In Michel Therrien’s first go-round as the Montreal Canadiens’ head coach, I wasn’t paying much attention to hockey. After just becoming a mom, finding 10 minutes to string together to take a shower was hard enough (it's not just a cliché, I promise), never mind getting three whole hours to watch a game. It was also in the days before social media, and add to that that I was in Vancouver where one was lucky to find a monthly story on the Habs in any of the ‘papers’ (it’s how we got our news in the old days), I was admittedly almost completely unaware of what was going on with my hockey team. I had also become, along with all Habs fans, accustomed to the ho-hum news of coach firings over the years. So when Therrien got hired back and everyone was slapping their foreheads in disbelief, I wasn’t sure what the controversy was. I mean, he seemed to be doing okay, right? Winning record, making the playoffs with the previous year’s worst in the east?
Michel Therrien's vilification began in his first season, and it never ended. As tends to happen in Montreal, the criticism of the Canadiens' head coach started immediately, and has gained momentum like a mud ball rolling downhill ever since.
Imagine for a moment that I’ve been living in a cave for the last 15 years and only just emerged and found out about Twitter, and joined up and started following Canadiens’ fans. The best, right? Finally connected to Habs Nation, even from all the way over on the left coast! Finally, a way to satisfy that previously unquenchable thirst to sit and talk to people as passionate about my team as I! After 15 years of living in a cave. Oh my god. This is going to be heaven.
After spending a couple of hours on Twitter and across other media catching up, the following is what basically must be the story of what happened in May of 2012:
Geoff Molson: "Hey, Marc, come on in and have a seat. I’ve got some great news for you: you got the job."
Marc Bergevin: "No way, that’s terrific! Thanks a lot."
Molson: "I want you to start right away. You know we just had a humiliating season; we fired Jacques Martin, hired a unilingual anglophone as the interim coach, the GM traded a player in the middle of a game and didn’t even let him take the shirt on his back, we finished dead last in the east, and god bless Cunneyworth, but we need a new coach. I need you to get right on it, but I have a very specific direction I want you to go in."
Bergevin: "I’m listening."
Molson: "I need you to hire a coach who’s just okay. I would even prefer if he’s no good at all; but definitely at least someone who will never under any circumstances take us to a Stanley Cup. And I need him to pick an equally average-to-bad coaching staff. Obviously all the aforementioned need to speak French."
Molson: "A really great thing about this annus horribilis is that we are going to get like, a super early pick in the draft. Everybody laughs at us that the team is small and I figure we need a big guy at centre. Here’s my vision, okay? Listen closely. I want you to use all your talents and all your advisers to figure out the best talented future centre we’re going after on July 1. But first, and this is the most important part: appoint a coach who will ruin him. Maybe even someone ambitious, who won’t stop at only ruining the draft pick, but also removing any and all happiness from players like say, P.K. Subban. Actually, let’s write in his contract that he’ll get a nice fat bonus if he can do that. Make sure he’s a liar too, and who is content to do well in the regular season, but that’s it."
Bergevin: "Well, yeah, I mean having a good regular season and vying for the President’s Trophy has always been my dream, it’s literally all I want. I love that we’re exactly on the same page, boss. I cannot wait to get started, this is going to be awesome!"
That’s basically it, right? Because in Montreal, when it comes to the Canadiens, inexplicably, only the least sensible explanations for things we actually have very few details about are readily accepted. Only the answers that make the coaching staff and GM look bad. Only those. Period.
First and foremost, you have to applaud Michel Therrien for taking the job at all. He'd been in Montreal before, he knew what he was in for. He knew he was going to be the lightning rod for everything that went wrong with the team, facing that firing squad after every loss. After every win, he'd be the subject of criticism in how they won. He was going to be the subject of all of it, right down to what he was wearing.
Montreal, baby!! I'll bet you "Highway to Hell" is his ringtone.
