crying and hugged me,” Montgomery said. “It was euphoria to celebrate like that as a family. I thanked my wife for her incredible belief in me, and I told her that this would not have happened without her, and she said, ‘Bullshit, you’re a great coach.’”
There’s never been a question about that with Montgomery, who led the University of Denver to an NCAA national championship in 2017. He had a record of 60-43-10 in Dallas before his firing, and while plenty of credit is due to the Stars and interim coach Rick Bowness, that team has advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals this season.
The question is can “Monty” go forward, not back, and wonder what can be, not what if. His health, and his life, are riding on it.
Barret Jackman’s phone rang, and it was his old player-coach with the Missouri River Otters of the United Hockey League (UHL). That was the team Jackman played on during the NHL lockout of 2004-05, and it was the final year of Montgomery’s career.
“He called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re moving back to St. Louis, you got any skates going on?’” said Jackman, who was taking over as the coach of the St. Louis AAA Blues Peewee Minor team, which included his son, Cayden. “I said, ‘Yeah, your kid (J.P.) is more than welcome to come out.’ He came out and played really well. I gave Monty a call, and I’m like, ‘Hey, your kid is good. I’m going to be coaching the team. If you’re around, I’d love to have you come out and help.’”
“It was incredibly flattering,” Montgomery said. “I was like, ‘Yes,’ right away. I just said as long as it’s good with you and the rest of your staff, I’d love to help out.”
The family arrived in St. Louis on June 23, and four days later, Montgomery was on the ice with the AAA Blues. It was a far cry from the American Airlines Center in Dallas, running lines with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but blowing a whistle for the first time since December was therapeutic. He has been on the ice for every practice and behind the bench for all eight games.
“It’s been really fun to work with kids this age, to work on the fundamentals of the game again and just being able to get on the ice and help these young men,” Montgomery said. “It was really important that I got into a routine here. You know, with (alcoholism) recovery, structure and routine is really important. As soon as you get that going, you feel a rhythm again and it’s easier, especially with all the good friends I have to rely on.”
The Blues’ alumni has welcomed Montgomery, who played 67 games with St. Louis in 1993-94, with arms open. So when Keith Tkachuk called recently, he didn’t think anything of it. With Montgomery previously coaching at Denver and Tkachuk now scouting college players for the Blues, they had talked several times about players, and he figured that’s what it was about.
“I knew he wasn’t calling to invite me to play golf because he hasn’t ever done that — he’s too cheap because he’s a member and would have to pay the fee,” Montgomery said. “But no, he says, ‘Hey, I think (Blues general manager Doug Armstrong) has your old number.’ I think Army had my one from Denver, a 303 area code. Then he says, ‘Would you be interested?’”
By now, Montgomery knew Tkachuk was asking about the vacant assistant coaching job and he was excited. The next day, Sept. 7, he was on the phone with Armstrong, and they scheduled breakfast for the following day. They would talk hockey and discuss what Berube would be looking for, but that meeting was more of a feeling-out process, gauging each other’s interest.
It went well enough that Armstrong arranged a phone call between Montgomery and Berube last Wednesday. The two had coached against each other in the playoffs the year prior, with Berube’s Blues winning the Western Conference semifinal series in Game 7 on Pat Maroon’s double-overtime goal. That had led to some mutual admiration, but they really didn’t know each other.
It wasn’t until this summer, during the NHL pause, before they spoke at any length. Montgomery was looking for an agent and was inquiring about Berube’s representative, Steve Mountain. But while they eventually discussed that, Montgomery spent the better part of the 45-minute conversation complimenting the Blues.
“I told Chief I’m a huge fan of the way the Blues play,” Montgomery said. “They play championship hockey, and it’s a big reason why they grinded people down to a Stanley Cup (win). They did it to us and I watched them do it to San Jose and Boston. (Berube) had me on my heels a lot in that seven-game series. It was really the first time as a coach where I was like, ‘Geez, what’s he going to do next?’ Not having an idea what a guy is going to do next was something very unfamiliar for me.”
