Q&A: Straight-shooting Ducharme prepared to take Canadiens to next level

Montreal Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme talks to a referee during second period NHL action against the Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg on Saturday, February 27, 2021. (John Woods/CP)

BROSSARD, Que. — As I step through the doorway of the press conference room at the Bell Sports Complex, I’m greeted by the building manager, who’s fidgeting with a video camera and arranging wires to ensure the next virtual media availability scheduled for the Montreal Canadiens goes off without a hitch.

He assures me he’ll be out of the way in just a moment, and then says, “You must be here for the one-on-one interview they told me about.”

“Indeed, I am,” I reply.

He asks me which member of the organization I’ll be sitting with, and I say, “Dominique Ducharme.”

“You’re a lucky guy,” he replies.

“Why’s that,” I ask.

“Because he’s a straight shooter,” he says. “What you see is always what you get with Dominique, and I like that.”

It’s 25 minutes later that Ducharme is sitting across from me, reinforcing the point in his most measured and serious tone.

“I like it when it’s clear,” he says, “I don’t want any grey zones.

“And quite often when I sit down with a guy and talk about something not going right or something that happened, he already knows. He already knows because he knows our expectations. I think that’s easier for everyone. Players, that’s what they want. They want clarity, they don’t want to be guessing and thinking, ‘How’s the coach going to react today?’

“We have a way of doing things, we have a way of thinking, we have a way of playing, and the players know because I make it clear. I think that’s something the players are looking for.”

It’s what Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said he was looking for in a head coach after firing Claude Julien and promoting Ducharme 18 games into last season.

The Joliette, Que., native, who had been an assistant coach to Julien since 2018, expected a wild ride, but he never could’ve anticipated the sharp twists and turns he’d have to navigate through just five months at the helm of the team he grew up cheering for and dreamed of one day coaching.

Just over a month into Ducharme’s tenure, Joel Armia tested positive for COVID-19 and set off a chain of events that would shape the remainder of the Canadiens’ season.

The NHL shut the team down for a week and then rearranged its schedule to have it play the final 25 games over 44 nights and, from that point on, Ducharme had to manage without being able to run a practice on consecutive days. He also had to deal with nearly every key player — Shea Weber, Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Ben Chiarot, Phillip Danault among others — missing significant time due to injury, Jonathan Drouin taking personal leave 44 games in, and being handcuffed by the salary cap (post-trade deadline) to dress his optimal lineup while the team was fighting tooth and nail to secure a playoff spot.

Down 3-1 in the blink of an eye to the top-ranked Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the playoffs, Ducharme coaxed a miracle out of the Canadiens. He helped them sweep the Winnipeg Jets and move into the Stanley Cup semifinal in Vegas, where he contracted COVID-19 despite being double vaccinated.

Still, Ducharme did what he could from quarantine to get the Canadiens by the Golden Knights and then finally returned to the bench for the final with them down 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

There was no time for him to catch his breath after the Canadiens fell in five games. Ducharme said he took a total of 10 days off all summer — spending four of them in Halifax and four of them in Vancouver — and admitted he never fully disconnected from what was happening around the organization. And there was a lot happening from Weber’s career being unexpectedly halted for the foreseeable future due to injury to Price’s exposure to Seattle in the expansion draft to Danault’s departure in free agency to losing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a $6.1-million offer sheet. There was every other bit of regular business in between, and Ducharme said he was involved in much of it.

He was busy with the process of replacing strength and conditioning coordinator Patrick Delisle-Houde with Dale Lablans and hiring Adam Douglas to be his new sports science director after Pierre Allard took an assistant coaching gig in Germany.

And Ducharme also filled his old position under Julien with former NHLer Trevor Letowski.

“Why him,” I asked.

“The way he communicates with players,” Ducharme said. “He’ll be working individually with the forwards. He’s a really smart coach, a good talker and communicator. He’s going to connect with players and make them grow, and I think he’s going to help us a lot.”

Ducharme feels prepared to do the same.

