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.
Claude Julien (AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, 2002-03)
Julien was appointed head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2000 by the Edmonton Oilers, the NHL team with which they were affiliated at the time. Julien brought with him a Memorial Cup victory from 1997 with the Hull Olympiques and a silver medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship.
When the Canadiens’ affiliation with the Quebec Citadelles fell apart in 2002, they were forced to partner with the Oilers very late into the off-season, and for the first time Montreal did not have a farm team of its own. Julien remained as head coach, and became the first head coach developing Canadiens prospects who was not hired by the organization.
Julien understood the sensitivity of a dual affiliation, but was level-headed about how he would approach it. “We won’t be necessarily forming lines with players from the same parent club. We will go with those players that complement each other the best. It’s important to build a team that has good chemistry. In Hamilton there will be one team, not two. I consider myself an honest coach, and players will be evaluated based on merit.” (La Presse, 2002)
Julien was liked by all his players, especially since the team went on an unbelievable tear to start the season. “Everyone says it: he’s doing some remarkable work,” said Bulldogs forward Mariusz Czerkawski. “He can count on good players, sure, but you have to know how to bring everyone together, especially given that they come from two different organizations. It’s not an easy job with all the last-minute recalls by both clubs. He prepares us well.”
“He’s the primary reason of the success of this team,” said Mike Ribeiro. “He controls the situation, everything is well structured, and the players play according to his system. His strength though is that he’s earned everyone’s respect. It starts from there.”
Julien was leading the Bulldogs to a remarkable record of 33-6-3-3 that season when Canadiens general manager André Savard decided to fire head coach Michel Therrien. Savard approached Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe to trade for Julien’s contract, offering a conditional fifth-round draft pick in 2003 in return.
“I like to consider myself a coach who is able to sell his system to the players,” said Julien at his first press conference as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
Geoff Ward (AHL Hamilton Bulldogs, 2002-03)
Julien’s assistant with the Bulldogs, Geoff Ward was initially named interim coach upon Julien’s departure, but within two weeks was named full-time coach until the end of the season. Ward’s first game as the helm was unfortunately the first time in 26 games that the Bulldogs didn’t earn at least a point as they were riding a massive points streak to go with their strong start.
Perhaps Ward’s biggest challenge in his time as head coach was managing the sensibility of veteran forward Donald Audette who was demoted to the AHL for his poor performances at the NHL level. Audette played 11 games with the Bulldogs in February, scoring five goals, and adding five assists in that time. “It went really well in Hamilton. I rediscovered the joy of playing again,” said Audette after being called back up to Montreal. “We had a good team and the coach rebuilt my confidence, but I am happy to return to Montreal.”
Despite only coaching for a partial season, Ward won AHL Coach of the Year, sharing the award with Julien for a remarkable Bulldogs season. The team finished with a 49-19-8-4 record, losing in the Calder Cup Final.
Starting with the 2003-04 season, the Bulldogs would become exclusively a Canadiens affiliate, and therefore Ward would not continue on as head coach since he was tied contractually with the Oilers. He went on to coach their farm team for another two seasons before finding a position as an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins. He is currently with the New Jersey Devils as an assistant coach.
Doug Jarvis (2003-2005)
As the Canadiens gained full affiliation of the Bulldogs for the 2003-04 season, new general manager Bob Gainey took over an organization on the rise thanks to the steady hands of Savard. As a result, the Canadiens got to appoint their own head coach, and Gainey chose a close friend, Doug Jarvis, who previously worked with Gainey on the Dallas Stars as an assistant coach. Ron Wilson was named his assistant.
It was supposed to only be a one-year assignment, with Jarvis expecting to be called up to Montreal to become an assistant to Julien, while Wilson would take over the Bulldogs for the 2004-05 NHL season. But the start of season was delayed by an NHL lockout, and eventually cancelled outright, and the call-up had to wait.
Instead it was Julien and Roland Melanson who began coming to Hamilton regularly to work with Jarvis. “I would have never expected to need to spend the entire season in Hamilton,” said Jarvis. “I really thought that the work stoppage was going to get resolved sooner or later.”
“The longer the conflict goes on, the more this situation becomes problematic,” said Gainey. “To have a head coach leave his team at this point of the season would not be ideal.” The cancelled season solved Gainey’s problem for him.
Jarvis would join the Canadiens as an assistant coach the following season.