Montreal Canadiens: Patrice Brisebois raring to go
Hired as Habs' player-development coach
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin (second from left) introduces new Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre (left) as well as player development coaches Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois (right) at a news conference Wednesday, June 13, in Brossard.
Photograph by: Ryan Remiorz, CANADIAN PRESS
MONTREAL - The way that Patrice Brisebois has returned to the Canadiens says a great deal about the club’s new front-office culture.
And the enthusiasm and energy that Brisebois brings to his new job as the Habs’ player-development coach clearly illustrates what drove the defenceman through three Memorial Cup tournaments, two world junior championship gold medals, 1,107 National Hockey League games over 18 seasons and a 1993 Stanley Cup with his new/old team.
“I’m very, very excited to be working with those kids,” Brisebois said of the Canadiens’ deep pool of defence prospects, rattling off the names of nearly a half-dozen.
“They’re all good kids. They all want to make it. I’ll do my best to prepare them on and off the ice.”
We chatted for an hour a week ago outside a café on a steamy downtown sidewalk, early morning commuters giving Brisebois the double-take of recognition as he spoke frankly of his new Habs challenge, the emptiness of retirement, his TV work and car racing, and the love and hate he has felt from fans and media critics.
The moss hadn’t been growing beneath Brisebois since he retired before the 2009-10 season. He participated in CBC’s Battle of the Blades, made a goodwill visit to Canadian troops in Afghanistan, worked last season as a hockey analyst for TVA, coached in TVA’s hockey reality series La Série Montréal-Québec, toured generously with fellow former Habs for alumni charity games and, in the summertime, raced his own Canadian Tire Series Dodge Avenger in NASCAR events in this province.
There’s also been welcome time at home with his wife, Michèle, and the couple’s daughters, Alexandra, 12, and Patricia-Rose, 9.
But hockey has not stopped gnawing at Brisebois since he retired before he felt he was ready to quit the game.
Unless you’ve been skating since age 4 and played at the highest levels all your life, he said, you can’t understand the pit in your stomach when you unlace your skates for the final time.
“I really felt I could play another year,” said Brisebois, 41, who wept openly at the Bell Centre on Sept. 24, 2009, accepting the Canadiens’ Jean Béliveau Award for community involvement while announcing his retirement.
The Habs had no spot for him that fall, the defenceman having played 105 games from 2007-09 after returning to his first team following two years in Colorado.
Brisebois’s agent, Don Meehan, suggested his client might find work once teams decided at training camp that their phenoms of late season might not be ready for a full schedule of NHL games. But Brisebois wasn’t ready to uproot his family again for what probably would be a one-year contract.
And then the Habs reconsidered with the season’s first-week injuries to defencemen Andrei Markov and Ryan O’Byrne. Brisebois’s heart jumped when Meehan called to say that then-GM Bob Gainey might now be ready to make him an offer.
But the veteran, who had taken on a sometimes limited role his final two seasons in Montreal, listened to his wife and together they decided his days were done.
“She’s Irish. She’s pretty straightforward,” Brisebois said, laughing, suggesting that Michèle views the big picture with a clearer focus and less emotion.
Brisebois admitted that he watched little hockey his first winter in retirement.
“I wouldn’t say I was pissed off, but I was sad, empty in my heart,” he said. “You don’t want to feel you are pushed from the game. When I watched video, I was the hardest guy on myself. I’d know I couldn’t play in the league any more if my skating wasn’t there, if I was losing all my battles. But that wasn’t the case.
“I had good legs, good jump, I could play second-unit power play. I had the vision, I could pass and shoot the puck. My heart and passion were still there. I had enough money, I was playing for the love of the game, dreaming and working and making sacrifices for another Stanley Cup.”
So Brisebois got busy with other things, even if the need to be fully involved in hockey never left him.
And then about two weeks after Marc Bergevin was hired as the Canadiens general manager, he sent word to the club through VP Donald Beauchamp, a long-time acquaintance, that he’d like to meet the new boss.
Soon they were talking over a two-hour lunch. Bergevin asked Brisebois about his retirement and much about his career. And he asked specifically about the relentless roasting Brisebois took from fans and some in the media. That was something the defenceman shrugged off to return for his final two seasons in Montreal, knowing that he’d be a whipping boy here once more after a comparatively peaceful time in Colorado.
Brisebois knew Bergevin only casually as a former opponent.
“But I always liked the guy, eh?” he said. “Everybody wants to be around Marc. He has a great attitude, he’s always laughing and enjoying life. Even if he wasn’t a top guy, he played for 20 years and his teammates always appreciated him.
