MONTREAL – The wild fans, the history and the weight of expectations make the Montreal Canadiens a demanding team for any hockey coach, especially those with no NHL experience.
But three who were in that position in the late 1990s and early 2000s—Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien—have gone on to do some impressive things in the NHL.
A victory in the Eastern Conference final between Vigneault’s New York Rangers and Therrien, in his second stint with Montreal, will put one of them in a Stanley Cup final. Between the three men, they will have been to the final five times.
In 2008, Therrien reached the final with the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing in six games to the Detroit Red Wings.
In 2011, Julien’s Boston Bruins defeated Vigneault’s Vancouver Canucks to claim the Stanley Cup. And in 2013, Julien had the Bruins back in the final only to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks.
All three have credited the chance they got to coach middling-to-weak Montreal teams with their later success, even if their head coaching prospects were in doubt when they were eventually let go by the Canadiens.
“You never know about the future,” said the 50-year-old Therrien, whose team is coming off a second-round win over Julien’s Bruins. “We learned a lot when we were young and that goes with experience.
“Having to deal a lot with you (reporters) is a big part of our job. But it goes through a process. It goes with experience. Myself, Alain, Claude, we were young coaches at the time and we learned a lot. We started in Montreal and, Alain and me, we almost took the same route. We went back to the minors and went back to junior and the American League.
“So I’m glad for the success (Vigneault) had in Vancouver and New York. That was a great learning experience as a young coach to start in Montreal.”
There were actually four inexperienced coaches in a row, as Mario Tremblay got it started when he replaced Jacques Demers in 1995. But while Tremblay later worked as an assistant, he never got another head coaching job.
In 1997, Tremblay was replaced by Vigneault, a former Ottawa Senators assistant who had been coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Vigneault was replaced midway through the 2000-’01 campaign by Therrien, who in turn lost his job to Julien in 2003. Vigneault was out of coaching for two seasons but returned with the junior P.E.I. Rocket before being named head coach of the Manitoba Moose, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate at the time.
He was promoted to the Vancouver job to start the 2006-’07 season and promptly took the Canucks to a division title and got the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year, beating out Therrien and Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff.
The Quebec City native’s Canucks finished first overall in the NHL twice. But a drop-off last season saw Vancouver opt for former Rangers coach John Tortorella while Vigneault signed a five-year deal with New York.
Now Vigneault’s looking for another trip to the final.
“My first NHL gig as a head coach was in a beautiful place, a Canadian city where hockey is passionate, hockey is demanding,” the 53-year-old said. “Expectations were always very high, so I learned a lot.
“I worked with some great people. It took me six years to get another kick at the can and obviously when I got my other chance, I used my experience in Montreal and my experience of going back to junior and also going to the American League and tried to help my new NHL team the best way I could. Now, this year, the Rangers have given me another opportunity and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
When Therrien left Montreal, he got a job coaching the Penguins’ farm club in Wilkes-Barre and was promoted to the NHL club on Dec. 15, 2005.
He was fired suddenly on Feb. 15, 2009, one season after going to the final, in favour of Dan Bylsma. The new coach got Pittsburgh back to the final and avenged the defeat of Therrien’s team the year before by beating the Red Wings for the Cup.
Therrien worked in television while waiting for his next chance, which came when new general manager Marc Bergevin hired him to return to the Canadiens at the start of last season.
After Montreal, Julien was hired by the New Jersey Devils, but he also fell victim to a surprise firing late in the 2006-’07 season despite a 47-24-8 record.
The Bruins snapped him up the following season.