He said he feels refreshed and healthy. He had a coughing fit in the middle of our hour-long conversation and told me not to worry, adding, “I’m probably the only person in the world who had COVID and three doses of the vaccine (he was permitted to get a second dose of Pfizer after receiving doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer).”

The 48-year-old was in good spirits, and he said he feels prepared to take on his first full season as head coach after shedding the interim tag on July 13 when Bergevin awarded him a three-year contract.

What follows is the rest of our conversation, some of it edited for brevity and clarity.

Eric Engels: I remember after one of your first games — I think it was in Winnipeg — you guys played great, deserved to win but ended up losing in overtime. You said that night that the bounces you didn’t get would eventually come back to you. You had many bounces go against you until finally they started going your way. Fair to say you believe in karma?

Dominique Ducharme: I always feel that the game is fair, so at one point it’s gotta come back.

I think the biggest challenge for everyone last year was we needed to stick to the plan and just keep moving forward. We knew with the COVID pause that we would hit a storm, because we knew we were going into 25 in 43 or something like that. And then injuries — we suspected part of the storm would be some injuries because of the number of games, but we had gotten hit even harder than we expected.

I always told the guys that once we come out from that storm, we’re going to be stronger and better. And I think it came back to us because I think we just deserved it by sticking to the plan and moving forward.

EE: Did it seem like it was never coming back after Game 4 against Toronto?

DD: We knew we had more. I liked our first game, I liked our first period of Game 2, and then we went into penalty trouble. I didn’t like Game 3 and Game 4, and I knew we could be a lot better.

We understood that our backs were against the wall. We had one opportunity, so we couldn’t wait and be feeling sorry for ourselves. We had good meetings and I think, from there, we just got better and better. And yeah, we got some bounces we weren’t getting before.

EE: How much of what you were working towards as coach finally came to the surface and manifested itself on the ice after Game 4, during that seven-game streak over which you didn’t surrender a lead in the playoffs?

DD: A lot of it, for sure. The style of play is one.

When you talk about the style of play, for us it means different things that we control, and things we also measure. And that becomes part of the team identity we want to have and part of the attitude we want to be playing with. And those things we control are things everyone can do — they’re not about skills but about engagement.

And then, from there, it was our system being executed. Not having any practice time during the storm was hard but having that little bit of practice time before the Toronto series was a good thing for us. And I think after Game 4, we really jelled knowing we have more and our identity and our system together. So, I think we learned a lot from that.

But we cannot take anything for granted. We have to be starting with the same attitude, mindset and style of play, and we need to control what we can control and do things the right way. From there, I want us to be taking another step. We want to be better than we were last year.

EE: What is the identity of the team, and what are those things that you can control?

DD: It goes into some details, but by individual. You can put in any system in the world, but if a guy needs to be killing a play and isn’t able to do it or isn’t committed to doing it, it won’t work.

The guys got a lot better at those details. And we have key points on that we measure with everyone. They’re the same for everyone, but everyone needs to do them in different ways.

For example, cutting off plays is different for Cole Caufield than it is for Josh Anderson. Josh can run a guy over and put him on his ass, but Cole will have to cut the guy’s route and force him to almost a stop because he’s in the way. So, everyone can do what we ask, but they’ll all have to do it differently from one another.

There’s cutting off plays, there’s the way we use our sticks, and just other little details. Those guys in the NHL are the best at what they do in the world, and they take a lot of pride in those little details, and I think that makes our team better, makes us play with the puck more, makes us retrieve pucks quicker and then we can play fast and attack.

We measure it every game. There’s a list coming out the next day tracking five or six different points and the players see that individually they were involved in, say, 20 actions around those five or six points. Then we take the individual scores and create a team percentage.

As a team, if we get around 75 per cent good actions on those five or six points — we had games in the playoffs at 80, 85 per cent — you kind of take control of the outcome. Guys understand how much those little things pay off and help everything else within the structure we want to play with.

EE: What were the percentages on that board early on in your tenure?

DD: Tough to tell. The concept was not completely new to the guys, because I had talked about it before with Claude and we were using it in a different way. But we pushed it to another level.