“He was very complimentary of how we did things, just the series and that kind of stuff,” Berube said. “So we chatted about things, brought up certain scenarios that came up, lineup changes, moving guys around in the lineup, things like that. I felt Monty did a great job with that team and they were close, you know. They were right there. It was maybe our hardest series.”
In fact, Berube had thought enough of Montgomery in that series that when Savard decided he was leaving the staff, Berube told Armstrong that he should be high on the Blues’ list.
“Doug and I talked about candidates that were out there, and right away I said, ‘The best one is Jim Montgomery,’” Berube said. “I said, ‘Coaching against him, looking at his career as a coach in college, in junior and obviously for the Dallas Stars, I mean he’s the most qualified guy out there.’”
So now Berube was on the phone with Montgomery again, and this time he was essentially interviewing him.
“He’s a real personable guy, very intelligent,” Berube said. “We just talked scenarios, situations, what he would bring to our staff. Then he would talk about how he wanted to work with us, likes the way we play the game, and that’s a big thing for me. I don’t want to bring in a guy who wants to change the way we play. I want a guy to give me his opinion about, ‘Why don’t we do this or that?’ But the style of play we play, there’s a reason we’ve had real good success with it, and we don’t want to change that. He really likes the way that we play.”
“It was very comfortable,” Montgomery said. “I just wanted him to know — and it was pretty easy because I told him everything before about how good I thought he was as a coach — but I wanted to impress upon him how much I could learn from him and his staff because I’ve seen how good they’ve been. I said if I could help in any way, I would look forward to doing what he needed me to do.”
Afterwards, Armstrong and Berube reconvened.
“Doug asked me, ‘How did that conversation go? Do you think he’s the guy for you?’” Berube said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s the guy for us.’”
For the fourth day in a five-day span, the Blues either spoke or met with Montgomery, with Armstrong inviting him for coffee last Friday. But this meeting was different.
“We dived a little more into where I’m at and how I’m doing, and how my family is doing,” Montgomery said. “It was less professional, more personal.”
A former GM in Dallas, Armstrong had already checked in with friends still there on Montgomery.
“It was an extensive process to make sure that away from the rink, Jim was ready to handle the demands that go into coaching, and everything came back very positive,” Armstrong said.
But now he wanted to hear it from Montgomery himself.
“He just wanted to know, not what happened, but what were the issues,” Montgomery said. “Not (the incident) incredibly specific. To be honest, I think he knows. But just what I was doing to make sure that everything that led to me having those issues was in control and that I had a good grasp of what I need to do.”
“He was very forthright, giving me contacts of support people that he’s using, doctors that I could contact,” Armstrong said.
“I gave them numbers of people that I’ve worked with, whether they’re professional or other people that suffer from addiction,” Montgomery said. “They were very thorough and I was very forthright with what happened to me, and where I have learned and grown from the mistakes I’ve made.”
For Montgomery’s final interview, the Blues brought in owner Tom Stillman to have breakfast with Armstrong and Montgomery on Tuesday, and a funny thing happened after they sat down in the restaurant.
“We’re at a table where it’s pretty open, and the table right beside us, in walks Chris Pronger,” Montgomery said. “We had just talked about how this is what we love about St. Louis — how it’s such a great small-big city. Prongs knew what was going on, but he was like, ‘Hey Monty, I heard about your hole-in-one.’ I had a hole-in-one at Bellerive (Country Club), and I was surprised that he knew about it already.”
After parting with Pronger, the Blues were about to give Montgomery something that also doesn’t happen often.
“Mr. Stillman started talking about how he believes in second chances, and that the Blues want to be another source of support for me in my recovery,” he said. “Chief, Armstrong and Mr. Stillman, all three of them expressed how they want to not only believe in me as a coach, but they want to be a support system. That’s incredibly powerful for someone going through recovery. I was incredibly impressed with their second-chance mentality. I can’t say enough how grateful I was to hear those words.”
