Michel Therrien’s face said it all.
When the Canadiens coach addressed the media in New York following his team’s elimination from the National Hockey League playoffs Thursday night, he looked like a man who needed about a month on a quiet beach somewhere with the only ice in sight the cubes in a stiff drink — or maybe 10.
If you’re a Canadiens fan and felt stressed out while watching the playoff games, imagine how the man behind the bench must have felt.
Life can’t be easy when every decision you make is second-guessed in a city — and a province — where everybody thinks they’re a hockey coach.
Therrien led the Canadiens — a team that was the worst in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, the season before he took over — within two wins of the Stanley Cup final. His regular-season record over the past two seasons is 75-42-13, with consecutive playoff appearances, but you’ll still hear some Habs fans saying he should be fired.
That’s not going to happen. Therrien, who has one season remaining on his contract, is expected to sign an extension in the very near future. But on Thursday night, the coach looked like he might not have the energy to even pick up a pen.
“It’s really tough for tonight talking about the entire season, because I know it’s like when you get close to achieving a goal, it hurts, and it hurts more when you’re close,” Therrien said after the Canadiens lost 1-0 to the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final.
The Canadiens players will clear out their lockers Saturday in Brossard and the club announced that GM Marc Bergevin will meet with the media Monday morning. There was no word from the Canadiens on when Therrien will speak.
Jacques Demers, the last coach to win a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993, can relate to how Therrien must be feeling.
“It’s unbelievable what (the playoffs) take out of the players, the coaching staff,” Demers said on Friday afternoon.
Demers won the Cup in ’93, but says he almost went into a depression afterward.
“I went not into a depression, but I went into a period of two weeks where I couldn’t get up in the morning,” he said. “I didn’t want to see anybody. And professionally, it was the most happiest time of my life.
“My wife, Debbie, was saying, ‘What’s going on’? I said, ‘I’m just tired’ … it wasn’t physically, it was mentally. It takes so much out of you.”
Demers was also hospitalized for a couple of days during the 1992-93 regular season after experiencing chest pains that he says were related to stress.
Alain Vigneault knows what it’s like to coach the Canadiens — and now he’s headed to the Cup final with the Rangers. Vigneault, who got his first NHL coaching job with the Canadiens in 1997, was asked during the conference final to talk about his experience in Montreal and how it shaped his career.
“Well, that could be a really long answer,” he said. “I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version of it. Montreal is a great place to coach. It’s one of the Original Six teams, as a coach you have to make sure your team is ready, you’re ready.
“So I think it brings out the best in people. As we all know, a lot of the attention in Canadian markets on a 24/7 basis is on your team, so it’s a good place to coach and a good place to play.”
As former Canadiens star Steve Shutt once said about playing in Montreal: “The fans love you here, win or tie.”
Well, there are no more ties in today’s NHL.
While the pressure of coaching in Montreal must make a man’s guts feel like spaghetti, the lessons learned seem invaluable.
Of the four coaches in the Eastern Conference semifinals this year, three of them have worked behind the Canadiens’ bench: Therrien, Vigneault and Boston’s Claude Julien. That says something.
And it also says something about Marc Bergevin’s brave decision to give Therrien a second chance to coach in Montreal when just about everybody else in the city thought the new GM must have been sniffing his hair gel. Nothing can prepare someone for coaching the Canadiens like coaching the Canadiens.
Therrien was only 37 and had no NHL experience when he started his first stint as Canadiens coach in November of 2000, replacing the fired Vigneault. Therrien posted a 77-77-36 record before he was fired in January 2003, replaced by Julien.
The lasting memories Canadiens fans had from Therrien’s first stint in Montreal included his unfortunate mustard-coloured sports coat and a bench-minor penalty called against him for “abuse of officials” by referee Kerry Fraser that turned the tide in the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinal series eventually won by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Before being hired by Bergevin, Therrien had been out of the NHL for three seasons after being fired by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Demers remembers having lunch with Therrien a few times during that period.
“He told me, ‘The next time I come back (in the NHL) I will be a different man,’” Demers recalled.
Demers was impressed with the courage Therrien showed with his roster moves this season, saying: “It’s always easy to bench the sixth defenceman or the fourth-line player. He went to the top and he told his players, ‘This is not the way it’s going to work.’ You have to have courage to do that, especially in Montreal. He maintained his focus … this is what I have to do.”
While the Canadiens’ season is over now, Demers said the job of coaching the team never ends.
“Coaching the Montreal Canadiens … for 12 months you are the coach of the Montreal Canadiens,” Demers said. “It’s not six months … the season’s not over for Michel. He’s going to get invitations to go everywhere. …
“The margin of error for a coach is non-existent,” Demers added. “Next year people will be saying, ‘Look how far we went, we’re six wins away from a Stanley Cup, we’re going to be better next year and we’re going to win the Cup.’ It doesn’t happen like that. I don’t wish that on them, but it’s possible they don’t make the playoffs next year. There can be injuries … everybody gets better … and there’s another challenge next year.”
When Vigneault met with the media Thursday night in New York, he was asked what he would have said if someone had told him in October that his Rangers would go to the Stanley Cup final.
“Probably I would have said what are you smoking?” Vigneault replied with a laugh.
Montreal fans probably would have said the same thing if someone told them in October that Michel Therrien would lead the Canadiens within two games of their first Cup final since 1993.
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