At times we were at 60, 65 per cent. If you have five guys going at 40 per cent, it affects the team. That’s why it’s really a team commitment; it’s an engagement towards your teammates.

And we use it to have fun with it, which is why we had the Gritty Bob Award (named after four-time Selke winner and Hall of Famer Bob Gainey). The player with the best percentage after a win would be getting that award. That’s one reason why Bob Gainey came in during the playoffs, because playing the right way was something he made a career of.

Guys are taking pride in that, they’re challenging themselves, and they’re pretty happy to come up in front the next day and take the picture with the award.

EE: Who won it the most?

DD: (Joel) Edmundson won a few. Webby. (Jake) Evans, (Paul) Byron, (Artturi) Lehkonen won. Chiarot won.

This year we’ll do it a little bit differently because ice time has an impact on the number of actions you can be involved in.

It’s a big thing for us. Guys would see the sheet, but we wouldn’t announce the runners-up or guys with good scores.

Corey Perry never won it, but he was runner-up like seven times. It’s probably the only award he didn’t win [laughs].

EE: Clearly, this is about bringing the team together and creating accountability, but I’m thinking it also makes it easier for a coach to have those hard discussions with a player when they’re not doing what’s asked of them.

Given what you said about giving players what they want in terms of clarity, I think it’s fair to assume you actually do have an open-door policy whereas a lot of coaches say they do but don’t. How frequently do players use that door? How many of them feel comfortable and compelled to come suggest something for the power play or for how you can get more out of them in their role?

DD: I think it’s daily. It’s not necessarily in my office. Sometimes it’s skating around and chatting a little bit. Sometimes it’s walking in the hallways and taking time to talk about anything.

It’s not always formal, but we have many little discussions here and there. I like it when it’s clear. And I tell them, if it’s not clear, come and see me.

And when we talk about power play or anything else, we want them to be involved. We’re not against them, and they know that; we want to have success, and I want them to have individual success, and everything we do can bring them and our team success.

EE: Regarding that type of communication, on the final day of last season, with exit interviews being held, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was the last player we spoke to and it took a very long time for him to get to the podium. Is that because it was a really long meeting with him?

DD: Like I said, we want things to be clear, and we took longer with him to make sure that he understood.

EE: When you hear Kotkaniemi say he feels his development could’ve been handled a bit better, what do you take from that as someone who was directly involved in his development?

DD: I think Marc talked about it, too, but did he play with us too early? Maybe he should’ve gone back. We had clear communication with him, like with everyone else, and I like KK.

I think a young player takes time. It’s also part of a player’s growth to face adversity, and they just have to handle it the right way and learn from it.

Every young player — every player, really — also needs to be able to evaluate himself. They have to know how to use their tools to be effective against the best players in the world, and it might be different than it was in junior, in the AHL, or in Europe. How you’re going to be able to use those tools the right way to be effective against the best players in the world is one of the big things about becoming a mature player. Evaluating yourself is part of that because if you cannot see and feel how you’re going to have success or why you’re not having success, you’re going to have a hard time having success.

We work on that with all our players, and it was the same thing with KK.

EE: Whether or not you feel what he said is valid, he said it. How do you ensure a player like Alex Romanov or Nick Suzuki or Cole Caufield doesn’t say it in a year from now? Is there a self-reflection necessary to ensure you don’t end up in the same situation with one of those players?

DD: I have worked with many young players at different levels and I won’t change the way I work with players. I think we have some pretty good young players who have become good players in the pros, and I’ll keep doing the same thing.

Every individual is different and there’s always a part of it that belongs to each player.

I will say, I’ve never heard of a player arriving too late in the league but sometimes players arrive too early in the league. So, it’s all that we need to keep in mind.

Also, sometimes you hurt a young player by continuing to put him back on the ice. At one point, he hurts himself and the team and, in the NHL, you want to win games. Sometimes you need to take a young player out and let him take a step back knowing he’s going to come back better after.

At what point do you stop a guy from banging his head? If he keeps banging it, he’s going to break it. You have to let him heal and then go back.

