How many times was Michel Therrien fired last season by Montreal Canadiens fans?
One year later, Therrien is not only still standing, he’ll be doing so behind the bench of the Atlantic Division All-Star squad as their head coach later this month in Los Angeles.
The 54-year-old Therrien earned the distinction by leading to the Canadiens to first place in the Atlantic through the first half of 2016-17.
Montreal has rebounded nicely following a disastrous 2015-16 campaign that saw the team wilt in the 70-game absence of star goaltender Carey Price.
The goal-challenged Canadiens of last year now rank sixth in the NHL in goals per game (3.02).
Under Therrien, the Canadiens have often been labeled as a “dump and chase at all costs” kind of team. The numbers will tell you they rank third in NHL in Corsi For at even strength (52.39 per cent).
It’s not as though the roster, which has been missing its most gifted player in Alex Galchenyuk for close to six weeks now, is overflowing with superstar talent.
With several other regulars like Andrew Shaw, Andrei Markov and Brendan Gallagher also sidelined with injuries, Therrien’s insistence on running a meritocracy has elevated lesser talents like Paul Byron (12 goals and 12 assists) and Phillip Danault (seven goals and 12 assists) and allowed the Canadiens to stay in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy (they’re currently four points out of first overall).
The man who recorded his 400th win in the NHL last Saturday has gone 188-112-35 since taking over the Canadiens in 2012. He deserves credit.
We recently met with Therrien in his modest office at the Canadiens’ south shore practice facility.
The two framed pictures in the entryway, mounted directly across from one other, serve as reminders of two significant moments in his coaching career. One is of his 38-year-old self, coaching his first game at the Bell Centre, and the other shows him staring over Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux in his first game as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Most—if not all—of the other pictures on the wall behind Therrien’s desk, were of his son and daughter. He beamed while talking about raising them and returning to Montreal together close to five years ago to get set for his second stint as Montreal’s coach.
During our conversation, we talked about that experience, as well as last season’s struggles, his coaching style, his critics and how he plans to bring the Stanley Cup back to Montreal.
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Sportsnet.ca: How have you changed since stepping into the NHL 16 years ago?
Therrien: I’m a lot more calm, I’m getting older.
I’ve been through a lot of things over my career, and you learn from every situation. When it’s time to be positive with the players, I’m not afraid to be positive with the players.
Some of your players were surprised how positive you were with them when the team was struggling last season. Is that because you had your eye on the future?
You always have to move on.
You know what? The ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup.
Even if you make the playoffs and you lose in the first round, do you think I’d be satisfied? No, you’re not satisfied. There’s always the ultimate goal and we work to get to the ultimate goal. And every time you’re not getting to the ultimate goal, it’s tough. It’s always tough.
Last year, that was the first time in my career we didn’t make the playoffs. And it was tough. It was tough for the players and it was tough for the fans. But you gotta make sure you’re well-prepared for the upcoming season and learn from what happened in the past and make sure when you start the next year you’re ready to go and make sure that it’s not going to happen again.
Who has had the biggest influence on your coaching style?
In life I think we always have to have mentors, and I had the luxury to be coached by Jacques Lemaire.
Jacques always had a good influence in my life and had a good influence in hockey. And still I share a lot of things with him—even if he doesn’t work with us.
It’s about the game. He sees lots of games and has so much experience. And this guy, when he coached me when I was young, I was really impressed with him. If you go back then, he was still our idol because he had just retired from the NHL to start his coaching career. I saw him when I was really young, winning Stanley Cups.
To have that guy you idolize so much become your coach? I paid a lot of attention, I had a good relationship with him, and he’s my mentor.
What’s the main thing you learned from Lemaire?
As a coach, you always have to adjust.
The way we play now is different than when I first got back to Montreal five years ago, it’s different than when I was in Pittsburgh, and it’s different than my first time in Montreal.
You always have to adapt, and you need to bring new things to players. I don’t believe in having the same recipe—”This is how we play, we don’t want to change a thing.”
I think players need and want the new trends.
I think as a group, as a coaching staff, we’re on top of everything. We spent time in the summer making adjustments that we feel we need to make. It’s a lot of work. Everything is written down, everything is on video and our ideas are put together about how we want to play the game so that we can bring it to our players and get their attention.
When players arrive in camp, I need to bring new things. I can’t go with the same recipe all the time. I believe our players really buy into those things, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve had success to start the year.
