Sylvain Lefebvre was recently relieved of his coaching duties as 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 that stood behind the bench of the minor-league club and who were responsible for guiding the next generation of Habs players in their first forays into the world of professional hockey.
Don Lever (2005-2009)
When hockey resumed for the 2005-06 season, Doug Jarvis finally found himself behind the Canadiens bench. Replacing him was 1990-91 AHL Rochester Americans coach of the year, Don Lever. Ron Wilson would again assume the assistant coaching role after not receiving the promised role of head coach after all. “I look forward to returning behind the bench and see after the development of young players” said Lever at the time of his appointment.
Right off the bat in his first training camp, Lever was not making friends with the players. Tryout forward Mathieu Melanson had some harsh words for the coaching staff, “The people in Hamilton thought that I came to live the AHL experience, but I showed up with the intention of earning a spot,” he explained to Le Soleil. “When Don Lever met up with me before I left he told me that my skating was not to the level. I wonder how he was able to come to that conclusion since I only had 15 shifts in the two games I took part in. Plus they made me play centre, a position that I am not familiar with. I remain confident that I can play with the pros, but nobody seemed to want to throw me a bone here. It was clear that the decision was already made even before I arrived there.”
In the end, Lever was right since the highest level that Melanson played was the ECHL with only a small AHL tryout. But a frustrated tryout was the smallest of Lever’s problems that season. He had the mandate of getting first-round pick Andrei Kostitsyn ready for the NHL, which was a difficult task. “He’s improved his defensive play. He was pretty rough at the start of the season, which explained his plus/minus stat, but he has steadily improved since then. His offensive game however is disappointing. It’s going to be a long process in his case.” Kostitsyn would take three seasons of development at the AHL level to eventually graduate full time to the NHL.
Lever was head coach of the Bulldogs for nearly four full seasons. Complete seasons book-ended by a lack of playoff participation, the first time the Canadiens farm team missed the playoffs in two of three seasons since the Houston Apollo days. The 2006-07 season is the season that will be remembered best as it’s the year that a young Carey Price dragged the Bulldogs all the way to a Calder Cup victory. It was CBC’s Bob Cole, Lever’s neighbour at the time, who made it known that Lever was fuming at Montreal’s decision to play Price in the playoffs. “He was not happy. He was saying that the Canadiens were forcing him to play a youngster. Today he certainly changed his tune.”
The following season Julien Brisebois was named general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs. Up until then, Bob Gainey was acting as dual general manager. Lever and Wilson earned multi-year extensions, but with an ominous option for termination at the end of the 2008-09 season.
Lever would not complete his fourth season behind the Bulldogs bench because Gainey decided to fire Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau in March of 2009 and name himself head coach in the interim. In doing so, he promoted Lever to assistant coach of the Canadiens where he joined a coaching staff that included Kirk Muller, Roland Melanson and Lever’s predecessor in Hamilton, Doug Jarvis.
Rumours started flying that Lever was next in line to take over the head coaching job in Montreal, especially since many players on the Habs were coached by Lever during their Bulldog days and knew his style well. “It’s not always fun to hear, but Lever will always tell you how it is,” said Maxim Lapierre who played under Lever in Hamilton. “If he asks you at the start of a game if you’re sick or if you’re simply dragging your feet you know exactly what he’s getting at. But in the second period he could tap you on the back and say that you were giving what he was expecting from you.”
Whether it was language concerns or not, Gainey eventually turned towards Florida Panthers General Manager Jacques Martin to lead the Canadiens for the 2009-10 season while Lever was fired “without even being given a reason” by Gainey at the conclusion of the season.
Lever, who’s currently a pro scout for the Chicago Blackhawks, would be the last multi-year Bulldogs coach for the foreseeable future, as the Canadiens farm team would be plagued with short-term vision and a lack of stability until Marc Bergevin became general manager four seasons later.
Ron Wilson (2008-2009)
It’s quite unusual for a team to change head coaches in the final month of the season but that’s exactly what happened. Carbonneau was fired, Lever was promoted and Wilson became the Bulldogs head coach after five seasons of being their assistant coach. He finally had the opportunity that got away from him when the NHL cancelled the 2004-05 season and Jarvis stayed on as head coach. Sergio Momesso, who was working at the time as a player development consultant with the Canadiens, was named Wilson’s new assistant.
Hard to say that Wilson had a fair shake at coaching the team since he was basically given six weeks to prepare his team for the playoffs. Nonetheless, he successfully coached the team to a 10-3-2-0 record to finish off the season. Hamilton’s path through the playoffs ended abruptly, as they would lose to the Grand Rapid Griffins in six games of the first round. Wilson was fired over the phone by Gainey following the season as Gainey decided to guy his entire coaching staff which included the termination of Lever, Jarvis and Melanson.