When Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin rolled into town in 2012 to return Les Glorieux to their former glory, the endgame was clear: Stanley Cup or bust.
From the start, Therrien’s hiring was met with skepticism throughout the fanbase. We’d all lived through Therrien’s previous version of the Canadiens; we steeled ourselves for angry outbursts behind the bench and biting remarks in post-game press conferences. But that was never what we got.
Instead, the Canadiens were treated to an older, wise, and yes, calmer Michel Therrien. In fact, the only times we saw him break his new, cool demeanour was when he felt the need to defend his players from constant scrutiny.
It was a new look for Therrien, he of that infamous post-game video in Pittsburgh, where he was the one calling out his team. But in January of 2016, as the Canadiens season was starting to crumble, Therrien took exception to crowds booing and media questioning the professionalism of the players on his team. In a post-game press conference, Therrien was emphatic in his defense of his team: “I’ve had enough that people are criticizing these guys, because, you know what, their work ethic is outstanding. [...] Execution, is it there all the time? Probably not, like all teams and all players. But those guys don’t deserve to get criticized with their effort.”
It was shortly after this that Marc Bergevin took the opportunity to back up his coach in a similar manner. He applauded his effort, telling the Montreal media that “Michel knows he has to make players better and he works at it every day.”
The players supported Therrien during the tough times as well. The team was in an unprecedented free fall, every player at risk for the mental stress and strain that accompanies such a thing in the fishbowl of Montreal hockey. But captain Max Pacioretty took the time to come to his coach’s defence, praising “how positive he’s been with us. Night after night, we haven’t been able to step up for him and that’s frustrating because we all believe in this room; we’re all on board.” Spoken like a true captain. But even before his captaincy, Pacioretty took care in interviews to note the impact of Therrien as his coach. Lamenting his own poor play at one point, Pacioretty explained the impact of his coach’s confidence in him.
“We’ve grown such a strong relationship, he knows I always have the right intentions for the team.” In fact, Pacioretty claims “he knew I had this whole other gear in myself that I didn’t even know existed,” detailing how Therrien would ask him to tweak simple things to improve upon successes he had already gained, including adding more defensive play.
The move demonstrated Therrien’s effectiveness in reading his players and what they needed to be successful, both in skilled work on the ice and as human beings playing a team sport in a stressful market. In response to Therrien’s coaching, Pacioretty was adament about its impact. “I can’t even explain how much better I feel about myself out there, as a teammate and as a player.”
And Pacioretty took care to clear public perception. “He’s so demanding that maybe it’s hard for people to understand. The fact that he demands so much from us elevates our game to a level where everybody’s having career years under him.” One doesn’t have to look far to note the contributions of players like Dale Weise and Paul Byron who have excelled well beyond expectation under Therrien’s tutelage.
“He demands the most out of every player out there. In this market, it’s exactly what you need.” That demand for the best only works, however, when a coach has worked for and received the respect of every player on the team.
That respect seemed to be a two-way street for Therrien and his players. Dale Weise noted that Therrien “made me earn everything that I had.” Echoing Pacioretty’s sentiments on Therrien’s coaching style, he said that “he’ll tell you some stuff you probably don't want to hear but sometimes that probably motivated me and played in my favour, and I think he knew that.” Again, players note a coach who tried to understand his players, and what would motivate them in order to push them even further.
Brendan Gallagher has also noted Therrien’s impact on his game, that he “had done a really good job of teaching me the game and making me learn every single year and earn my ice time.” A common thread emerges of Therrien asking his players to be respectful of each other and the game.
Many pointed to Therrien’s supposed inability to adapt his style as what led to his firing in Montreal. But each season began with Therrien adjusting minutely with his players and his system. The biggest adjustment, perhaps, came this season following the Canadiens’ historic fall in the standings last year. He believed that “the better surrounded you are, the better you are” and so he sought the help of associate coach Kirk Muller to provide strength in the coaching where Therrien had identified his weaknesses.
Largely criticized as a “dump and chase” coach, the Canadiens ranked near the top of the league in shot control stats when the bye week began.
And though the ultimate goal was not reached with Therrien at the helm, the team consistently found success. In fact, last season was the first time in his career as an NHL coach that Michel Therrien’s team did not advance to the post-season. Therrien ranks fourth all-time in games coached for the Canadiens, behind just Toe Blake, Dick Irvin, and Scotty Bowman. Over those games coached, he accomplished a 0.567 points percentage. Therrien found success behind the Habs bench.
Regardless of that, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Therrien showed us he was fully engaged in this team and these players. He cared. Montreal is not an easy market in which to play or to coach, with every play and every decision under a microscope. He told Eric Engels that “it’s tough to be disconnected in this market.” But he also made sure to note “I’m so passionate about my team.” And as Therrien told Arpon Basu at the All-Star game a short time ago, “I love coaching in this market. It’s my home, [...] I love the Canadiens organization, [...] I grew up a Canadiens fan.”
That passion and that success, it seems, could take him only so far, though, and with the team experiencing a mid-season stumble yet again, Bergevin decided his team was in need of a boost that could only come from a new perspective.
As Therrien said just a few short weeks ago, “if there’s a guy out there who’s going to make us better, we’ll go after him.” Marc Bergevin did just that.
Thank you, Michel, for giving the Canadiens your best effort for the past five years, for demanding the best effort from your team on a nightly basis, for being gracious in a market that demands perfection, and, most of all, for caring about the team we care so much about too.