Montgomery rebuilds at Dunbar

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Montgomery rebuilds at Dunbar

Dunbar coach George Montgomery, who made some history of his own while playing basketball, admits that his players don't have a clue about the school's tradition and the teams, players and coaches whose shoulders thay are standing on.

Butch Rittmeyer's 29-4 team in 1956, led by Mel Davis and Alphra Saunders, finished third in the state tournament. Bernie Mills was a two-time All-Stater. Ronnie Lester emerged as a star in the NBA. Coach Jim Foreman produced many outstanding players, including playground legend Billy Harris. And Mike Poole, a 5-foot-5 point guard, was an All-Chicago Area selection in 1971-72.

"Kids today don't know the traditions or the fundamentals of the game. And a lot of coaches haven't played the game," Montgomery said. "I felt it was time for me to be a head coach again, time for me to give back."

Montgomery, 49, a graduate of Corliss in 1981, played at Illinois and was a second-round choice of the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1985 NBA draft. But he never played in the NBA. He is the father of Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee.

He coached at North Lawndale, Southside Prep and Corliss. Three years ago, when he learned there was an opening at Dunbar, he decided it was time to begin his own program at a school that once boasted one of the strongest and most competitive teams in the city.

"The experience I had from playing and coaching made me feel that it was time for me to put my flavor and philosophy into the school system, helping kids," he said.

"Since 1999, I've been coaching off and on. I didn't know if I was burned out or just needed to be at a different place. Coaching is fun but you're dealing with all sensitive personalities.

"It is so much different from what it was 10 years ago. Kids aren't as dedicated or they don't care to work hard on their game, their jump shot or work in the pivot. Half of the team is pretty dedicated on working on their weaknesses."

His first team was 14-10. His second team was 7-16. This year's team finished 17-5, losing to Du Sable 57-55 in the Class 3A sectional final at St. Ignatius.

"Last year was very frustrating and disappointing," Montgomery recalled. "They were rebelling. They didn't want to listen to me. They didn't want to work hard. They didn't think I should blow my whistle in practice so much."

After the last game, Montgomery met with the team leaders, DaJuan Appleberry and William Davis, and laid down the ground rules for the 2011-12 season. "I told them: 'To play for me next year your attitude has to change and you have to work hard on your game.' In the summer, the kids came to all of our games on time. They were dedicated. I felt they were determined to do something positive this year," he said.

And so they did. According to Montgomery, Appleberry, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, "did a complete 360" in terms of his attitude and dedication and work ethic. He averaged 17 points, five assists and five rebounds per game. He scored 18 in Dunbar's 53-42 victory over Jones in the sectional semifinals and netted 26 in the Mighty Men's loss to Du Sable.

Appleberry and 6-foot-4 senior Darvell Harris (10 ppg) will graduate but Montgomery has some talented players returning for 2012-13, including 6-foot-5 junior James Simmons (12 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 assists), 6-foot-7 junior Eric Ross (10 ppg, 7 rpg) and 5-foot-8 junior point guard Destyne Butler (7 ppg, 6 assists).

"This is the same team as last year but they bought into my system," Montgomery said. "I had to change certain things. I thought these kids were like us when we played...on time, hats off. But they think having fun is throwing the ball up and letting them go five-on-five up and down the court and no teaching.

"As a coach, you are still going to school. You have to adjust. Now they run more but I can't get away from discipline or teaching. Some of them are good at running up and down so you have to let them play. We started winning and they were convinced we could win with what I was talking about."

Montgomery learned his system and philosophy while playing with future NBA star Darrell Walker in a highly competitive program at Corliss. And his education continued while playing with Quinn Richardson, Efrem Winters, Doug Altenberger and Bruce Douglas at Illinois.

"I believe that hard work will pay off. In the beginning, some kids were on board and others jumped on board because winning is contagious," the coach said. "I've played on every level and been successful and if you listen to me, I'll take you Downstate, I told them. They have been listening. Now they have drive and determination."

Patience and perseverance: trying to make, and stay in, the NHL

Patience and perseverance: trying to make, and stay in, the NHL

Corey Crawford remembers his early days with the Blackhawks, the times where he was working his tail off in Rockford to get a call-up or hoping he would be the one they would choose to stay out of training camp. The thought would creep into his head: “maybe I never get there.”

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t tell you that but there were a bunch of times,” Crawford said with a smile. 

Crawford had a lot of good times, a lot of valuable experiences with the IceHogs. But he always kept his eye on the main goal: making the NHL. Twice he’s been named an NHL All-Star. Twice he’s been a winner or shared the William Jennings Trophy. Twice he’s won Stanley Cups. He can look back and smile now at those days when he wasn’t sure if he’d latch onto a team.

Making the NHL is tough. Staying there can be even tougher. The pressures and expectations are enormous, especially the higher you go in the NHL draft. Be it patience, willing to change your game or the need to try over with another organization, players do whatever it takes to get that opportunity.

“The mental side of the game for a lot of these draft choices or these on-the-cusp, on-the-edge players is the hardest part,” Rockford coach Ted Dent said. “The physical aspect, keeping yourself in shape and being a good hockey player isn’t the battle. It’s usually the mental side of things, the expectations, the pressure they put on themselves, maybe their families, their agents or whatever comes with it. It’s a side that gets overlooked a little bit.”

