Lots of coaches have come away with the win in their debut behind an NHL bench but none so perfectly scripted as Patrick Roy’s on the opening night of the season, at least for 59 minutes and 53.6 seconds. Roy’s Colorado Avalanche team, the worst mess in the West a season ago, were routing the Anaheim Ducks 6–1 and doing it in the arena that boasts a pair of Stanley Cup banners that make up a very prominent chunk of the Hall of Famer’s very prominent legacy. Back in Denver, back in the league—yeah, everything seemed to be unfolding as if by grand design. Right up until the last faceoff, which should have been a formality but wasn’t, because Roy, with his last change, sent out Patrick Bordeleau, a massive alumnus of the Lake Erie Monsters, and Cody McLeod, a veteran of 120 professional hockey fights.
What happened next would play out on an endless video loop for the next news cycle: Not the usual knuckleheaded shoves and facewashes on the ice, but instead the scene on the bench. Perched on the wall, the Ducks’ Corey Perry chirped at the Avs and at Roy in particular for his decision to incite a riot. Roy’s response included one of the first four-letter English words he picked up in an arena, and then Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau entered the exchange. At this point, Roy went off his hinges, pushing the Plexiglas between the benches, almost knocking it over, as if ready to jump into the Ducks’ bench. Though a devout fan of WWE and a one-time extra on the set of Slap Shot, Boudreau nonetheless looked stunned.
Many players, even some Hall of Famers, are a stat line and nothing more. Mike Gartner scored 708 goals, but do you remember a single one of them? Rare are the players who specialize in unforgettable moments, and Roy was always foremost among them. There’s no forgetting how he burst into the NHL as a 20-year-old, leading the Canadiens to an improbable Stanley Cup victory in 1986. Or, seven years later, his wink from behind the mask at Tomas Sandstrom, victim of serial robberies, when Roy again led the Habs to the Cup. Roy was just as memorable in defeat. His last game with the Canadiens stands as the soap-opera episode with the highest ratings in the ’90s: giving up nine goals to Detroit, enduring taunting cheers at the Forum, brushing by his coach and former teammate, Mario Tremblay, and delivering his personal au revoir to team president Ronald Corey in his front-row seat. With the Avs, he dropped glove and blocker to scrap with Detroit’s elfin netminder Mike Vernon, who almost punched Roy’s nose straight. Even though Roy was the last line of defence, he made himself front and centre.
So it should be no surprise that we walk away from his first game behind Colorado’s bench with this vivid image of Roy nearly knocking over the Plexiglas on the bug-eyed Boudreau. Like that night when Roy last wore a Canadiens sweater, like the night his wife had to call for the police because he was tearing their home apart and she feared for her safety, you’re left asking the same question: Why is Patrick Roy so angry?
Those who know Roy best will tell you that you’d have an easier time drifting a wrist shot from centre past him than plumbing his psyche. “Patrick is not an open book, not even for me and good friends,” says Stéphane Richer, who played with Roy in junior and with the Canadiens.
And if Roy isn’t inclined to share the pages inside, then you have to look at the cover and read the back of the jacket.
Start with the spin in the wake of the Anaheim game. Story goes: Roy was livid about a dangerous knee-on-knee hit by Ben Lovejoy on Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche’s first-overall pick, in his NHL debut. Boudreau later accused Roy of heckling various players on the Ducks—thoroughly plausible, consistent with his act as a player. The Anaheim coach called it “bush-league.” The next day, Roy apologized, as if understanding that he had eclipsed his team’s impressive performance. “I guess I have to change a few things,” he said. “I understand it now.”
The league didn’t buy the “Remorseful Patrick” act and handed him a $10,000 fine. The message: This sideshow might have played all those years when you owned and coached the Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but not here. Colin Campbell, the NHL hockey-ops honcho, said a coach at this level is supposed to “defuse volatile situations on the bench.” In other words, nothing like that infamous time with the Remparts when Roy’s son Jonathan, also a goalie, was charged with assault after he skated the length of the ice to pummel an opposing goalie who wanted nothing to do with hostilities. Given his history, Roy would seem to be the worst possible fit for a job as a defuser-in-chief.
Ponying up, Roy decided to get his money’s worth. “I didn’t talk to players until that moment,” he said. “During the game, I don’t talk to the players. I don’t talk to the referees. What Boudreau said was all lies. I’m not going to get too involved in this one but, to be honest, when you talk about classless—when you’re lying, this is classless.”
Good thing he didn’t want to get too involved.
His claim that he was set off by the hit on MacKinnon rings true or, at least, true of that moment. L’affaire Plexiglas, however, hints at larger, deeper truths that go at once to Patrick Roy, Hall of Fame goaltender, neophyte NHL coach, man.
