In the span of six seasons, the Montreal Canadiens went from Claude Ruel’s precarious grasp of power to a team of coaches that included two assistant coaches and a goaltending coach, allowing the Canadiens to catch up to the rest of the league who was using the multiple coach model for years.
There was one innovation left for the Canadiens to conquer, and that was to have a full working contingent of coaches behind the bench.
But it would have to wait.
Jean Perron, the new head coach of the Canadiens, decided to only go with a single assistant coach in Jacques Laperrière who has, by this point, essentially established himself as the ultimate second with no ambition to be first.
“Before hiring another assistant, I want to get to know all the personnel already in place. This is my coaching philosophy and it’s the way I have always worked in hockey,” explained Perron on his decision. “There is no urgency in finding another assistant. If I need advice, there is plenty to be had on the ‘second floor’,” he said, referring to Serge Savard, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur, and Jean Béliveau who were among the retired players that had settled into hockey operations jobs within the organization. “It’s possible that I will hire someone later in the season, around December. But to start, I don’t plan on having anyone other than Laperrière. I don’t want Lafleur or Steve Shutt, or any other assistant for now.”
Perron would in fact remain with just Laperrière for an assistant for the duration of his tenure as head coach.
You would have to fast forward to the 1990-91 season for the Canadiens to once again have a second assistant coach, this time under head coach Pat Burns during his third season behind the Habs bench. Former right-hand man of Michel Bergeron with the Quebec Nordiques, Charles Thiffault, was hired by the Canadiens on a two-year contract to focus solely on repairing the team’s woeful power play, which was dead last in the NHL the previous season.
“The job of a head coach in the NHL is more and more sophisticated and requires more time,” explained Burns. “After each game I need to spend time with the media, which left Jacques (Laperriere) alone with the team”.
If Lemaire changed the way players warmed up before a game, and Perron added flexibility and stretching to practices, then Thiffault pioneered tactical training and preparing game plans specific to an opponent.
When Burns was fired and Jacques Demers was hired to replace him as head coach for the 1992-93 season, Thiffault and Laperrière remained, as did goaltending coach Francois Allaire. For the 1993-94 season, a third assistant coach joined Demers primarily to help instill a winning mentality on a very young team: Steve Shutt,
The 1995-96 season was tumultuous. Four games into the season Demers, Thiffault, and General Manager Serge Savard were re-assigned or fired in a massive, poorly-timed, hockey operations reboot. Team President Ronald Corey relied on the past to guide the present team towards future success. Réjean Houle was named the new General Manager, Mario Tremblay the new head coach, and Canadiens’ legend Yvan Cournoyer the new assistant coach. None of them had any previous experience in their roles.
Although Tremblay retained Shutt and Laperrière on his bench, Cournoyer struggled to develop a rapport with the players, and they often spoke negatively about him to the media. So bad was the situation around Cournoyer, that he began doing scouting trips over coaching less than a year into his nomination.
Meanwhile, Shutt struggled to pull the team’s power play out of the basement.
At the conclusion of the 1996-97 season, Tremblay resigned as head coach, leaving the fate of his assistants in the hands of newcomer head coach Alain Vigneault.
Vigneault chose Dave King and Clément Jodoin as his two assistants, thus ending Shutt’s and Laperrière’s tenures in the Canadiens’ organization. The former in place for a mere four seasons, while the latter reigned as consigliere for 17 seasons for seven head coaches. With staggering longevity. Laperrière was quickly snapped up by the Boston Bruins and signed to a four-year contract to be an assistant to a familiar face: Pat Burns.
“There needed to be changes at the Molson Centre,” said Laperrière without a trace of resentment. “I leave without any ill-feelings, and I wished everyone well. We can’t be all so bad since there are former Montreal Canadiens coaching all over the NHL. Last Sunday, Burns and I faced off against Larry Robinson and Rick Green.”
Would he ever had wanted to be a head coach? “No, no, no, never. I prefer to teach. I like helping those who are having problems, forwards and defencemen. And when I see good results, we are both happy. That’s my reward.”
Laperrière lived the creation and the evolution of the assistant coach role on the Canadiens. Although there were many after him, he will forever be considered the pioneer of the role, earning stints with Boston and the New York Islanders, before settling in with the New Jersey Devils where he was an assistant for yet another former boss, Jacques Lemaire. The 2020-21 season will be his 17th with the Devils, equaling his hockey operations tenure with the Canadiens, but his role has now decreased to a consultant, allowing the next generation of assistant coaches to stand behind the bench in a role that he had trailblazed.