Brunt: Therrien ready to roll with the punches

Therrien, who worked his way into coaching the hard way, got his first start as head coach of the Canadiens when he was 37 (Photo: Elsa/Getty)

Michel Therrien has experienced more than his share of watersheds. It’s telling, coming from a man whose gruff, combative exterior makes it easy for him to be misunderstood, which of those turning points he considers the one that shaped him.

It wasn’t this: Peaking as a player in the American Hockey League—(“My goal was not to become Scotty Bowman; my goal was to become Larry Robinson”)—and having to find a real-world job to support his young family. He worked as a lineman for Bell, stringing and splicing high on the poles even when it was 20 below, and put in hours as a bodyguard for his old hockey buddy turned rock star, Roch Voisine… though the truth is there wasn’t much heavy lifting required in the latter. “Mostly it was girls who got close to him,” Therrien says, chuckling at the memory. “So it wasn’t too dangerous.”

And it wasn’t working his way into coaching the hard way, part-time, a couple of hours after work, vacation days spent travelling to road games as Bob Hartley’s assistant with the Laval Titan. Then taking the leap to coaching full-time and leading the Granby Prédateurs to the Memorial Cup in 1996.

It wasn’t being the working-class kid from St. Leonard in east-end Montreal landing his dream job (the first time). In 2000, while coaching the Habs’ farm team in Quebec City, Therrien got a call in the middle of the night from the Canadiens’ general manager, Réjean Houle. Therrien was being hired as head coach. His friend, Alain Vigneault, was going to be fired the next morning. It was all hush-hush. He was told to drive to Houle’s house at dawn and await further instructions. When the phone rang there, it was time to go to the Bell Centre for the press
conference. And oh, by the way, the guy who just hired you is being fired as well.

It wasn’t the baptism by fire during that first tenure with the Habs, the battles with the media, the eruptions of temper. “I was young. I was 37 years old when I got the job. I had never even played in the NHL. We always think we’re ready. But I know I am more ready now than I was 14 years ago. My first time coaching Montreal was like going to Harvard. I learned so much.”

And it wasn’t the firing. It’s what came after.

If you want to know the essential Michel Therrien, ask him about his kids and watch that tough-guy countenance immediately go all soft.

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That summer, after the Habs let him go, his marriage fell apart. He was left with sole custody of his two children, Charles and Elizabeth, nine and 10 years old. Then, Craig Patrick called and offered him a job coaching Pittsburgh’s AHL farm team in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He went there as a professional hockey coach and a single dad, which is not a combination you come across every day. “It was peaceful,” he remembers. “I could do the work that I had so much passion for. We were alone, the three of us. I took the kids to school every day. I made sure I was there every day when they came home from school. I hired a nanny when our team was on the road, but when we were at home, there was no nanny. I did everything with them. I took my daughter to dance school and my son to his hockey games. During [Wilkes-Barre] games, my son was a water boy and my daughter was selling programs. After the games, we would all leave the rink together. That was a great experience. We became really close.”

It taught him something. “My kids were really good to me. They forced me to be a good father. Forced me to show them that you need discipline to get success. If I had been by myself, I’m not quite sure I would have ended up coaching again in the NHL. I wanted to prove to them that I was a good father, that I was going to be there for them and that I worked hard. That’s the thing I am most proud of.”

Elizabeth is in university now and Charles is running his own small business; both are in Montreal.

The road back was not without its own life lessons—being hired to coach the Penguins and rookie Sidney Crosby, and eventually taking that team to the Stanley Cup final; being named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award; being fired midway through what would be the Pens’ Cup-winning season.

“That was the toughest thing in my career,” Therrien says. “But I was glad for the players that they became Stanley Cup champions. And I felt that I got a little piece of that trophy in my heart.”

By the time the call came from Marc Bergevin in 2012, giving Therrien the chance to make a liar out of Thomas Wolfe, the man—more mature, more mellow, more willing to roll with the punches that come with the most demanding coaching job in professional sport—came prepared because of what he had come through.

“I had no doubt in my mind,” he says, “that I was ready for that job.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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