General managers, coaches and players maintain that teams play harder for a few select goaltenders and sag with others in net—moreover, they claim that it isn’t just a matter of skill and performance. The idea that players perform better for certain goaltenders seems far-fetched. Yet those who played with him say Patrick Roy possessed that quality in spades. “A team can take on the personality or psychology of the goalie behind them,” says Tom Kurvers, a member of the Cup-winning Canadiens in ’86. “Patrick was the ultimate case of that. He created the vibe with how he played but also with what he said, even his body language. He had incredible fire. He fought so hard, like a street fighter. He’d never give up.”
You know the standard narrative: That fire, that street fighter’s instinct, tracks back to hardship, tragedy or deprivation. Yet you find none of that in Roy’s backstory. His father was a university-educated civil servant, a man of the arts, and his mother was ever-present and doting. Roy’s upbringing was the furthest thing from hardscrabble. In his biography of his famous son, Winning. Nothing Else., Michel Roy says young Patrick had “a normal, happy childhood,” even if Michel did once leave a note advising a babysitter that his son was “very restless and requires constant surveillance.” The most notable discipline issues were constant fights between Patrick and his younger brother, Stéphane.
Michel Roy boiled down the shaping of his older son’s personality and the arc of his career in a single sentence: “He had learned to lose before he learned to win.” Other great players were prodigies as kids, but not Patrick Roy. He hadn’t won anything in particular when he made it to the QMJHL with the Granby Bisons, and there he won almost nothing at all. In 159 games in three junior seasons, he didn’t register a shutout. His goals-against averages were 6.26, 4.44 and 5.55. Granted, the “Q” was then a high-scoring light show with the likes of Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille, and the Bisons were the league’s doormats. “Patrick would see 55 or 60 shots a game, all two-on-ones and breakaways,” says Mike Marcinkiewicz, Roy’s teammate in Granby. “He saw more rubber than any goaltender on earth. One game, Mario had three breakaways, and Patrick stopped them all. Not that we won. Thing is, for all the work he got in games, he played as hard in practice. He hated when you beat him even in a drill. Every shot, he gave everything he had. It obsessed him.”
Experiences like Roy’s in Granby amount to adolescent-goaltender abuse, and yet he wouldn’t be broken, not by the lack of success in Granby, not by being the fourth-ranked goaltender in the Q in his draft year, not by being cut from the world junior team (because of Hockey Canada’s anti-Québécois bias, he said). He only knew how to push ahead, and when the Canadiens drafted him 51st overall in 1984, he confided in Richer his vision of his future. “Patrick told me, ‘They’re going to give me the net one day and I won’t give it back,’” Richer says. “The way he said it was not empty. Confident, even cocky.”
The first chance for Roy to back up those words came the spring after his last year in junior. With Granby out of the playoffs, the Canadiens dispatched Roy to their affiliate in Sherbrooke, a middle-of-the-pack team in the American Hockey League. In his first workouts with the farm club, he met the coach who would become his mentor, François Allaire, who bucked conventional wisdom and encouraged Roy to drop down into his butterfly stance. Thereafter, with Allaire in his corner, Roy went on a run that presaged his future with the big club. “He got the nod [in the AHL playoffs] and never was intimidated,” says Ric Nattress, a defenceman with Sherbrooke at the time. “Maine was the Flyers’ farm club, a big, physical team, and they ran him. It was brutal the way teams knocked him around—I always say that’s where he got his twitch. We ended up winning the Calder Cup. I don’t know that anyone saw it coming except maybe him.”
That fall, it looked like Roy, at 20, was going to have his work cut out for him earning even a backup job with Montreal. The Canadiens had two veteran goalies on the payroll: Doug Soetaert and Steve Penney. “They didn’t make it easy on him, not the way it would be for a kid at another position,” the Journal de Montréal’s Marc de Foy says. “There was a pecking order.”
By the end of the regular season, Roy was established at the top and, more importantly, commanded the respect of his teammates. “He was easy to like,” Kurvers says. “He did the right things. If I was toast on a play, if I made a mistake and it led to a scoring chance, he never pointed a stick or acted like I let him down. Lots of goalies do that, but Patrick would just pat you on the back and tell you, ‘That’s what I’m here for.’”
That spring, Roy, a kid who had never been on an airplane until he donned a Canadiens sweater, won the Conn Smythe Trophy and became the biggest name in hockey. His was the stuff of instant lore. He went from unknown to household name but, at the same time, remained something of an unknown, at least for anglophone Canada, as he was still speaking pidgin English. And he’d remain so in his time in Montreal: never even remotely known at an intimate level outside Quebec’s borders.
Those who got to know him over the years with the Canadiens recognized in him an impulsive streak. He had trouble containing petty resentments. “Passion would get him in trouble,” de Foy says. “One night after the Cup, he was getting booed in a bad game at the Forum, and Jean Perron pulled him and put Brian Hayward in. Patrick disappeared at the end of the second period. He didn’t come out [for the media] after the game. Later, I saw him and he was on fire. He was criticizing the fans. ‘Can you believe I win the Cup and they boo?’ he said. I asked him, ‘Do you want me to write that?’ He told me to go ahead. Fifteen minutes later [after talking to Perron] he’s asking me to hold back.”
