VANCOUVER, B.C. – Strange as it may sound, it was an eight-game losing streak last January that may have resulted in Alain Vigneault receiving a contract extension as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.
As the losses mounted just making the playoffs seemed a stretch, let alone challenging for the division title. Speculation was rampant that Vigneault’s days were numbered.
Vigneault remained calm during that turbulent time. He maintained the confidence of general manager Mike Gillis without losing the players, and managed to turn the team around.
The Canucks battled out of the slump, went on to win their second division title in three years, and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Vigneault was rewarded Thursday with a three-year extension that will keep him with the NHL team until the 2012-13 season.
“If I go back to that challenging time within our season, it’s probably the time where we as management and coaches bonded the most and really got to know one another,” Vigneault said. “It’s easy to be supportive, to be behind one another, when things are going your way and you are winning.
“It’s when you find those more challenging moments that you really find out about people. During that time, Mike found out a lot of things about me and I found out a lot of things about him. We just worked well together.”
It would have been easy for Gillis, then in his first season as the Canuck’s GM, to fire Vigneault. But Gillis didn’t think the coach was the problem.
“I didn’t see a change in our team’s willingness to work, their attitude toward the coaching staff, their desire to succeed,” Gillis said. “I didn’t see blame being place anywhere.
“I saw a group of people that were determined to get out of a bad situation and work together to do that. I thought that was a real sign of respect, not only in Alain, but of the entire coaching staff.”
In three NHL seasons with Vancouver, Vigneault has a regular-season record of 133-86-27. His .595 winning percentage is the best in franchise history.
Last season Vigneault, a former Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year, collected his 200th win in the NHL and his 100th victory behind the Vancouver bench.
Vigneault said the extension gives him some security in a business where a coach’s best-before date can quickly expire.
“For me it’s much more about the vote of confidence from ownership and management that I am the right person with the right staff to lead this group,” he said.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve always tried to do the same thing, and that’s win hockey games. With the personnel I have, I try to put a plan in place for that game that will give us the best chance to win.”
Vigneault, 48, took over the Canucks in the 2006-07 season. In his first year he guided the club to the Northwest Division championship and the team set franchise records with 49 wins and 105 points. That earned him coach of the year honours.
Vancouver missed the playoffs the next year, resulting in Gillis replacing Dave Nonis as GM.
The Canucks rebounded last season, finishing 45-27-10. They swept St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs, before losing to Chicago in six games.
Vigneault has an easygoing manner and he doesn’t hesitate to criticize his players in the media, something that can ruffle feathers in the dressing room.
When mad, Vigneault’s eyes flash. He can deliver a tongue-lashing on the ice and wither a questioner with a glare.
“He is demanding of his players, which is great,” said all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo.
“When it’s time to be serious, he’s serious. And when it’s time to be laid back and joke around with the guys, he does that as well.”
Vigneault’s first head coaching job was with the Montreal Canadiens from 1997 to 2001. He reached the Eastern Conference semifinal in his first season and was nominated for the Jack Adams Award following the 1999-2000 season.
Vigneault joined Vancouver from the club’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, where he led the team to within one game of the conference finals.
Vigneault spent 10 seasons as head coach in the QMJHL with Trois-Rivieres, Hull, Beauport and P.E.I. In 1988, the Quebec City native led the Hull Olympiques to the Memorial Cup and was subsequently named CHL coach of the year.
Vigneault also served as an assistant coach with Canada’s national junior team in 1989 and 1991, winning a gold medal at the 1991 world junior championships in Saskatoon.
One criticism Vigneault is tired of hearing is how he is a defensive coach.
“I challenge people, find me one player that has left this organization since I’ve been here and has gone somewhere else and has become this offensive player,” he said.
“Do the opposite, find the players since I’ve been here . . . that have had career years offensively.”
Having said his piece, Vigneault showed his sense of humour.
A reporter asked if he was sensitive to the subject.
“I am not sensitive one bit,” he laughed.