MONTREAL – Guy Carbonneau was all smiles as he met the media for the first time since he was fired as coach of the Montreal Canadiens, but it was clear that a part of him still hurt.
“I’m definitely not happy,” he said of general manager Bob Gainey’s decision on March 9 to axe his old friend and teammate and take over himself behind the bench of the struggling club. “I didn’t expect it.
“I thought we were going in the right direction, despite the fact that we were struggling for a while. Upset? It’s the first time I got fired, so it’s new to me. But everybody that knows me knows I’m a pretty positive person. The sun always comes up.”
Carbonneau was celebrating his 49th birthday and wore a smart grey suit to the packed Bell Centre news conference, joking that he was “almost starting to miss you (reporters).”
He said he was proud of the job he had done in his two-plus seasons as head coach of the team he once captained. He was particularly proud of finishing first in the Eastern Conference last season, being nominated for the coach of the year award, and earning the right to be assistant coach to Claude Julien at the Jan. 25 all-star game in Montreal.
And he thanked everyone, particularly Gainey, who named him to his first NHL head coaching post to start the 2006-06 season, after he served a half season as associate coach.
He also refused to criticize any players and wished the team well for the rest of the season.
There had been rumblings that Carbonneau was on thin ice when the Canadiens went through a 15-game stretch starting just before the all-star game in which it won only three games, falling from safely in playoff position into the thick of the battle.
But the team had pulled off five wins, despite mostly being outplayed, in seven games and had just won in Dallas when Gainey pulled the plug.
“I definitely didn’t see this coming because I felt we were going in the right direction,” Carbonneau said. “But Bob Gainey decided otherwise and I must accept his decision.
“I’d like to turn the page and move on.”
Since the change, the Canadiens have gone an underwhelming 1-1-2 under Gainey. Some Bell Centre fans have taken to chanting “Car-bo! Car-bo!” in support of the fired coach during games, which he called “flattering.”
“It meant I did a lot of good things. Maybe not all great things, but good things. I’m happy for that.”
What irked Carbonneau was that he was fired just before the team began a stretch of nine out of 10 games at home. Also, players out with long-term injuries were due back, such as wingers Alex Tanguay and Guillaume Latendresse. He felt the team was ready to start playing solid hockey again.
But he had just landed with the team from Dallas, had picked up his dogs from the vet and was driving home when he got a message that Gainey wanted to see him. That he was about to be fired was only one of many things he suspected it might be, and not even the top one, he said.
The meeting lasted only 10 minutes and he was out of a job.
“I know it was tough for him to deliver that message,” Carbonneau said.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, so for him to come to my house to bring the news wasn’t easy for him,” said Carbonneau. “I won’t go into details (of what was said).
“He saw I was disappointed. But we’ll certainly have a chance to meet again soon and we can talk in more detail.”
Carbonneau signed a three-year contract extension last summer, but is now on what he called “vacation.”
He said he hoped to coach again in the NHL one day, and certainly wants to stay close to hockey in some capacity. But as for what went wrong with the Canadiens, he’s still not sure.
A knock on him was that, as good as he was in dealing with the media, he didn’t communicate well with his players.
He grants that one, but said it wasn’t what caused the team to start losing or himself to be fired.
“I don’t declare that I’m perfect, but I got better,” he said. “One reason I hired (assistant coach) Kirk Muller is that I knew I had a problem there.
“It’s not that I can’t talk, but I’m not the kind of guy that likes to go forward with it. But conversations sometimes go both ways and I got better a it. And I know I’m going to get better.”
When asked about reports that some players were unhappy with his coaching, he said it was impossible to keep everyone happy and that it was “normal” that some were glad to see him go.
But he insisted that the players did not quit on him.
“I think we had a good attitude,” he said “I liked the atmosphere on the team. Could we have played better? Yes, but I wouldn’t say I lost the room.
“I think I had enough support from the players to do my job well.”
It is a pressure-packed season for Montreal. Expectations were high after their strong 2007-08 campaign, and pressure was on to win with the club celebrating its 100th anniversary.
But while the Canadiens got through last season with no major injuries to key players, this season they went down left and right. They are still without centre Robert Lang, their goal-scoring leader at the time who is gone for the rest of the regular season at least with a severed Achilles tendon.
“Last year we had a good season because players had good seasons, goaltenders were solid, our power play worked, we had great chemistry,” he said. “Everything kind of clicked.
“This year, we had really good times and other times when nothing was working and it was really hard to get confidence and get everything in order. But I knew we were coming back, that we’d have a good finish and create a lot of surprises in the playoffs.”
He also said he is sure the firing had nothing to do with reports that some players were partying too much downtown, or a report that three players had hung around with a suspected drug dealer and gang member.
Now, debate rages over whether Gainey should remain head coach through next season or find a successor. When he fired Carbonneau, Don Lever, coach of the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, was brought to Montreal as an assistant.
But Lever doesn’t speak French, which some consider vital for what is perhaps the most high-profile job in Quebec.
Carbonneau joked that “if he spoke only Chinese it may be easier.”
“Look, we live in a place where 80 per cent of the people speak French. For sure, it’s a plus. For many years now, it was something very important and it’s still important, but it depends on the candidates. They should chose the best one, no matter what language he speaks.”