MONTREAL – When Michel Therrien was named head coach of the Montreal Canadiens on June 5, one of the first to call him with congratulations was Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
Therrien had been Crosby’s coach when he broke into the NHL in 2005-06 after being drafted first overall. It lasted until Therrien was fired on Feb. 15, 2009, just before the Penguins went on a run to the Stanley Cup under their current coach, Dan Bylsma.
“It was pretty good, being a young guy and having him to learn the game from,” Crosby said Saturday before the Penguins faced the Eastern Conference-leading Canadiens. “He was a big influence.
“He taught us young guys a lot of important details in the game. You want to learn as much as you can as fast as you can and he really helped that learning curve.”
Crosby was a quick study. In his sophomore year, the Cole Harbour, N.S. native won the NHL scoring title with 120 points and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
“Sidney is a special player for me,” said Therrien. “When he was 18 years old I remember saying to him in one of our first meetings that we wanted him to become the best player in the NHL.
“The next year, he won the scoring title. I enjoyed my time with him. And it’s always flattering when you see one of your ex-players call you to wish you good luck in a new challenge.”
Crosby remembered as well.
“There were times he’d push you to get the best out of you and other times like that where he really showed he believed in you and gave you responsibility,” he said. “In my situation, I think I thrived with that responsibility and being held accountable. And I loved to learn, so that was a great time for me.”
Therrien didn’t get another head coaching job until new general manager Marc Bergevin brought him back to Montreal, where he had his first NHL coaching experience in the early 2000s.
The game on Saturday night was his first against the Penguins since the firing.
Crosby was not surprised to see Therrien doing well in Montreal. The Canadiens got off to a 13-4-3 start to take over top spot in the conference nearing the halfway point of the lockout-shortened season.
Some draw parallels with Pittsburgh’s 2006-07 season, when they shot from obscurity to a 105-point season with super-talented youngsters Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way.
An injury-riddled Canadiens side finished last in the conference in 2011-12, with a mid-season coaching change that saw Jacques Martin axed and Randy Cunneyworth finish out the campaign.
This year’s mostly healthy Canadiens have stressed a team-first attitude.
“You’ve seen some pretty good results already,” said Crosby. “(Therrien) brings discipline and stresses defensive play, and those two things on any team will usually give you success.”
Crosby missed most of the last two seasons with concussions, but is back among the league scoring leaders while not missing a game so far. He calls it a relief not to have to worry about concussion symptoms anymore.
The game on Saturday was his first in Montreal since Nov. 26, 2011.
When Therrien was hired, the Canadiens signed one of his favourites from his Pittsburgh days, gritty winger Colby Armstrong.
“It was a good opportunity for me,” said Armstrong, who skates on the fourth line. “I was hung out, left alone.
“It was nice to get adopted here. I’m comfortable with Michel. I’ve had him for a long time and I know what to expect. I thought it was a good chance for me to come back.”
Much like in Pittsburgh, Armstrong’s back on a team at the top of the standings.
“With the group we’ve got now, I’m more surprised at where they finished last year than what we’re doing right now,” he said. “I guess it’s a fresh start for everyone: a new GM, a new coach and a new game plan.
“I guess it’s working out for everyone. We’re just playing a good team game now.”