Sylvain Lefebvre was recently relieved of his coaching duties at the head of the Laval Rocket, the American Hockey League farm team of the Montreal Canadiens. While the announcement of his replacement is pending, it’s an opportune time to take a look back at the history of the coaches behind the bench of the minor-league club, responsible for guiding the next generation of Canadiens players in their first forays into the world of professional hockey.
Paulin Bordeleau (AHL Fredericton Canadiens, 1990-1997)
Paul Bordeleau was rumoured to be taking over the coaching position in Chicoutimi before being announced by Montreal Canadien General Manager Serge Savard as the new head coach of the Fredericton Canadiens, signing a two-year deal.
Bordeleau was a player-coach for five seasons in France, winning the championship three times, before returning to North America to win the QMJHL championship in 1989 with the Laval Titan, and he took over mid-season in Halifax to coach the Quebec Nordiques AHL farm team in 1989-90. The Nordiques organization decided against extending his contract however, replacing him with Clement Jodoin. Bordeleau was happy that the Canadiens then contacted him: “I am very happy that the Canadiens organization gave me the opportunity to continue my coaching career, and to extend my experience in the AHL,” said Bordeleau upon his appointment. “I like working with the prospects because they represent the future of the business. My primary objective will be to develop the future stars of the organization, in the pure tradition of the Canadiens.” (La Presse, 1990)
Recent coaching history would have bet against him, but Bordeleau became the longest serving head coach of the farm team since Al McNeil, although he didn’t manage to have the same level of success, only going as high as attaining the finals once in 1995, only to get swept in four games by the Albany River Rats.
Bordeleau had a good relationship with Serge Savard and his assistant Andre Boudrias, and carried on with new general manager Rejean Houle who promoted him to general manager of Fredericton upon his arrival since Boudrias was part of the mass upper management purge of 1995.
Houle was quite satisfied with the work that Bordeleau did, praising him in 1996 when Montreal was dealing with lots of injuries, and a bevy of call-ups had to be made from Fredericton: “You have to recognize the good work that Paulin is doing in Fredericton. David Wilkie, Rory Fitzpatrick, Scott Fraser, and Chris Murray have all shown that they are ready for the NHL. We also had a chance to see other prospects come through to lend us a hand.” (La Presse)
One of the prospects that had a hard time sticking in Montreal was Paulin’s son Sebastien Bordeleau. Whether that began to create friction between Bordeleau senior and Houle is not certain, but there was certainly animosity in place when Bordeleau decided that he would put on the Fredericton uniform and play for the team because he was short on players due to significant injuries throughout the organization. Bordeleau was retired for almost ten years at that point, and played without the blessing of Houle. “We were laughed at” were the foreboding words of Houle after the fact.
After seven seasons as head coach in Fredericton, Bordeleau would learn of his imminent departure from the newspapers. General Manager Rejean Houle was refusing to confirm anything, but it had already leaked that Bordeleau’s contract would not be renewed, and that Michel Therrien, head coach of the Granby Predators were going to be offered the position. It was new Montreal head coach Alain Vigneault who ultimately decided that the existing assistant coaches and minor league coaches did not meet his requirements. Gone on the same day were Jacques Laperriere, Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, and Bordeleau himself.
After finishing up with the Canadiens, Bordeleau returned to Laval to coach the Titan for one final season before earning a call to the show to coach the Tampa Bay Lightning for one year.
Michel Therrien (AHL Fredericton Canadiens, 1997-1999, AHL Quebec Citadelles, 1999-2000)
“Michel Therrien is a winner who developed some young players. He’s a coach who puts together great game-plans, as evidence by his winning record in four seasons.” said Houle. “It was time for him to experience professional hockey.” (La Presse, 1997)
Therrien mentioned that when he was approached by the Canadiens that he did not consider one of the assistant coaching positions in Montreal (eventually going to Clement Jodoin and Dave King), and that being a head coach in the AHL was part of his development plan to eventually coach in the NHL.
“Learning to win, that’s part of development of a player. Our mission is simple: we want to bring winners into the Canadiens organization. In Quebec, just as in Fredericton, winning is the most important thing. In order to do that we need to have a quality team, formed of veterans capable of helping the younger guys.” As to whether he treats the AHL just as a development league: “You should see me when I lose”. (Le Soleil, 2000)
As a former undrafted player, Therrien kicked and scraped his way up into the Nova Scotia Voyageurs and Sherbrooke Canadiens’ line-ups, so that’s what influenced his mentality of which players deserved praise, and which deserved scorn. One of the players who followed Therrien throughout was Francis Bouillon. The two developed a close friendship, and Bouillon always credited Therrien for first giving him a chance in junior hockey, then in the AHL, and finally in the NHL.
In his first season in Fredericton, Therrien had six Los Angeles Kings prospects to also balance among his other prospects, as the Canadiens farm team began sharing its affiliate. That was all supposed to get resolved when the Canadiens partnered with the new Quebec Citadelles in 1999 bringing the affiliate to Quebec. Raymond Bolduc was named the general manager of the Citadelles, and the relationship started off harmoniously.
The Citadelles finished first in the Atlantic division in their inaugural season, which was a promising start, but were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Peter Laviolette’s Providence Bruins.
Therrien wouldn’t get another crack at the Calder Cup however as the following season Rejean Houle and Alain Vigneault were fired by the Montreal Canadiens, and he was called up to take over the big club, becoming the third Canadiens coach, after Al MacNeil and Pat Burns, to directly get promoted from the farm team to the grand club.
Eric Lavigne (AHL Quebec Citadelles, 2000-2002)
Lavigne first joined the Citadelles as Therrien’s assistant for the 1999-2000 season, leaving the University de Quebec à Trois-Rivieres after coaching there for three years. When Therrien was promoted to head coach of the Canadiens in the fallout of the November 2000, incoming General Manager Andre Savard promoted Therrien’s assistant to the head coaching position in Quebec.
It’s interesting to note that Lavigne may not have been everyone’s ideal choice. As per the agreement with the Quebec Citadelles, the AHL General Manager Raymond Bolduc and the NHL General Manager Andre Savard each had equal say who the coach should be. Savard ideally wanted Clement Jodoin to take the role, while Bolduc was open to suggestions “We will think about it, that’s for sure. It could be happening too fast in his coaching development. Either way we have to come to an agreement with Montreal,” said Bolduc (Le Soleil, 2000)
Lavigne it was.
The relationship between the Citadelles and the Canadiens deteriorated under the new management in Montreal. The Canadiens were more likely to keep prospects like Francis Bouillon and Stephane Robidas as healthy scratches rather than send them down to the farm team which was a contentious issue with Quebec, while Montreal accused them of not understanding what their role as an affiliate was. The partnership became toxic.
“Odds are very high that we will be splitting a farm team next season somewhere else. If I don’t have a team, I don’t have a coaching job to offer Eric Lavigne. He’s a hard worker and knows the job. I can’t stop him from moving on,” said Savard (La Presse, 2002).
The owners of the Quebec Citadelles presented Lavigne with the opportunity to coach the Quebec Remparts, who would have been hard pressed to turn down the opportunity to simply change the logo of the team he was coaching, without even have to change offices at the Colisee in Quebec.
“I would be taking a huge risk if I waited for the farm team situation to clear up. I have the option right now of choosing the Remparts, which is more than can be said about my assistant Donald Dufresne who is facing the unknown. I was ready to move with the Habs farm team.” said Lavigne (Le Soleil, 2002)
Lavigne would go on to coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the next ten seasons, never attaining a position in professional hockey again.