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.
Guy Boucher (2009-10)
The potential nomination of Don Lever to the post of head coach of the Canadiens raised the spectre of the language debate once again in Montreal. Among the many variables that were discussed was the necessity to develop a strong coaching pipeline in the minors who were francophone to take the NHL job they would be aspiring toward.
One name that always made the list for journalists was Drummondville’s Guy Boucher, who also occupied the post of assistant coach for the Canada’s national U20 team. Boucher’s winning track record over 11 seasons in the QMJHL, and two seasons behind the bench of the AAA midget Lac St. Louis Lions, attracted interest from numerous NHL teams in fact, Montreal included, and Boucher became a hot commodity on the market.
Despite the attention, Boucher reciprocated the interest regarding the Hamilton job in interviews. “I’m being asked this question a lot if the Canadiens interest me. The answer is yes. [...] The challenge is intriguing because I am from Quebec. Wanting to be part of this organization, that’s something that goes way back.” (La Presse, 2009)
A week after Lever found out that he would not be returning to the organization, the Canadiens nominated Boucher for the head-coaching role in Hamilton. Boucher was a man who checked all the boxes the organization was looking for: experience, winning track record, and francophone. He was without a question the most hyped coach on the AHL farm team since Michel Therrien.
Dan Lacroix, who was released by the New York Islanders as an assistant coach, and Martin Raymond, head coach of the McGill Redmen, were named his assistants for the season.
The team conducted its training camp in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they won the Gardiner Cup, an exhibition series that also included the Toronto Marlies and two Scottish teams.
Boucher counted on several young prospects that season in his lineup, including Sergei Kostitsyn, David Desharnais, and P.K. Subban. The team would have an incredibly strong season, finishing second in the league with 115 points, which was a Canadiens farm team record. The Bulldogs also tied the Canadiens farm team record of 52 wins in a single season set by the 1976-77 Nova Scotia Voyageurs.
Boucher went on to win the AHL Coach of the Year award in his rookie season as voted on by all the coaches and journalists. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, all these recognitions served to increase Boucher’s visibility among the other NHL teams, and several came after him. He denied any talks with other teams at the Canadiens development camp in June, but a day after it was done, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that they signed him after getting permission from Canadiens general manager Pierre Boivin. Despite signing a multi-year contract in Hamilton, Boucher was gone a mere year later, taking his assistants with him.
Randy Cunneyworth (2010-11)
A few weeks after Boucher took the road to Tampa Bay, the Canadiens announced that former Atlanta Thrashers assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth was given the job of head coach of the Bulldogs. He hardly had the same pedigree as Boucher, but prior to his role with the Thrashers, he spent nine seasons as head coach of the Rochester Americans, transitioning seamlessly from a 19-year playing career. He won AHL Coach of the Year during his stint with the Americans as well, so the experience and success certainly made him a strong candidate for the role.
What his nomination didn’t address, however, was the succession plan to the Montreal Canadiens that Boucher’s had done so successfully because of the language requirement. “People have already spoken to me about the Don Lever situation, but I’m not worried about that kind of thing. I’m here to work with the Hamilton Bulldogs,” said Cunneyworth about the language problems he could encounter if he ever aspired to an NHL role within the organization. As to whether he was aiming for a job with the Canadiens down the line, he answered jokingly that “I like having a job” in terms of what ambitions he had for the future.
Whereas Boucher was adamant that he would run the farm team in his style, Cunneyworth was more than willing to copy the system of Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin, who Cunneyworth knew extremely well having played for him with the Ottawa Senators. “We will copy what Jacques does in Montreal,” said Cunneyworth to La Presse.
Martin was also familiar with Cunneyworth as a head coach since the Florida Panthers sent their prospects to Rochester. Cunneyworth was also well familiar with Pierre Gauthier, who was with the Senators as well. Familiarity was the expected formula for success.
While Boucher was much more of a strict, old-school coach, Cunneyworth knew what it was like to be on the other side of the bench, and was much more personable with the players. Max Pacioretty frequently credited Cunneyworth and his assistant Randy Ladouceur for the help they gave him in his development: “I’m not sure how to best thank them for the progress they helped me make, both physically and mentally.” (La Presse, 2011)
The Bulldogs finished first in the division that season, going on a post-season run yet again, and made the Calder Cup Semifinal for a second year in a row despite the changes behind the bench. They fell to the Houston Aeros in a seven-game series.
It was a fair conclusion to make that Cunneyworth had a successful first season behind the bench, but there would be no second season, as Cunneyworth and Ladouceur were both promoted to the Montreal Canadiens to become assistants for Jacques Martin.
Clément Jodoin (2011-12)
For a third season in a row, the prospects of the Montreal Canadiens would be dealing with a brand new head coach, although Jodoin wasn’t a stranger to the organization, having spent six seasons as assistant coach with the Habs from 1997 to 2003. Jodoin had spent the last seven seasons coaching in the QMJHL when he received a call from Pierre Gauthier offering him a job to coach the Bulldogs.
“For me, junior hockey wasn’t a purgatory. I never looked at it that way. It’s just that after all this time I wanted to coach a pro hockey team, here or in Europe. When Pierre Gauthier called me I said yes, because that’s what I was looking for.” Jodoin signed a two-year deal. Ron Wilson returned to the Bulldogs to be his assistant.
Jodoin was well appreciated by his players. “He’s a good communicator with whom we have individual meetings every ten games. He takes the time to discuss the game with the youngest prospects like me. I like his way of doing things,” said rookie Philippe Lefebvre.
The season was difficult for the Bulldogs as they dealt with several key injuries and innumerable recalls to the sinking Canadiens. “For half the season I was without my top two lines, but we work for the Canadiens, and it gave them the opportunity to get to know these players a bit better,” said Jodoin at the season-ending press conference. “There is no Plan A or Plan B here, just a Plan D — “Débrouillardise” [figuring it out] — because things change here on a daily basis.”
The 2011-12 season proved to be catastrophic for the entire organization as both the Canadiens and the Bulldogs missed the playoffs by a wide margin. It cost Pierre Gauthier his job as general manager, and it caused a purge of the coaching staffs at both levels.
Jodoin wasn’t sure whether he was still in the plans for the following season once a new general manager took over. “I love my work, it’s what I’ve done my whole life. If they liked what I did, all the better. If they didn’t, it will be someone else.”
Jodoin survived the sweeping changes, in fact earning a promotion to assistant coach for incoming head coach Michel Therrien, who returned for a second stint behind the Montreal bench.
“They’ve already worked together in the past, and Michel is very comfortable with Clément. He knows what he can bring and how hard he works,” said new general manager Marc Bergevin on the eve of the appointment of Sylvain Lefebvre taking over coaching duties in the AHL. (La Presse, 2012) “My decision to choose Sylvain to lead the Bulldogs has nothing to do with the work that Clement did last season. I chose Sylvain because I wanted a new start for the team above all else. It meant change.”