When we try to bring new stuff, we’ve got their attention it seems.
How do you get your players to buy into your system?
What I try to do with players is making them understand that, for me, sports is about percentages.
When there’s time to make plays, it’s about reading what the other team’s going to give you and taking advantage of it. You go with percentages. If you force things, the percentages are going to be against you.
But playing the percentages isn’t going to take away offence. Great players always find a way.
Even the year I got fired in Pittsburgh (2008-09), we were missing a lot of players but [Sidney Crosby] and [Evgeni Malkin] were No. 1 and No. 2 in the league [in scoring]. Elite players will find a way to expose what the other teams give them. But at times, even they have to accept when they can’t make any play and they have to make the defenceman turn and make the extra play [by putting the puck behind them].
Some people would argue the tactics you employ now are outdated.
People have the perspective that [the Canadiens] dump the puck and dump the puck, but it’s not true. It’s about reading.
You look at Galchenyuk and [Alexander] Radulov… the teaching we’re trying to do with Galchenyuk—look where he is now and where he was when he was 18 years old. It takes time sometimes. At the moment we speak, Galchenyuk is fifth in league scoring (he was injured on Dec. 4). I’m happy about his progression.
Dumping the puck out of our zone is the last play we’re looking to make, but it’s better than forcing one that isn’t there.
People always say—
I don’t pay attention to what people say and I don’t read the papers that much, either.
I do know what people are saying, but when you coach in this market you need to have a big bubble around you. When you start to pay attention left and right, this is where you can start doubting yourself.
Is that what happened to you in your first stint as coach of the Canadiens?
The first time around… when you come into the NHL to coach at 38 years old, first of all it’s really young.
You want to be there for a long period of time, but you don’t have the experience. You pay more attention to what people will say because you don’t have the experience and you want to make sure you do the right things.
The experience I got was in junior hockey and the American League. I did all I had to do to get to the NHL.
The second time around, you’re certainly more prepared.
I know now that I need that bubble around me. But I know what’s going on.
I know the relationship that I have with my players. I know the relationship I have with my staff and [Canadiens GM] Marc [Bergevin]—and that’s the most important thing. The rest is out of my control.
Speaking of control, we’ve been waiting for you to blow up in a post-game press conference for over four years.
Blow ups? It won’t happen [laughs].
You have to understand the market you’re dealing with. Just one little word can be blown out of proportion.
I meet the media 250 times a year, so that’s a lot. Everyone has their question, and they want to justify their job. I understand that, too. It’s not like in the market where there are three or four reporters and it’s bang, bang, bang. It’s not the same. The chemistry’s not the same.
Out of 250 times, if maybe once or twice a year what I want to explain doesn’t come out the right way or people didn’t get it, I don’t make a big deal about it.
I’m prepared before I talk to the media and I try to be as honest as I can be, but in the meantime I’m trying to protect my players as much as I can—even in difficult times.
But what about that famous tirade in Pittsburgh?
(Following a 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 10, 2006, Therrien said:
“It’s a pathetic performance, half of the team doesn’t care.
“That defensive squad, I am really starting to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league. They are doing such a great job to be the worst defensive squad in the league. They turn the puck over. They have no vision. They are soft. I have never seen a bunch of defencemen as soft as this.
“We should take 50 per cent of their salaries because they play only 50 per cent of the time.”)
I was prepared for that. The question I was asked had nothing to do with where I was going to go with my comments.
In Pittsburgh the market was different. The team there, over four years, they were finishing in last place. I was in the minors for three years with [AHL affiliate] Wilkes-Barre when I got called up to replace Eddie Olczyk, and I did like all the new coaches would’ve done. The only thing I didn’t bring was the pom-poms to the dressing room.
The attitude of the group was not good enough to the standard that I wanted to bring to that team. So I was prepared for [the tirade], and Craig Patrick, who was GM at the time, knew where I was going to go.
And I was waiting for the right time. When I did it, I thought it was the right time. We needed to break it and then fix it. And we did. It was enough with the polish. And those guys became winners [in 2009].
Losing was acceptable. “It’s okay, we’ve got some young guys,” was the mentality. But my market [in Pittsburgh] was different than [in Montreal]. There was no pressure from the outside, so I had to be the guy that was applying the pressure.
Can I do that here? No way. No way! The market is different and I have to protect my players.
About how you treat your players…
I care about my players, I want them to have success.