“I did whatever it would take.”

Patrick Sharp spent a few years at the University of Vermont but for him, his career choice was clear: he was going to be a pro hockey player no matter what. Coming up through the Philadelphia Flyers’ system (Sharp was their 95th overall pick in the 2001 draft), finding an opportunity was tough the early 2000s. The Flyers had their goal scorers – John LeClair, Michal Handzus, Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick were among them. So to get a chance Sharp changed his game and came up as a fourth-line checker.

“I looked at the team I had in Philly – couple of Hall of Famers, a lot of all-stars. I realized that, although I was an AHL all-star and I was putting up points, I probably wasn’t going to do with the Flyers. I had to do what I could to make that team,” Sharp said. “Be more physical, fighting, I did whatever it would take.

“Every player has been a star at some level of their career. That’s why they’re in the situation they’re in,” Sharp said. “Each player has a different path, a different role. It’s important for that player to have communication and find out what they want from him. What’s going to help him get to that next level and apply it? It’s easy at a young age to think, ‘I’ve got a good game.’ It’s not always the case. It’s a 200-foot game, special teams. Communication’s the key.”

Jack Skille had a similar situation. Skille was highly touted coming out of the U.S. National Development Program and the Blackhawks selected him seventh overall in the 2005 draft. He left the University of Wisconsin-Madison early and would later sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. For years, Skille said people tried to tell him he’d need a different game to stay in the NHL, but it took him time to realize that. Now a regular starter for the Vancouver Canucks in more of a checking role, Skille said he’s happy and having fun with the game.

“I think that was the biggest adjustment coming here and in the role I play: [realizing] less is more. It took me a long time, as a young kid, to realize that. It took a lot of mistakes over my career and a lot of growing pains to finally get to the point where I was like, what everyone’s telling me, less is more and they’re right. I finally bought into it and it’s been working,” Skille said. “It’s an adjustment because you’re used to sitting there, being one of the go-to guys and out there every single shift. But there’s something to be said for guys who don’t get frequent shifts out there and keep playing the same way with a lot of energy.”

The sounding board

Dent’s office is in a perfect spot at BMO Harris Center, located between the IceHogs’ locker room and the players’ lounge. From his office, Dent can gauge what mood his players are in, and which ones are down and could use a talk.

This is as much part of a minor-league coach’s job as the coaching itself. The Blackhawks’ organization has a mental skills coach who is sometimes in Rockford but, for the day-to-day, Dent is that guy.

“You try to form that bond and relationship with them. For them to get their feelings off their chest is a big thing because they hold so many feelings in, in a group setting,” Dent said. “You want to be that strong, tough guy like all hockey players. But inside a lot of them have a lot of emotion that needs to get out. You try to be that sounding board for them and let them get some things out one-on-one.”

Crawford had his ears to bend when he was in Rockford – at that time Bill Peters was head coach and Dent was assistant. Crawford said those talks helped but ultimately, it came down to him.

“They’re not going to be there when you go home. They’re not going to make choices for you. You really have to learn that on your own,” Crawford said. “Maybe [you get pep talks] a little bit from your teammates but a lot of those guys, too, were guys I was growing up with and going through all that stuff with. It’s just one of those things where you get a feel for how you’re supposed to think and to battle through things and try to stay positive.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

“I expected to be in the NHL this year…”

Michael Latta was happy when he was traded to the IceHogs in January. He’s getting more minutes, more opportunity than he was in his short stay with the Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings’ minor-league team. But there’s no doubt Latta, who spent a few seasons with the Washington Capitals, wants another chance at the NHL.

“I expected to be in the NHL this year with LA. I really did. And it didn’t work out,” said Latta, who was selected 72nd overall by the Nashville Predators in 2009. “But I believe I can play in the NHL; I can be a factor in the NHL. So I’m really hoping I can get a chance up there just to show [the Blackhawks] what I can do. They don’t know me very well so it’d be nice to go up there and get a shot. Just get a chance to show them and see what they think.”

At the same time, Latta wants to play as much as possible. For bubble guys like him, that doesn’t always happen in the NHL. In Rockford he’s playing a lot of minutes, getting a lot of opportunities, and he’s taking advantage of it.

“I’d played eight minutes a night, which is fine. You’re living the dream, playing in the NHL. But I was excited to come down and get my scoring touch back, get some ice time, some power play time,” Latta said. “To come here and get it and start playing, it’s been special. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m just really enjoying it again. Hockey’s fun again.”

It’s not easy to make the NHL but the opportunity is worth it for many. For those trying to latch on, or latch on again, the work continues. For those who made it, there’s the appreciation for what it took to get here.

“Every experience teaches you something, even if it’s negative. The negative ones seem to stick with people more and that’s where you get to learn things,” Crawford said. “It’s tough, especially when there are stretches when you don’t get a sniff at coming up and it seems like you’re going to be there for the rest of your career. Then there are other times you’re really confident and you feel you should be in the NHL. That’s all about learning, learning to stay level headed and not get too down or too high. Just work hard, have fun.”

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks win, Jimmy Butler starts All-Star Game

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks win, Jimmy Butler starts All-Star Game

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