EDMONTON — From the outside, coaching appears solely to be about the wins and losses. You win, you work. You lose, you look for work somewhere else. And perhaps, in the small picture, that’s an accurate depiction.
But as Alain Vigneault walks into Rogers Arena on Wednesday morning in advance of Thursday’s pre-season tilt between the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers, the canvas is much bigger. Here, the part of the hockey man that remains well hidden from the television cameras will be employed.
“I really didn’t get an opportunity to thank a lot of the people who were with me for seven years, so I’m looking forward to that,” Vigneault told sportsnet.ca on Tuesday. “When I got released, I wasn’t in Vancouver. I came back to pack a couple of weeks after, but didn’t see a lot of people because it wasn’t hockey time. It’s going to give me a chance to thank everybody.”
As cliché as the return of a former player has become in this era of free agency, no Canadian city has greeted fewer former coaches than Vancouver in the past decade. Vigneault makes sure yours truly knows this stat: during his seven years as the Canucks head coach, the other five Canadian teams (not counting the Winnipeg Jets) ran through 20 coaches between them. “Five teams. Twenty coaches,” he repeats for emphasis, before walking down the rubber runway towards the Rangers morning skate.
So much has changed since he was drummed out of the NHL in 2001 after the Montreal Canadiens fired him. Now he’s a Jack Adams winner (two-time finalist), the winningest coach in the Canucks’ history and, of course, the newest bench boss of the mighty New York Rangers. “One of the reasons I came to New York was I felt I had a good chance to win,” Vigneault said. “When I went to Vancouver (in 2006), I was just trying to get back into the league. This time, I had options.”
Choosing New York over Dallas tells you Vigneault invites the added pressure that comes with coaching in a hockey town. Winning in New York, however, means bringing a team and a dressing back together after the divisiveness of the John Tortorella years.
The motto for this Rangers training camp is “Clean Slate…Grab it.” It’s printed right across New York’s team-issue training camp T-shirts. Vigneault’s Canucks room wasn’t perfect, but it basically ran itself by the end of his tenure. That’s the goal in Manhattan.
When Vigneault—just 52 and entering his 12th season as an NHL head coach—arrived in Vancouver, the Canucks current core was young. The Sedins and Kevin Bieksa were 25, Alex Burrows was 23 and Ryan Kesler 22. “Just like when you’re a parent, you let them grow. You see when they can assume more responsibility. I was like the father, or grandfather, looking at his children and seeing that they knew what was right and what was wrong. To say they had ‘full control’ would be a major exaggeration. But I knew that was the right thing to do with that group.”
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And this “group” in New York? It is going to take some time for Vigneault to figure them all out. To that end, he has intentionally not harnessed himself with too much old information, keeping his coach’s eye as fresh as possible. “I’m not quite sure exactly what I have here with the Rangers,” he said. “Don’t know the East real well; didn’t see them last year; didn’t watch a lot of tape coming in. Call it a style, call it a system… We’re going to put in a way of playing that’s going to maximize this group.”
It was fun in Vancouver, and returning this week will bring a smile to Alain Vigneault’s lips.
Returning with a prime job, on a team close to being Stanley Cup worthy? That, as the credit card commercial says, is priceless.