The recipe with one guy is not always the same with someone else, and my approach doesn’t always mix with their mentality and how they were brought up. That’s why communication is important. You need to know your players.
The thing I’m the most proud of is when players have success. I’m proud about Galchenyuk. I’m proud about the way Radulov has come in. I didn’t know him much, but the way he’s performing is amazing.
Radulov and I spoke for 30 minutes today—nothing to do with hockey. We spoke about Russia. Moscow. I need to know if there is family coming down.
Some players you could do this or that with and one player’s game will go down and the other player’s game will go up. With some players I need to be tough.
“Tough” is a big word, especially in these days.
For sure I got it wrong with some guys. It’s normal.
In his 2014 book, Terry Ryan (former eighth overall pick of the Canadiens) told a story about how you once called him into your office, smoked a cigarette in his face and told him to ‘f— off.’
That was 20 years ago.
You have to adjust to the new generation of players. It’s different. If you don’t adjust, you can’t survive.
There are a lot of good coaches. I think if you look at the guys who have been there a long time, they were capable of adjusting to the new generation of athletes and how they are.
Bergevin hired you back with the Canadiens in 2012. How did that process evolve?
Marc called me and asked me if I was interested. For sure I was.
But when I came back from Pittsburgh—we lived in the States for eight years. Even after I lost my job we were staying in Pittsburgh for three extra years. I stayed there for my kids to finish their schooling. I never thought I was going to coach back in Montreal.
When I got that opportunity—and when I saw there was an opening and Marc called—I prepared myself. I watched a lot of games from the previous year of the Canadiens, and I shared my thinking about how I coach and how I see things. And at the moment we had that first conversation I felt I had the job. The vision was aligned.
I had three interviews and met all of the management team and ended up getting the job. I was asked about everything. The market in Pittsburgh, the market in Montreal…
What did it mean to you when Bergevin stood up for you and secured your job publicly through the end of last year?
It means a lot. We work closely together, we share and spend time together. Geoff Molson, too.
All successful franchises in almost every sport—its’ about stability. It’s important.
Obviously, we lost a big guy in Price last year when everything was going well. I heard people saying we tried to hide the injury—one day I’ll prove it that when he got hurt we thought he was going to be back Jan. 15 (Price was hurt on Nov. 25 and the Canadiens originally announced a 6-8 week recovery time).
After that it was another two weeks, and then another two weeks.
We try to be as up-front as we can and we try to protect players. When it’s obvious, we say it. We’re not trying to hide and be smartasses. It’s not about that.
What’s your biggest weakness?
I’m thinking about this 24 hours a day, most of the time. I wish to be able to disconnect a little bit.
I started last year, I needed to disconnect because it was tough. It was really tough. This is how I got into Netflix and House of Cards, because I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t watch all the networks. I didn’t want to be connected.
It’s tough to be disconnected in this market.
And I’m so passionate about my team.
There’s always little problems to resolve. You wish to have 23 guys who are healthy and have everyone doing well, but even when you’re winning some guys are struggling a little bit and you’re constantly thinking about how to get those guys going. I’m up at 5:30 in the morning thinking about it, I don’t go back to sleep.
A lot of people were surprised to find out you were the one who sought out Kirk Muller and hired him to be an associate coach. Some thought it was interesting, considering he could threaten your position as head coach.
I don’t see it as being threatening. I see Kirk making me a better coach.
The way I see it is, the better surrounded you are the better you are. That’s always been my philosophy.
When I knew [goaltending coach] Stephane Waite was going to be available—for me he was the best, and I did everything I could to convince him to leave Chicago and bring him to Montreal.
I knew at the end of the year, I had some insight Kirk was going to be available. Marc called [St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong] and asked for permission to speak with him. And I was driving back from Florida to Montreal, and it was early in the morning and I called him, and we spoke for an hour or two hours. I called Bergevin after and I said, “We have to resolve this today, we can’t wait. He’s the perfect guy.”
If there’s a guy out there who’s going to make us better, we’ll go after him. I was more than excited to get a chance to work with Kirk.
How can you bring the Cup back to Montreal?
That’s our goal. It’s the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup.
But it’s like guys who are struggling to score goals, I always say, “Focus on the process, don’t focus on scoring goals.”
I can’t focus on the Stanley Cup. My focus is on how to get there. Once the regular season ends it’s on to the next round, then the round after that. That’s the way it is.