We have patience, and the player needs to understand that this is part of the growth process. And I take my time, every time, to explain things. If I need to take 30 minutes or an hour a day to make sure a player understands, I’ll do it. But the player also needs to be able to see it for themselves and grow up.

EE: What about your own personal growth? Coaches like to get together in the off-season and exchange ideas. Did you partake in any of that?

DD: There was no summer. We were pretty busy hiring coaches. There was the draft, the expansion draft, free agency ... though I do like to be involved and talk with everyone and be part of those different situations.

It made me grow as a coach in junior just to be part of Hockey Canada and working with different guys.

In 2016, I remember going with the World Cup coaches — Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville, Barry Trotz and Bill Peters — and participating in their meetings. I took a lot away from that.

I do like to exchange ideas with different coaches, even at different levels. The game isn’t that different, even if the players at levels are.

EE: What was the biggest thing you took from that experience at the World Cup?

The little details of the game they focused on.

At the same time, it gave me confidence because I was looking at what I was doing while everyone was presenting what they were doing, and it made me feel like we were speaking the same language. Not that we were doing everything exactly the same, but I could see that I knew what I was doing. It gave me confidence because I felt like what I was doing made sense.

EE: Who do you look up to in the coaching fraternity? When I look at your close-support system of play, we used to call it having five guys in the picture at all times. Ken Hitchcock hockey. Jacques Martin hockey.

DD: I have a lot of respect for many guys: Barry Trotz, Joel Quenneville. I sat down often with Babcock. I’m not doing exactly what he was doing, but I like to take pieces from him.

When I was a player, I had many coaches, and I’ve taken some of the things I liked from them and stayed away from some of the things I didn’t like. But you have to be yourself.

When you talk about Hitchcock or Jacques, I wouldn’t say our systems are the exact same. But there’s a philosophy that’s probably similar.

I always say I don’t want us to be playing one-on-ones; we want to be a team. We want to be creating two-on-ones everywhere on the ice. We want to be supporting the puck when we have it, and we want to be creating odd-man situation when we don’t have it so we’re the ones surrounding the puck carrier.

I use this with the guys at times: If you’re walking down the street and your partner gets jumped by a guy, you’re not just going to walk away. You get in, defend him and get the guy away. We play with that street fight mentality.

EE: One guy you won’t have is Weber. We know he was here last week getting checked out physically. Do you have clarity yet from the league on his situation? Will he be permitted to be placed on LTIR?

DD: As a coach, I don’t expect him to be back. On those technicalities, I don’t think there is a problem. But I haven’t heard anything.

EE: Are you going to have a captain this year?

DD: No.

EE: How come?

DD: He’s injured. And we want to take our time with that. We feel that nobody can replace Shea by themselves. We want to put that on the whole group and have everyone rise to it. When the time comes, we’ll adjust.

EE: Are you leaving that open with the hope that inevitably Shea can come back and continue to be your captain?

DD: For me, it would be a surprise this year. And then after that it’s a tough call. But we know we don’t expect him to be back this year. We’ll see after.

EE: You won’t have Shea, but one player you will have is Drouin. He opened up about his situation, he looks healthy, confident and ready. How can you put him in a position to be successful right away and continue that good feeling? How can you put him in a position to be the best version of himself? Because the best version of himself could make a huge difference for your team.

DD: It can be a great addition for us. We finished the year without him, and it can be almost be seen as signing a free agent.

I think it’s in Jo’s hands. He knows what I expect from him on the ice. If you look back at last year, there was a point where he was playing really good hockey for us but wasn’t scoring. And I think he played some of the best hockey of his career for 10-15 games (shortly after Ducharme took over), but then things went south a bit.

He knows what to expect. It’s not a matter of who he’s going to be playing with; it’s just a matter of him playing. I don’t see anything else I can do differently. He knows everything we want to do, he knows the system and the players, he’s in control of things himself.

I’m confident that he’s going to have a good start. His challenge is to be consistent over 82 games. We’ve seen him do it at parts. We talked about last year, and the year before he was really good until he got injured.

EE: Do you have to treat him differently knowing what he’s been through?

