PITTSBURGH – Before the NHL’s Eastern Conference final is over and done with, there’s a chance John Stevens and Michel Therrien will rekindle their personal rivalry.
Or perhaps, as they’ve tried to spin it to the media over the last week, they’ve left all that personal animosity behind them in the AHL and they’re above that now.
“Coach Therrien and I had dinner together,” Stevens, Philadelphia’s head coach, said jokingly Sunday when asked about Saturday’s day off.
Both coaches have downplayed their past run-ins.
“Thanks for reminding me,” Therrien, Pittsburgh’s head coach, said this weekend when asked about their AHL battles. “He’s doing what he has to do to be successful. And I have to do what I have to do to be successful for our own team. He’s a good coach. He had success in the American Hockey League. What he did this year coming up from a tough year last year with the Flyers, he deserves a lot of respect. …
“But the focus is not on the coaches.”
R.J. Umberger remembers when the coaches were very much front and centre. It was the 2005 AHL playoffs and for the second straight year Therrien’s AHL Penguins were battling the AHL Phantoms coached by Stevens. There’s the story of both coaches trying to get each other with only the glass dividing both benches keeping them apart.
“Yeah I remember that,” chuckles Umberger, who played for the Phantoms that year. “It’s definitely two coaches that aren’t afraid to get into it. It’s fun to watch, it makes us get extra emotional, too. …
“It’s always been pretty heated between the two of them,” added Umberger. “They’re pretty competitive. It’s always been intense, and I think it will probably stay intense this year. This is probably something they both take personally against each other.”
Former Penguins winger Colby Armstrong played for Therrien in those AHL playoff battles with the Phantoms and doubts the two coaches have grown fond of each other.
“Maybe hate is a strong word,” Armstrong told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Maybe it’s not a strong word for Michel and John. I’m not sure where they stand.”
Water under the bridge, insists Stevens.
“That’s when I was a lot younger. I’m a little older now,” Stevens said. “I said this the other day. I think if everybody likes you, you’re probably not very good. I think a lot of teams liked us last year. They liked playing us last year. I think when you dislike each other, or there’s emotion involved, it’s probably because you have the other team standing in the way of where you want to go. I think that’s the case here.”
Therrien and Stevens have at least one thing in common – they deserve a lot of credit for both taking over struggling clubs and picking them up off the mat.
The Penguins were last in the Eastern Conference and 29th in the overall NHL standings in 2005-06, Therrien taking over behind the bench in December that year. The next season, Therrien’s first full year, the Penguins improved by 47 points to finish fifth in the East. This year, the Penguins have taken another step from playoff team to contender, Therrien convincing his offensive stars to buy into a defensive system that has worked wonders in the playoffs.
Similarly, Stevens took over in late October last season with the Flyers on their way to a 30th overall finish in the NHL. A 39-point improvement in the standings this season left the Flyers sixth in the conference. Upsets over Washington and Montreal saw Stevens get the upper hand against fellow coaches Bruce Boudreau of the Capitals and Guy Carbonneau of the Canadiens – both finalists for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
“Besides having their teams in a conference final, which by itself speaks to their accomplishments, all of the young players on both teams have taken dramatic steps forward in their development,” said former NHLer and longtime hockey analyst Bill Clement. “So they’ve provided not only for the present but for the future as well and that is genius.”