TAMPA, FLA. - Mike Guentzel couldn't have predicted his return to the Gophers men's hockey program -- at least not so soon, and especially after the rough ending to his previous stint as assistant coach.

Getting spurned, after all, can alter opinions about one's employer.

But Guentzel didn't turn his back on a program he loves or let any emotional residue prevent him from helping clean up a mess that formed after he walked out the door. Ultimately, coming home just felt like the right thing to do.

"I had some of that energy back that had kind of went away previously," he said.

That sentiment holds true for the entire Gophers program, and it coincided with Guentzel's return. The longtime assistant -- who was gone for three years, during which the Gophers failed to reach the NCAA tournament -- helped foster the program's resurgence and return to the Frozen Four this season by overseeing the defense and serving as associate head coach under Don Lucia.

The Gophers set a school record with a 2.21 goals-against average, but Guentzel's impact on the program overall goes beyond statistics.

"I knew there was nobody I wanted to bring back in [more] than Mike," Lucia said. "He's what we needed. I wanted somebody that would be an easy transition, and it certainly was."

If the transition proved easy, the actual idea seemed awkward, at least from an outside perspective. Guentzel left the program in April 2008 after serving 14 seasons as an assistant under Doug Woog and Lucia.

At the time, the company line was that Guentzel resigned to pursue his dream of becoming a head coach. Reports later revealed that Lucia had fired him. Rumors persisted that issues between Lucia, Guentzel and then-assistant John Hill became the source of friction and necessitated change.

Reflecting on that situation, Guentzel indicated a number of factors contributed to his departure, both personal and professional.

"It just comes a time and place where maybe you should step away," he said. "I think both Don and I thought it was the best situation."

Was there animosity involved?

"Well, I'm not going to say that we saw eye to eye on everything," Guentzel said. "You get [set] in your own ways and your own means of doing things. Don has always been good about letting people do their jobs around here and contributing a lot. Sometimes you're adamant about how you think things should be done. He's the head coach and ultimately makes the final decisions.

"It was the [right] time. I could see some things starting to creep into our staff that weren't healthy. You should be a family, you should have good relationships, as we try to preach to our players. Obviously getting away, I think maybe his realization of what I could contribute and my realization of how it was good to work with Don and what the program meant to everybody involved ... from that end, it was an easy decision to come back."

The program's condition deteriorated during his absence, and Lucia bore the brunt of criticism. Embattled and feeling pressure to revive the program, Lucia replaced Hill with an assistant who spent much of his adult life in the program and had a hand in two national championships, five Frozen Four appearances and 11 trips to the NCAA tournament.

"I'm not a backseat-type driver," Guentzel said. "I like to be front and center as far as ideas and thoughts. That's one thing that was apparent from Day 1. Don was looking for ideas, looking for new ways, looking for improvement, looking for some freshness and new energy."

Both men deserve credit for not letting ego or pride get in the way of doing what's best for the program. Whatever happened in the past was buried as they focused on making the Gophers relevant again nationally.

"You understand the criticalness of where we're at," Guentzel said.

Guentzel knows better than most. A native of the Iron Range, he played four seasons for the Gophers, his final one as captain, an announcement that remains a source of pride.

"Probably one of the most memorable days of my life," he said. "I knew at that point what this program means."

Guentzel witnessed life outside that fishbowl the past few years as an assistant coach at Colorado College and Nebraska Omaha and coach/general manager of the USHL team in Des Moines. He enjoyed those experiences and appreciated the opportunities, which made his decision to return to his alma mater a difficult one.

The attachment never left him, though, and his passion and enthusiasm for the job returned. He's also the clear second-in-command on the staff now. As for his future, Guentzel hasn't ruled out anything. He's already learned you never say never.

"I love what I'm doing," he said. "If I was an assistant at Minnesota for a long time, I'd be comfortable with that. That's not to say I wouldn't like to try another level whether it's head coaching or try my hand in pro hockey. This to me is one of the best jobs in all of college hockey, and I'm comfortable with that."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com