Canadiens forge on in playoffs with Julien in their thoughts and hearts

Faizal Khamisa and Eric Engels discussed the news of Montreal head coach Claude Julien being taken to hospital, and how the Canadiens' plan to move forward without him as he recovers.

TORONTO — It’s the image that resonates most in the wake of news that Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien was rushed to the hospital with chest pains Wednesday night after his team’s 2-1 loss in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers: a trimmed-down Julien, seated at the podium of the media room inside the Canadiens’ practice facility on the second day of Phase 3 training camp, smiling and eventually joking with several journalists as the questions poured in via Zoom.

He appeared as though the rest from March to July had done him well, like he had enjoyed quality time with family but also taken some for himself to do what the hectic schedule of an NHL coach doesn’t always permit. Julien spoke on that day about how excited he was for the opportunity the Canadiens were given to participate in this tournament for the Stanley Cup — especially after a gruelling season that saw them resting in 24th place in the 31-team league when life as we knew it was halted due to COVID-19.

"We have a chance to prove we’re a better hockey team than what we showed," he said.

And then he arrived in Toronto 11 days later and helped the Canadiens shock the hockey world with a monumental upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round of these playoffs.

Julien had them prepared for Game 1 against the Flyers, he coached them through an impressive performance that fell just short of a stunning win, and then he calmly went through his media availability without any indication something was wrong.

But something was.

"I’m here to you inform you of a situation that explains the absence of our head coach, Claude Julien, from our practice this morning," said Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin in an impromptu statement just before 2 p.m. ET on Thursday. "Claude experienced pain in his chest overnight. We immediately consulted with our doctors and decided to rush him to the hospital by ambulance. He went through tests to determine the nature of his condition. This situation has nothing to do with COVID.

"We don’t foresee him being back with us before the end of this series against the Flyers."

In a year of the unexpected becoming reality so frequently that it’s seemingly turned into the only constant we can rely on, this was still unthinkable. Even with Julien turning 60 this past April.

A hockey lifer — first as a professional player from 1980-92 and then as a coach who worked his way up from the QMJHL to the NHL in just four years — going from the bench to the hospital for reasons unrelated to this global pandemic was a jarring bit of news. For everyone.

Especially the Canadiens.

"A little shock and concern," said Bergevin. "But after talking to [Canadiens head physician] Dr. David Mulder there is some good news early this afternoon."

He explained that Julien was "in good hands" at a Toronto-area hospital, that he spoke with him this morning, that there was hope he’d be out of the hospital within days and that he’d return home — whether it was to Montreal to be with his family, or to Toronto to be with his Canadiens family.

Either way, Julien may be out of sight for some time. But he certainly won’t be out of mind.

As the Canadiens forge on, with Kirk Muller assuming head coaching duties and Dominque Ducharme and Luke Richardson sharing the rest of the responsibilities, Julien will be in their hearts, too.

"I think in these situations there’s always a little bit of an emotional factor and, like Marc said, a shock factor," said Canadiens captain Shea Weber. "Obviously, everyone learned about this this morning and the biggest concern is his health. We want to make sure he’s healthy first. But I think that’s something, for sure, we can draw upon and use it as… not as if we weren’t motivated in the first place, [but] this can maybe draw even more out of that."

This situation, though shocking, is not without precedent.

It was during the 1992-93 Canadiens season, when Muller was a player with the organization, that head coach Jacques Demers was hospitalized after experiencing chest pains. He was dismissed after all tests came back clear, and he ended up coaching the team to a Cup win months later.

It was back in 2002, incidentally the same year that Julien began his NHL coaching career, that Pat Quinn (who was 59 at the time) missed Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final due to a "chest condition." Without him on their bench, the Toronto Maple Leafs fell in overtime by a score of 2-1 and, upon his return, went on to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games.

The hockey is secondary when things like this happen. You think about the man, his family, his friends, and the members of his young team, for whom he is both coach and father figure.

You think about the stress of this work, particularly at this time — when the stakes are so high and the lights so bright.

Geoff Ward knows. The Calgary Flames coach has been through two cardiac episodes himself.

"It’s stressful," he told Sportsnet. "When you do it for as many years as Claude has… I can’t speak to how the extended stress affects a coach. It certainly is very stressful, especially at this time of year, because it’s so short between games. You spend an awful lot of time away from the game, preparing so your sleep is not as good, you’re eating at different times.

"The stakes are high this time of year – you have to find ways to get away from the game and relax a bit but that’s not always possible. Important things for your health can get neglected at this time of year, when the stakes are high."

You can only imagine how Ward felt when hearing the news about Julien, whom he worked for as an assistant coach — first in Hamilton as part of Montreal’s AHL affiliate, the Bulldogs, and then in Boston, with the Bruins from 2007-2014.

"I was shocked," Ward said. "My thoughts and prayers are with Claude and his family. Not only do I feel for Claude and his family, but the organization and the team. It has ripples when something like this happens. He’s such a great person and he’s a great coach. I’m sure his presence around that team will be missed.

"But right now everybody’s thoughts are with him, that he’s healthy and doing well. It’s not a good thing to hear and, when it’s a friend, it’s really not a good thing to hear."

Bergevin said that once he received a first bit of "positive news" from Dr. Mulder in the early hours of the morning, he was able to rest a little easier.

His confidence in the Canadiens’ ability to move on without Julien put his mind at ease, as well.

"Claude is a guy who works closely with his assistants," Bergevin said. "For our series against the Penguins, and for our game yesterday, I thought, sincerely, our team was ready. And I see no issue. For sure we’ll be missing Claude, but our three coaches have experience as head coaches — Kirk in Carolina, Luke in Binghamton and Dom at the world junior championships. So, we have experienced guys who will work together. And, honestly, after speaking with Shea and the team, we’re ready. I’m eager for the game tomorrow at 3 p.m."

He added that there’s a possibility that Julien would be back behind the Canadiens’ bench before long, but that it was more probable he’d first return to Montreal to be with his wife and children.

As Julien was transported to a hospital outside of the bubble, he’d have to go through a mandatory quarantine and produce several negative COVID-19 tests before being permitted to rejoin the Canadiens.

But there are much more important things than that right now.

"We’re hoping for the best for him right now," said Bergevin.

So are we.

— With files from Sportsnet’s Eric Francis

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