Armstrong said the Blues weren’t seeking to give a fallen coach another opportunity. They wanted someone who checked all the boxes, and he happened to be that guy.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Armstrong said. “Everybody has made mistakes, and it’s how you respond to those mistakes. So I just said to him, ‘We all make mistakes, and if we can afford you the opportunity to get back into doing something you love, we could do that. But understand that our goal is to help make sure that mistake never happens again.”
The Blues began negotiating with Montgomery’s new agent, Mountain, on Wednesday morning. While that was going on, Montgomery was working out at Jackman’s house.
“We’re trying to get our fat, old-man bodies in shape again, and while we’re lifting weights, I see that my agent called,” Montgomery said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way he’s got good news already.’ I called him back and he said, ‘I think we’re close already.’ I’m like, ‘Great.’ Then he said, ‘We’re going to talk again in a couple of hours.’ Then at 2:30 p.m., he called me and goes, ‘I think we got a good deal. Army wants me to call him back because they’d like to get this out today.’ I said, ‘Well, call him back right now! I hung up before he could say ‘Bye.’”
Montgomery left Jackman’s house and, a couple of hours later, got the alert from the Blues app on his phone that he was announced as the new assistant coach.
Jackman joked that he sent Armstrong a text message, complaining that he “stole” his AAA Blues coach.
“I told him that it’s bullshit he didn’t ask my permission,” Jackman said. “I’m sure there’s going to be some draft-pick compensation with the tampering rules.”
“That AAA program,” Armstrong said, laughing, “(Montgomery) is probably taking a pay cut to come work with us.”
No one knows when the NHL will start the 2020-21 season, but when the league does resume, Montgomery will be returning to the environment that enabled him to make the mistakes that ended his career in Dallas.
“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “I’ve talked about it a lot with the people that matter the most — my wife and the people who have helped me in my recovery. But I follow a program, a daily program, that has worked for me since I started, and I have a lot of mentors that I can rely on. It’s numerous people that I can just pick up the phone. I don’t let selfishness or self-centeredness or ego creep into the way I live my life. When I live in the present and be extremely mindful of others, it’s amazing what an attitude of gratitude will allow you to do the right things all the time.
“The one thing is, experience teaches you a lot. When you come to grips that you do have a disease and you understand the tools you need in your shed to win that battle against your disease every day, that experience teaches you a lot. Like anybody will say, I can’t guarantee anything, but I’m very comfortable saying that today and because of the things I know and the people I can call that I will have success.”
The Blues can help. They want to help.
“We’re there to do whatever he needs us to do,” Berube said. “For us, it’s, ‘If Monty needs something, we’re there for him.’ If he needs some help or he needs to talk to somebody, we’re there for that. That’s the biggest help you can give somebody. We don’t want to push anything on him, we don’t want to do any of that. But if he needs us, we’re there for him.”
In a step-by-step process, Jackman believes Montgomery is ready for the next one.
“Oh, absolutely,” Jackman said. “Just hanging out with him daily, he’s definitely in the right frame of mind to be moving forward. I think his family is in a great place right now, being in St. Louis. His son (J.P.), he’s fitting in unbelievably with our hockey team. I think his wife, Emily, is comfortable being back in St. Louis. I don’t think there could be a better fit for Monty moving forward.”
And the family didn’t even have to move again.
“I was looking for a healthy relationship and a situation where I was really excited personally for my family and professionally to be around great people and have an opportunity to win and help,” Montgomery said. “I think this situation affords me that. I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am that an opportunity, and the best opportunity that I could have imagined, would work out in a place we moved to with no idea and zero hope of it ever happening.”
For those wondering, yes, Montgomery has been following the Stars all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“I’ve been watching them, for sure, like I’ve been watching all the playoff games when I can,” he said. “You know, it’s kind of like a no-win situation for me no matter what I say. (But) I cheer for people in my life, and it’s my own fault that I’m not there in the pit with Dallas. I love that staff, I love those players and the people in Dallas. So to me, I’m cheering for them because I know how hard some of those people have worked to get where they are. And if you can’t cheer for Rick Bowness, man, something is wrong with you because he’s a wonderful, wonderful man.”
And maybe, just maybe, many in Dallas are still cheering for Montgomery.