Francois Allaire’s retirement wasn’t the biggest news coming out of the NHL the day it was announced. It wasn’t even the biggest news coming out of the Colorado Avalanche organization. No, the news that Matt Duchene might not report to the training camp got bigger play. Still, the goaltending coach’s decision to walk away from the game on the eve of the season caught most people by surprise.
Allaire explained that his decision to walk away from the game wasn’t a snap decision. It was the exact opposite.
“I went to Colorado a few seasons ago primarily because I wanted to work with Patrick Roy one more time,” said the 57-year-old native of Quebec. “Over the years it was great to see him evolve–from a junior player to a NHL star and then a Hall of Famer, then a junior coach and finally as a NHL coach. [After Roy stepped down in August 2016] it wasn’t as much fun anymore and that started me thinking—I’ve done this for four decades and that’s enough. I wanted to give it the summer to see if I’d feel different about it and nothing changed. It was time to do something else.”
Allaire’s decision reflects on his close ties to Roy and the considerable distance between Colorado and anything resembling playoff contention. The Avs never had a sniff last year and it might be that they go farther backwards before they start to move forward.
Allaire joined the Montreal Canadiens organization as the NHL’s first coach focused on goaltending in 1984. If you look at the video of the game from back in the early ’80s, it was a radically different game but, as Allaire suggests, at no position more than in the nets.
“When I was young, [every goaltender] developed in his own way, had his own style,” Allaire says. “Everybody developed in his own way. There was no training or trends going on. There was no goaltender coaching. Now it’s amazing … every pro organization has two or three goaltending coaches, one with the big club and others with players in development. And now goaltenders, every one of them, looks pretty much the same—all the coaching, all the hockey schools, the internet, all the information available to players at all levels, every goaltender is going in the same direction.”
Nobody in modern hockey history influenced that direction more than Francois Allaire, at least with the possible exception of Patrick Roy. Though it’s Roy who’s in the Hockey Hall of Fame, there might be no tandem of player and coach like them, really. If not for Francois Allaire, Roy’s career and the franchise history of the Montreal Canadiens and the Avalanche would look a lot different. In fact, the Habs would almost certainly be nearing a Toronto-like four-decade Cup drought.
“Patrick had the ability to make a good team a great team, more than any goaltender or player,” Allaire said.
To Allaire’s credit, he had a lot to do with Roy becoming an era-defining goaltender who had been previously been a decent prospect but hardly heralded coming out of junior. Allaire said that Roy’s success owed mostly to his make-up rather than pure athleticism.
“Nobody thought the game the way that Patrick did,” Allaire said. “With him there was no learning curve. Show him once, he had it. Even just tell him once and it was there. I remember the Canadiens were playing Quebec in a series and on the power play Peter Stastny would pass the puck from one side of the ice to Anton [Stastny] on the other. We picked this up on the video and I said, ‘Just get your stick out there and you break up the pass.’ It was nothing that we really could work on and it wasn’t the reflex or instinct [for a goaltender] to make the play. That’s why it worked for the Stastnys. First time, bang, Patrick makes the play, breaks up the pass. It was like programming a computer. If it was in his head, he made it happen on the ice. If it was in his book, he had it in a split second.”
If Roy had a computer’s memory, then Allaire did the programming. While Roy’s career is the stuff out of the storybook, Allaire’s really has no precedent. He more or less invented the role of goaltending coach, at least in the NHL and in North America. Allaire says that he was just in his mid-teens when it had occurred to him that goaltending was overlooked when it came to coaching.
“I took phys-ed in university in Sherbrooke and I read every book I could find on goaltending and not just the books in English and French,” he said. “I found books and manuals in Finnish, in Czech and Russian … even if I couldn’t read it or get it translated I looked at the diagrams and the drills they laid out. I incorporated it all.”
It was full circle in a way for Allaire when he started with the Canadiens. Roy had a breakthrough and a great run with the AHL affiliate in Sherbrooke the season before the memorable run to a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1986. “To get to do it in Sherbrooke was special,” Allaire says. “I thought there were great things ahead, but I had no idea.”
Allaire got rings with Roy and he also got one in Anaheim with his work with J.S. Giguere, who was something of a reclamation project after a brief look in Hartford and a few seasons in Calgary. “Jiggy was such a hard worker,” Allaire says. “[When] he came to the Ducks, he wasn’t so old, but some people thought he was a disappointment. But he believed and trusted and then he won the Conny Smythe [sic] [in 2003] and won the Cup a couple of seasons later.”
Allaire’s good work continued when he started working with Roy in the former protégé’s first season behind the bench in Colorado. A key to the Avs’ unlikely run to the playoffs was the play of Semyon Varlamov, a pretty undistinguished netminder up until Allaire’s arrival and then a Vezina finalist.
If Allaire took another job down the line, he wouldn’t be the first 57-year-old to come out of retirement. It’s hard to imagine that he’d come back into the game if it wasn’t to work again with Patrick Roy and so long as Montreal has a NHL franchise that looms as a possibility. There will be some discussion about Allaire’s worthiness of a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. If Roy was on the HHOF commitment, Allaire would have one vote for sure.