It wasn’t only passion that got Roy into trouble, though. Something approximating ego factored in as well. Some blame for Roy’s enlarged sense of self must be laid at the loafers of Jacques Demers. The coach of the Canadiens team that won the Cup in 1993, Demers believed Roy was a superstar who deserved special treatment and openly said as much. When the Canadiens ownership gutted the front office, firing Demers and GM Serge Savard, the team’s philosophy turned 180 degrees. Roy couldn’t believe the reports that Mario Tremblay was going to be hired as coach. “It was the day of the game when he saw this on television, and he told me he took a cold shower to make sure he was awake,” de Foy says. “At the time, Mario was doing media stuff and he’d been critical of Patrick.”
Tremblay’s hiring amounted to a shot across Roy’s bow. “[Back in ’86 when the two were teammates] Mario thought Patrick was too cocky,” says Lucien DeBlois, a forward with the Canadiens that season. “By the time Mario came in as coach, Patrick was a lot cockier, and the Canadiens’ way was always ‘No one is bigger than the team.’”
The blow-up between Roy and the Canadiens has been deconstructed a thousand times. Some claim it sucked the mystique and traditions out of the organization. That’s up for debate. Indisputably, though, it represents the apotheosis of Roy’s ego: The idea of legacy and history mattered not as much as the wound from an insult, that being Tremblay’s decision to leave Roy in for nine goals in the embarrassing loss to the Red Wings.
Friends and former teammates were surprised by the turn of events, but not by Roy’s reaction. “That it happened wasn’t anything I ever imagined, but I can see how that would make him want to walk out,” DeBlois says. “His mother has Irish blood. Maybe it’s Irish temper.”
DeBlois’s claim of a genetic component to Roy’s rage that night might pass for humour. Richer tries to connect the dots with straighter lines. “I’ve talked to Mario about it, and he said it wasn’t anything intentional,” Richer says. “He just didn’t know what to do. But come on, nobody deserves to be treated like that, especially a Hall of Famer. All Patrick cared about was respecting his teammates and being respected by his teammates. He always had our backs, and then this happens.”
Later, it would be written that Roy didn’t know what it was like to be hung out to dry. That, of course, was wrong. “I don’t know how many times he gave up nine goals in Granby,” Marcinkiewicz says. “It would have been a few. He worked hard to get past that, but he knows sometimes you have a bad night. He’d have a really hard time with [management and the coach] undermining him with his teammates.”
That’s what makes Patrick Roy mad, something that cuts to his core. That’s also something that, as a coach, he knows how to exploit. He waited all of 59 minutes and 53.6 seconds to do so.
On a Saturday morning three weeks into his NHL coaching career, Patrick Roy steps out onto the sheet for a game-day skate in Buffalo. No body armour. No cage to wink through. He gathers a young team with the league’s best record at centre ice and takes a couple of friendly but unprintable jabs at players before they skate off into positions for drills. Roy doesn’t shout out instructions, only barely raises his voice. The Avs smile and banter until the start of one last drill. A player doesn’t know where to go or what to do and he skates north when everyone else embarks south. Coaches have snapped for less. Roy whistles, laughs and points his stick. “Again,” he says. Like nothing happened. No point calling anybody out.
After practice, Alex Tanguay is taking off his skates in the visitors’ dressing room when Roy walks through tailed by reporters. Tanguay’s in the unusual position of playing for a coach who was once his teammate and billeted him as a rookie. “What matters to Patrick hasn’t changed,” he says. “He is the same as a coach as he was as a player. That first game let all the players know that.”
More precisely, he let them know that they could count on him having their backs. Matt Duchene talks about Roy having “a partnership” with his players, and how he “says what has to be said but doesn’t belittle us.” Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog says that “it comes down to respect, and being honest and accountable gets you respect, both ways.”
Outside the dressing room, Roy stands in front of a scrum of reporters. He struggles when asked if his young players are like he was as a young man. “They look like me, I think, and they seem passionate,” he says. “They’re open to coaching like I was when I met François Allaire at 19. And I’m glad I have François here again with the Avs.”
To fans, it often seemed like it was Patrick Roy vs. the world, but in his mind it was Us vs. Them.
He left Montreal when he and his teammates were “Us” and management became “Them.” Now, in Colorado, he’ll do whatever he can to bring “Us” together, even when it makes ludicrous theatre. And that was what the etiquette-breaking, Plexiglas-shaking, Boudreau-quaking mess was: pure theatre, emotional manipulation.
But a former teammate offers a word of caution, an advisory that should be slapped on any account of Roy’s debut as an NHL coach at the one-month mark. “It’s like a dream so far, and it can’t last forever,” Richer says. “When things go bad, that will be the test for Patrick.”
Disrespect or betrayal, however slight, perceived or real: This season we haven’t yet seen what makes Patrick Roy so mad, but we will.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.