Obviously the culture in Montreal begins and ends with very knowledgable hockey fans and very passionate people. And we all desperately want that next Cup. And breaking down every aspect, every scintilla of every game is part of the deliciousness of Canadiens fandom. And every one of those fans, after not winning the Stanley Cup, is smarter than the coach. In Therrien's case? Everything he does is wrong. Every decision that pays off is then a fluke (and there have been many); anything good that happened is despite his devious master plan to ruin everything. So easy to believe.
Take, say, a hugely gifted hockey player from another gigantic Canadian hockey market. Horrible season, both for him and the team. The media descends on him and basically mercilessly, and cruelly annihilates him. Poor guy, we felt absolutely terrible for him and cheered when he got traded and we all want the best for him, right?
But in Montreal, it can be mentioned on the radio that a player doesn't want to play the position he was drafted to play. Simply doesn't want to. Far less quietly, it's trumpeted in the media many months later when the coach himself confirms it to the press. The player denies it. The coach is a liar, obviously. Pants instantly on fire.
The coach can be maligned in all media; called terrible, a liar, and a player-ruiner. After finishing second-overall last season and having reached the eastern conference final the previous year; and in the middle of a playoff run, people still called for his firing to hire a different, available coach. But we are very cool with that. No suggestions of character defamation here.
When the GM commits the crime of defending his coach’s record and points out how much he has done with and for the team, the GM instantly becomes satisfied with only having a decent regular season. His only goal is maybe making the playoffs. Second overall, who cares about second overall? Regular season. Who cares about the regular season? (By the way we don’t care about the regular season but the Habs had better win every damned game or we will unleash hell. Hell!)
Stop and think about what I mentioned earlier. That last season before Bergevin and Therrien. The Habs had become a joke. The most storied franchise in the NHL had become something to snicker at. Look where we are now. The Canadiens are respected, even by Toronto media. They are a serious part of every playoff conversation. Remember how we felt in 2012? Now, we lose our minds after not winning the Stanley Cup. Because it's now a reasonable expectation, and has come to be so with Therrien as the team's head coach.
When P.K. Subban received his second Norris Trophy nomination under Michel Therrien, unbidden, he praised both the coach and GM getting him to that point. That they had a vision for him and as a result he has found a lot of success.
Q: "You improved your defensive game this year. Because of that, are you a little bit more proud of this nomination?"
"I don’t play hockey to please people in the media or the critics. Everybody has a label, in terms of what type of player they are; that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. The one thing that I do know is that since Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien have taken over the team, my game’s only gone up. They’ve worked really hard with me to improve my game all around, and I think, the number one thing is when I met with them, when I first started playing for Michel a couple years back, the first thing they said is, you’re a good player, but we want to make you an even better player. Our job is to make sure that you’re getting better every year, and every game. You know, there’s been no shortage of them holding me accountable, and that’s the way I want it to be. Every night whether I’d make a mistake or I haven’t played my best game, they’re always going to hold me accountable, whether it’s in front of the team, or individually. To me, that’s made me a better player. As much as people are going to congratulate me, it’s team success, and ourselves as an organization, that has helped us individually; myself, and guys like Carey and guys who are up for awards. So I have to thank the organization a lot for that."
Come on! Like he was going to say anything different. He’s literally paid to say those things. He’s P.K.! Michel Therrien is in no way responsible for P.K. Subban’s success.
Except that he wasn’t asked about Michel Therrien. And whether you don’t like the style Subban is asked to play, again, he had his second individual nomination in three seasons. Playing under Michel Therrien. He thinks he’s better.
And you know what other superstar Michel Therrien is in no way responsible for? Sidney Crosby, who had tremendously similar things to say about Michel Therrien when asked in 2013, and painted almost the exact same first-meeting scenario as Subban. Interestingly, Crosby was not on the Canadiens’ payroll. He wasn’t ‘literally paid’ to say those things.
For me a key moment in defining Michel Therrien came in the Tampa series last May. After the Habs had lost Game 3 in a sickening, stunning, gut-wrenching manner in the final second of a tie game. During the post-game, Therrien was emphatic in his praise of his team's play - they had outplayed and out-hustled Tampa and simply did not deserve to lose that game - and emphatic in his refusal to point fingers at any of his players for the loss.
