MONTREAL — It’s too close to his heart.
At 60 years old — and just 14 days removed from a serious medical incident — Claude Julien announced Wednesday he’ll continue coaching the Montreal Canadiens. His life was nearly arrested, his career won’t be. He’s not prepared to walk away from an all-consuming puzzle he’s a few pieces shy of completing.
Though no one would think less of Julien for calling it a career following the stenting of a coronary artery, a procedure to allow oxygen-rich blood to flow back to his heart through a previously blocked passageway. He’s a small towner who made it big; one of 41 to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, a two-time all-star, a World Cup and Stanley Cup champion, the owner of a 658-440-10-148 record and a winner of 68 of 125 playoff games. He’d be applauded for stepping away at this point, while he still can on his own terms.
But this isn’t about what anyone else thinks. This is about a hockey lifer choosing hockey life over death. And if that seems like an extreme characterization of retirement, consider this from Julien:
"I think there’s probably a bigger risk for my health if I had to step back, because when you’re prevented from what you love doing, there’s a mental impact on you," the coach said. "And right now I still feel energetic, I still feel like I’ve got a lot to offer and if that was taken away from me, there’s no doubt it would have a huge impact on me."
There was more than passing concern Julien would never be able to do it again. On Aug. 12, the Blind River, Ont., native went to sleep following Montreal’s 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia. He woke up hours later experiencing chest pains and, after consulting with Canadiens athletic therapist Graham Rynbend and team physician Dr. David Mulder, elected to leave for Saint Michael’s Hospital.
The time it took for Julien to decide, knowing a departure from the NHL bubble would mean submitting to a mandatory quarantine period before he could rejoin the Canadiens, could have been precious to his life. To know he took it is to know what coaching means to him.
"I wouldn’t say I made the decision like it was no problem," said Julien. "It was considered, but in the end I realized I had to do something. With the support of Graham and Dr. Mulder, who was on the phone, I was encouraged to go to the hospital. So, it was a decision I made and one I’m extremely happy I made, but I’m also happy that I had people around me who really encouraged me to go. You never realize to what end it can be dangerous and never envision yourself in that situation."
And you try to avoid thinking about something you love so dearly being taken away.
Julien played professionally for 10 years and had a brief stint in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques before arriving close to home as coach of the QMJHL’s Hull Olympiques in 1996. He was an instant success, helping the team capture its only Memorial Cup in 1997, and five years later he was behind the bench of the Canadiens.
After a shockingly brief stint with the New Jersey Devils — he was unexpectedly fired by Lou Lamoriello on the eve of the 2007 playoffs — he joined the Boston Bruins.
In 2011, Julien coached Boston to its first Stanley Cup since Bobby Orr hoisted it in 1972. In 2013, he brought the team to within two games of winning its seventh. And in March 2016, with the 387th win in Boston, he passed Hall of Famer Art Ross as the winningest coach in franchise history.
Julien lost his job with the Bruins on Feb. 7, 2017 and was hired back by the Canadiens on Feb. 14. And now he forges on in the job, with two more seasons remaining on his contract.
The expandable coil of metal mesh that now supports the walls of Julien’s artery is also meant to preserve the life he wants to live.
"[Coaching has] given me a lot," he said. "Obviously some happiness, because not everybody gets to do a job that they love. A lot of people work in this world today because they have to work. A lot of people do certain work because that’s the only work they can do or they have the opportunity to do. They don’t always get to pick and choose. I’m one of the fortunate ones that I got to — when I say pick and choose, there’s no doubt I’ve had to earn my way there — but I’m doing something that I love doing. And every day that I get up I’m going to work, not because I have to but because I want to."
You have to truly want to do this to live with all the stress that comes with it. The manic days and sleepless nights, the ebb and flow of adrenaline over the course of a game, the never-ending analysis and preparation that goes into every moment spent on the ice — it can stop your heart.
But that’s the risk Julien has always subjected himself to, the one he’s happy to assume moving forward.
"There’s been a lot of thought and there’s been a lot discussions behind whether I go back or not, and I just want to reassure everyone that I am feeling 100 per cent, the doctors have told me I will recover at 100 per cent, and that the risk of me going back will not be any worse than it was before it even happened," he said, also noting the support of his wife Karen and their three children.
"All I need to do is make sure that I make the adequate adjustments to deal with that kind of stress," Julien added. "I’m looking forward to getting back to it and doing what I love."