“He’d say, ‘There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s only a hockey game. We’re going to work hard and we’re going to win.’
“I told Marc I’d like to coach because I love to be on the ice, as all players do when they retire – talking with the players, sharing the details.”
Bergevin made no promises other than to stay in touch.
“I knew I wasn’t a priority,” Brisebois said. “Marc had a head coach to name and others to get in place.”
The GM called back a couple of weeks later and, in keeping with his methods of teamwork, told Brisebois he wanted him to meet with his assistants, Rick Dudley and Larry Carrière.
For 90 minutes, the two executives spoke to Brisebois about his passion for the game, about how he envisioned working with the team’s defence prospects.
By now, Dudley and Carrière were sold on the value of Brisebois’s experience both on and off the ice. And by now, Brisebois’s spark was a multi-alarm fire.
Bergevin called again. They met and Brisebois agreed to a contract as player-development coach – one year, with a one-year option. He was signed to work with Martin Lapointe, who in tandem was named the team’s director of player development.
Of course, Brisebois’s family was fully on board.
“Michèle said, ‘Go for it, you’ll be doing something you love, that it’s easier to go to work if you love your job,’ ” he said. “She said it was something for the whole family.”
Brisebois will work with all of the team’s drafted and minor-pro defence prospects, probably skating with each except American university players; collegiate rules prohibit that. He’ll spend time in Hamilton with Lapointe and Bulldogs coach Sylvain Lefebvre, coaching the Canadiens defencemen of the future, if not tomorrow.
And he will share with these prospects his richness of experience in Montreal, from winning the Stanley Cup as a 22-year-old to being heckled by fans and press box boo-birds.
“Montreal is the best place to play hockey and it can be the toughest,” Brisebois said. “It’s one thing to show the kids on the ice the little details. They’re all good if they’ve been drafted – they have talent and they all have the little something the others don’t have.
“But it’s right here,” he said, tapping his temple. “It’s how to be a professional, how to have that work ethic to be one of the top players in the league.
“It’s one thing to make it, but it’s another thing to be a superstar. Are you ready to do that? Do you know what it takes? They’re young. They all have success in junior and college, but to be the best there doesn’t mean you’ll be the best in the NHL.
“I think I can teach them the things it takes to be a pro. When things are going very well, you don’t get too high. When things are going bad, you don’t get too low. These kids aren’t robots, they’re human beings.
“The game is simple,” Brisebois added. “It’s passing the puck, shooting the puck and winning your battles one-on-one. Los Angeles wasn’t flashy or spectacular this year (en route to winning the Stanley Cup), they just did the little things right. Play the probability. Do your job. Mistakes happen, guys are so good, but there’s always somebody out there to help you.”
Brisebois will be on Brossard ice Thursday through Saturday with the team’s newly drafted prospects, then slip behind the wheel of his L’Équipeur-sponsored Dodge for August NASCAR races in Trois-Rivières and Montreal, then prepare for his first Canadiens training camp as a coach.
The racing, he said, is almost the same drug as hockey, if slightly less lucrative; he’s earned only $7,500 or so in his seven career Canadian Tire Series starts.
“Enough to buy beer for the crew,” Brisebois said, laughing. “But racing in traffic at that speed is an incredible rush. It’s like stepping on the ice in front of a roaring crowd.”
And with a stock-car’s volume, you can’t hear if the fans are booing – even if Brisebois long ago gave up giving much thought to his critics.
“It’s all perspective,” he said. “When you make it in life, maybe people are jealous. When you’re young, it’s sometimes harder to understand. I’m just a guy who wanted to play hockey and do his best. If I’m driving a nice car, it’s because I love cars. I don’t have a boat, I don’t gamble, I don’t take drugs. I dress nice and I love cars, so people say, ‘This guy is this and that.’
“It’s sad. But you know what? When you grow up, you realize you can’t please everybody. The most important thing is that you care about the people who love you. And the rest? There’s nothing you can do.
“I know I’m a good person. The rest, I don’t give a (flip). A lot of people are hypocrites, talking behind your back, taking their cheap shots. I’m not that kind of person. If you don’t like me, don’t talk to me, don’t look at me. That’s it.”
And then Brisebois broke into a broad grin, popping the last bite of his muffin as he rose to head into his sunny day.
“The potential of the Canadiens is very nice,” he said. “The core of the team? Beautiful. Just be patient. Let some contracts run their course. And let these young guys mature.
“I can’t wait to get going. When do we start?”
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