DD: No. It’s just when we talk about knowing our players, I know him, I know when he’s feeling well or not. But today I have a better understanding of everything. At one point, even he couldn’t say to himself what it was.

But I won’t treat him differently. I’m just aware of it now and I know what it is and, if we can, we’ll help him out through that.

We talked before about how when a player can’t evaluate himself and know how to use his tools, he can’t progress a player. I think as a person, it’s the same thing.

Now Jo is a person who understands himself better. He figured out things, sat down with people and worked on himself. He knows himself better, and he’s going to be able to handle those problems. He’s better equipped to handle that type of adversity.

EE: Let’s talk about Mike Hoffman. He comes here with an established record of scoring goals, and not many players have done as much of it as he has over the last number of years. But he also comes here with a reputation of not doing much else at five-on-five or defensively. Have you had conversations with Mike about how you guys can maybe change that together?

DD: We talked about our style of play. If he’s here, it’s because we think he can buy into that and do it. And doing that is just about engagement and being willing to do it.

Obviously, we’ve talked. I’ve talked with all the new guys, and they’re aware of that and know what it is even before we start because it was important for us to let them know our expectations.

So, those guys know, and I’m very confident Mike is going to jump into that and show that he’s more than just a goal scorer. We need his goal scoring touch, but I think he’s going to buy into that team identity we have and that style of play we have.

EE: What are your expectations for Evans? He’s got a big opportunity to help account for the losses of Danault and Kotkaniemi, he could be your third-line centre.

DD: We just want him to keep getting better. He’s gotten better every year, and I think we saw him grow through last season too.

Remember at the end of last season, with Phil injured, we were fighting to secure our playoff spot, playing Edmonton, and he was the one to shadow Connor McDavid all night with Byron and Lehkonen. He did a great job. And we saw throughout the playoffs, he played left wing, right wing, middle, and played well. He’s smart, and he plays a simple, efficient game. We’re confident with him.

At the same time, it’s in the player’s hands to take that spot. Ryan Poehling had a good end of season in Laval, and Cedrik Paquette didn’t quite have the season he wished he had last year and will be looking to bounce back.

I’m confident right now those guys will step up. But Phil being gone opens the door maybe for Jake. I’m confident with him, I like him a lot, and he’s going to show us where he’s at right now.

EE: About another young centre: how much coaching does Nick Suzuki require?

DD: You still need to coach him. Everyone’s different, but you still need to coach him.

He’s really smart, but sometimes with him it’s about finding the right balance between being smart and competitive. I think when Nick starts trying to over-smart the game, he becomes less dynamic and less efficient. He doesn’t need to try to overthink the game; he’s smart and it’s right there for him.

So, when he’s on the puck, when he’s competitive, when he’s dynamic and moving his feet, he’s got the puck more. And he’s got the smarts, the hands, the skills and the vision to make things happen when he has it.

So, that’s coaching with Suzy. With other guys it’s different.

EE: All of you are facing a huge challenge to make the playoffs. There’s Tampa, Florida, Boston, Toronto in your division, and Carolina, both New Yorks, Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the conference. Ottawa and New Jersey improved significantly. How do you view the Canadiens in this competition?

DD: It’s going to be a battle every night, but we want to be better than we were last year.

I think it’s hard to evaluate the regular season last year. It was so messed up. I think we became the team we wanted to be.

It was almost impossible to be as good as we became and do it in the regular season with everything happening. I don’t know if we underperformed, but we had a vision of our team and of how we wanted to play, and we believed in ourselves and eventually got to it. What we did in the playoffs was not a surprise to us; we believed we could do it.

So, we want to take that and build on it. Obviously, we won’t start where we finished, but we’re not going to step back from it. We just want to build and build.

EE: Wrapping up, how do you intend to keep growing? Any personal goals for this season?

DD: Just want to get better, but I don’t have a goal for myself.

I have goals for our team. We want to be better than we were last year. We were three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup. It’s never easy to go to the Stanley Cup final, but you do it by controlling what you can control.

We want to control the way we play and the way we progress throughout the season. We’ll face adversity and go through ups and downs again, which is normal, but we want to go through that and make sure we’re better at the end.

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