MONTREAL — The position of coach of the Canadian team at the IIHF under-20s is frequently described as the toughest in the game. Well, maybe. I think group-sales manager in Florida and Arizona might be more difficult, but I digress. I’ll concede that standing behind the Canadian bench in any tournament is a challenge and dealing with teenagers is more complicated than coaching pros.
Which brings me to Benoit Groulx, coach of the home team on this trip. I’ll admit that, on a couple of counts, I was shocked when he was named as an assistant to Brent Sutter for last year’s tournament and as head man for this group.
I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by the fact that Hockey Canada turned out to be such a forgiving institution. Groulx was scheduled to have the job for the 2009 tournament but that fall he left the Gatineau Olympiques and the under-20 program hanging when he signed on to coach the Rochester Americans. Thankfully the late Pat Quinn stepped in and with a fair bit of help from assistants Guy Boucher, Willie Desjardins and Dave Cameron the home team prevailed in Ottawa.
Left at the altar once, Hockey Canada not only opened its doors to Groulx but gave him the coveted job ahead of a lot of qualified hockey coaches who have never stood up the organization for a clinic, never mind the marquee event.
Groulx wasn’t the first to do something like this. He won’t be the last. Hard to turn down an opportunity to coach in the pros if you think it’s going to lead to bigger and better things. In Groulx’s case, it didn’t: He lasted two seasons in Rochester, missed the playoffs one year, didn’t get out of the first round the next. Groulx was whizzed and he landed back with the Olympiques.
I figured that Gatineau would forgive him taking his shot at the AHL--Groulx had a fair bit of success getting reasonably talented teams to over-achieve in the QMJHL. He would have been the best available guy for the job. Have him back? The Olympiques would roll out the red carpet.
But frankly I never got Groulx as a Hockey Canada choice for the head U-20 job, not for the 2009 tournament and not for this go-round . To me it’s a bad fit.
Groulx has a record of getting results over the long run, over the course of a season. Those who like him would say that he pushes teams hard. Those who don’t, and there are more than a few, would just call him a bully.
Groulx isn’t being asked to get a pretty talented team to over-achieve with the group in this tournament. You’re asking a team of talented players, some ridiculously gifted, to do their thing and not suffocate them. Groulx got results browbeating his players in Gatineau but his act failed to work in Rochester with pros. The players that he’s sending over the boards at the U-20s are a lot closer to pros than garden-variety juniors. For that matter, two of them are already pros: Anthony Duclair and Curtiz Lazar, on loan from the Rangers and Senators respectively.
And if you get down to it, the players here are a lot closer to Pascal Laberge, the high-skill kid who was No. 2 pick overall in the QMJHL draft last spring. Laberge started his junior career with Gatineau and the honeymoon didn’t last through training camp. Groulx ran Laberge hard and Laberge wanted out from the get-go. A little while back the Olympiques moved him to Victoriaville.
Some of the players returning from last year’s WJC team must have not so fond memories of the tournament and by no means are the memories limited to events that played out on the ice. After losing in the third-place game, they were on the quiet side of harangues from staff and treated pretty shabbily overall. If things go sideways against Finland or the U.S. and Groulx goes off, it might be the returning players who handle it worse than those on the team for the first time.
Groulx has been all sunshine and rainbows with the media here. That’s what’s expected of him as the public face of Hockey Canada. That's what you expected through two games with no goals conceded and a few highlight-reel moments. But the hail-fellow-well-met Groulx is not the guy they know around the QMJHL. It has them laughing, although Pascal Laberge is probably laughing through gritted teeth.
Look, so long as his team keeps winning we might never see le Groulx authentique. In fact, the bully side of him will only ever play out to a roomful of teenagers who would be as likely to tune him out as fear him.