Guy Carbonneau was an outspoken captain of the Habs so he was ready to coach in Montreal.
Paul Maurice had a decade under his belt as an NHL head coach in Carolina and smartly spent a year with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to ease himself into Canada’s largest market.
Alain Vigneault had his NHL baptism by fire as young Montreal head coach so he had seen it all before taking over the Canucks in Vancouver.
Jim Playfair had apprenticed beside Darryl Sutter in Calgary for three seasons and knew what to expect before taking over the Flames.
Five weeks into the season, Carbonneau, Maurice and Vigneault have winning records, Playfair does not. So you can guess who’s under fire right now. But Playfair is the picture of calm.
“The reality is the media from the outside paints the picture that this is on the road to destruction,” Playfair said this week from Calgary. “I think when you look at what’s really good about our organization is the stability from the owners, to (president) Ken King, to (GM) Darryl Sutter.
“Darryl has been outstanding, the ability for him to support and guide and offer encouragement and recognition of situations from his years as head coach – that has been invaluable.”
Despite what people may think, Playfair insists he’s enjoyed his first month as a first-time NHL head coach.
“Yes, absolutely I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “When you got a group of people with really good character around you, it’s not about a panic situation, it’s about dig in and go. And that’s what we have here on our staff and amongst the players. We know where we have to better.
“It’s an enjoyable process, obviously a lot more fun when you win, and we expect to win a lot of games right away.”
Let’s face it, if the Canadiens, Leafs or Canucks get on a losing streak this month, there’ll be room for another coach in the dog house currently rented out by Playfair. That’s par for the course in a Canadian market.
“My background here in Montreal really helped me,” Carbonneau said from Montreal. “How to handle things. There’s been no surprises with the media and the pressure from the people. I know that the people here, when I’m walking in the streets or I’m in a restaurant, they want to talk about hockey. That’s part of being an athlete in whatever sport you’re in. It might be a higher level here in Montreal or in Toronto where it might be more involved and more passionate than other places, but when you win and you have success there’s always pressure everywhere.”
Maurice had a pretty good idea of what he was walking into but the experience so far has still opened his eyes. No detail of his life isn’t of interest to the media.
“On a personal level, the interest in what time you get up and what time you do this and that, the type of questions you never had to answer before,” Maurice said in Toronto. “Somebody is doing a story on that and that’s different.
“But probably the biggest thing is, all that is the Toronto Maple Leafs,” added Maurice. “The number of people that are fans, going on the road and having that many people there. The magnitude of the Toronto Maple Leafs and feeling like you’re part of it. It’s humbling a little bit and it’s also exciting.”
The scrutiny is just as intense in Vancouver but coaching the Habs was a valuable experience for Vigneault.
“It’s the same thing,” he said in Vancouver. “It’s a Canadian city, people know their hockey. People want their team to be successful. People are really religious about the game. I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s a hockey environment. It’s great to be part of. That’s why we are here.”
Maurice and Carbonneau have survived their first big tests of the early season. Maurice was under the gun when his team was embarrassed in back-to-back losses to rival Ottawa. They’ve got come back with their best hockey of the season since then, going 5-1-0 with huge wins in Montreal and Buffalo to boot.
“He’s been great,” Leafs centre Matt Stajan said of Maurice. “He definitely knows when to hold back, when to not really push. He’s like a player out there on the bench, he’s as into the game as anybody on the bench. I think that’s great. He’s right in there and always on top of things. I think you need that. When things aren’t going so great in a game, you need the coach to get everybody up and he’s great with that.
“And when things are going well he’s right there cheering with us. I know all the guys like him. He’s a great coach.”
Carbonneau was tested when winger Sergei Samsonov publicly grumbled about his ice time and even had his agent ponder a trade request. The Habs coach reacted by publicly rebuking Samsonov for the way he handled it and privately meeting with the Russian to settle things. The openness in which Carbonneau dealt with the media during the affair was refreshing.
“I always believe in good communication and make sure that all the cards are on the table,” said Carbonneau. “It’s really hard to keep 22-23 players and even the coaching staff and all the employees happy every day. We know there’s going to be issues, there’s only 60 minutes of game time so you can’t play everyone 25 minutes. But at least, as long as you’re honest and straightforward with the players when they have those issues, they’re intelligent people, they know that you can’t be on top of everything. If you tell them the truth and handle it with class and respect, that helps.
“Was I happy? No, I think he knew that. But he had to respect what I was trying to do. For me it’s not about the individual, it never will be, it’s always going to be about the team.”
Playfair is in the middle of his first test. He has been under siege in Calgary, his team last in the Northwest Division despite being the consensus choice by observers as the best team in Canada before the season.
“I think the expectations of our club from the past two years has really been pushed up around here,” said Playfair. “To get it back to the level that we expect from ourselves is what we’re looking to establish right now. Obviously it hasn’t been there early.”
Despite the sky-high expectations and the added pressure that comes with it, Playfair insists he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“For so long around here there weren’t high expectations for the club,” he said. “From being in a rebuilding phase or making a push to make the playoffs, that was the expectation level. Now that that’s been pushed up, that’s what you want as a professional coach. You don’t want to work 14 years to get here to just have fun and enjoy it. You want to get in the middle of the battle and make it work.
“And we all believe that we have a very good chance to be a very good team. And that’s what you want, to coach where there’s lots of pressure and where the expectations are high.”
All four coaches are working ungodly hours, and that’s exactly how they want it.
“You know what? It really hasn’t been that bad,” said Carbonneau.
Maurice is taking time to smell the roses. He’s coaching the Maple Leafs for crying out loud.
“In part it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs but in part it’s your second tour of duty,” said Maurice. “I enjoy this job a lot more than I ever did my first time around. I’m also a little bit older so I take the time to enjoy it. And yeah, this is as good as you might think it might be.”