The following day, in the back-to-back scenario, prior to the game, he was loose when facing the media. Like, loose, man. Know who else was loose? Tampa. Coach Cooper was shown walking into the arena before the game, strutting like Tony Manero carrying paint cans through Brooklyn. The Lightning, waiting to take the ice, were all high-fiving, nodding and dancing to imaginary music like they were just waiting for the 60 minutes to be over so they could head home to relax before the Eastern Conference final.
And the Canadiens smoked them. Smoked them. At one point, they were leading 5-0. Ben Bishop got yanked. The Canadiens won 6-2. But after the game, the chatter was that there had to have been a mutiny, and the team had won in defiance of their coach. Blame for everything, credit for nothing. I've never particularly understood the "You can't win for losing," saying, but if there's a "You can't win for winning" tee-shirt, I am pret-ty sure Michel Therrien's face is on it.
Therrien also hinders the development of young players? Crosby received an A on his jersey when he was 18. Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk have developed very well under him in Montreal. To suggest that his coaching played no part in the development of players like Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty, Subban, Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin who all played three seasons under Michel Therrien while developing, is simply obtuse.
Sounds to me like these stars thrive on accountability and being tested. Remember when Pacioretty wanted to stay in the AHL and play meaningful minutes? To develop into a competitive, successful athlete you have to have the mental fortitude; this is true across all levels of sport. Nathan Beaulieu, for example, another player ‘wasted' by Michel Therrien, seems to keenly understand this and has spoken very eloquently about it. As Bergevin likes to say, defencemen take longer to develop. And unless Beaulieu is another terrific liar, I’d say he really believes in the process.
P.K. Subban has said every player in that room needs to be a leader. Players, look to your leaders and do as they do. The leaders in the dressing room have bought in to what Therrien's selling. They're paid to? Guess what: they're all paid to. You want your coach to play you? Play good hockey. Take your assignments and be a pro.
No, I don't think Michel Therrien walks on water. I do not "love" Michel Therrien, but I support him.The reason I support him is, first, because he coaches my favourite team; second, because his results have been a lot better that most other coaches in the NHL since his return to Montreal, and third, because the amount of invective directed at him (and his 'favourites') is, in my opinion, fascinating and exasperating. Wow, that came out nice. Fascinating and exasperating.
Is it time to lay off and let the man do his job? Uh, yeah. It was a long time ago. That will never happen. However, it really doesn't matter, because he's going to do his job anyway, as he has done since returning to Montreal, ignoring all of the incessant criticism as he goes along.
The Canadiens hired Craig Ramsay in the offseason, presumably to address the power play, which is barely clinging to life support at this stage. They have also added a couple of talented players in Zack Kassian and Alexander Semin. Gifted players who come with a lot of baggage and have something to prove. There's no question Marc Bergevin acquired these two after doing his homework on them. I say this has to be a show of confidence in his coach ... perhaps it's even a test.
I know there is a pat and ready retort to any flowers thrown Michel Therrien’s way. The fact of the matter is, all those facts that sound like excuses and complacency are just that; facts. The winning record. Consecutive playoff appearances. Trophy nominations for players. Coaching players who find success. This year Therrien coached a hell of a playoffs. They don’t play playoff-style hockey because they don’t want to win in the playoffs. Do you want the Habs to win the Cup? Of course. Do I want the Habs to win the Cup? Hell yes.
Do the Montreal Canadiens’ coach and GM want to win the Stanley Cup? Can you seriously answer ‘no’ with a straight face? Are you seeing so much red that you can't see anything else? The forest for the trees? The big picture?
The first goal is to make the playoffs. It always has to be. But is making the playoffs the only goal? Please. Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien know that this is no longer a transition team. They're telling us things that are thinly veiled, "calm yourself!" comments, but they know. The Montreal Canadiens are not listening to us. The Montreal Canadiens are not going to change their style or anything about themselves to appease the peanut gallery.
And if they change anything, it won't be because they've been checking Twitter.
And, of course, 'calming oneself' is not exactly a traditional trait for a fanatic who's waited a lifetime for #25.