It should be any organization’s goal to recognize external raw talent, onboard it, and put it in a position to grow and develop successfully within the organization. Once that talent has matured enough, there should be the opportunity to promote them to positions of greater importance in the organization, returning the investment spent on their development. This increases the likelihood of talent retention and adding to the culture of nurturing success from within while refraining from hiring externally and potentially throwing the culture out of balance or having to endlessly re-establish it. Promoting from within is, therefore, part of any organization’s mission statement.
This is what happened this past week when Marc Bergevin promoted Dominique Ducharme from assistant coach to interim head coach. Even more interesting was the promotion of Alex Burrows from assistant coach with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket to second Ducharme on the Canadiens bench. It’s this second scenario of using the AHL affiliate as a stepping stone for coaches that has been neglected for a long time until Burrows.
Burrows was freshly retired when he joined Joël Bouchard’s Rocket coaching staff in 2018. Now, two-and-a-half years later, he becomes the first coach to be promoted from the Canadiens farm team in a decade, pointing to a shortcoming in either opportunity for promotion or simply a lack of vetting and development in the coaching pipeline.
Historically speaking, coaches would frequently get the call from the AHL to the NHL for the Montreal Canadiens, starting with Al MacNeil in 1970, who was promoted from head coach of the Montreal Voyageurs to assistant coach to Claude Ruel with the Canadiens. Midway through the 1970-71 season, Ruel resigned, and MacNeil found himself promoted to head coach, taking the Canadiens all the way to the Stanley Cup. MacNeil returned to the Voyageurs the following season to make way for Scotty Bowman, and MacNeil stayed until 1977 before moving on to the Flames organization where he remains to this day as an amateur scout. MacNeil is currently the only person in Habs history to have coached both the AHL team and the NHL team to championships.
But there were others who also made the trek from AHL to NHL over time.
François Allaire was an assistant coach with the Sherbrooke Canadiens in 1984-85 when, in his additional capacity as goaltending coach, he took a young upstart named Patrick Roy and quickly coached him into a Calder Cup winning goaltender. He was quickly promoted to NHL goaltending coach the following season to remain alongside Roy in his development. Goaltending coaches had previously proven to have mixed results in the past — with a bad Ken Dryden experiment and a moderately successful Jacques Plante one — however, Allaire remained with the Habs for 11 years.
Not everyone had a fair shake at promotion from within. Paulin Bordeleau was head coach of the Fredericton Canadiens from 1990 to 1997 but never received the big promotion. He saw Jacques Demers and Mario Tremblay hired for the main job in Montreal ahead of him, with the latter not even having any prior coaching experience. It played into his strained relationship with general manager Réjean Houle, and his eventual departure from the organization.
The next Montreal head coach to be promoted from the AHL was Michel Therrien in 2000, from the Québec Citadelles. A beneficiary of Pierre Boivin’s purge of Réjean Houle and Alain Vigneault, Therrien was at the right place at the right time. The team was a month away from being sold so the possibility of doing any external hires was unlikely. Therrien stayed behind the bench of the Canadiens for three seasons and cemented a reputation as an NHL coach.
His replacement, Claude Julien, also came from the AHL ranks. However, he was not part of the Canadiens organization initially, but of that of the Edmonton Oilers. The Hamilton Bulldogs were in the midst of a transition from being Edmonton’s affiliate to Montreal’s for the 2002-03 season where the Oilers were still providing the coaching staff, and Julien had to be “bought” by the Canadiens in order to be promoted to head coach. The cost was a fifth-round pick in the 2003 entry draft.
Perhaps the Bulldog's greatest legacy will end up being the continual promotion of AHL staff to coaching positions on the Canadiens. After Julien, former Habs’ defenceman Doug Jarvis, who coached the Bulldogs from 2003 to 2005, joined the Canadiens as assistant coach for four seasons under Julien and Guy Carbonneau.
Don Lever replaced Jarvis as head coach of the Bulldogs in 2005-06 and coached for nearly four seasons, getting a call to the Canadiens as the assistant to GM Bob Gainey who unexpectedly fired Carbonneau and his coaching staff during the 2008-09 season.
There was an air of excitement around the stagnant Bulldogs for the 2009-10 season when Junior superstar coach Guy Boucher joined the organization (I would compare it to the buzz more recently created by Bouchard joining in a similar role). Boucher’s season with the Bulldogs was exceptional, among the best the Habs’ AHL affiliate had ever seen. Boucher, however, was quickly snapped up by the Tampa Bay Lightning as the Canadiens failed to present an immediate upwards career path and decided to stick with Jacques Martin in what was probably, in retrospect, an error.
In 2010, Pierre Gauthier hired Randy Cunneyworth as Boucher’s replacement for Hamilton, and Cunneyworth brought along Randy Ladouceur. The Bulldogs once again had a very good season under this new coaching staff. The following season, “The Two Randys” were promoted to assistant coaching roles with Jacques Martin who was under some serious heat with Gauthier just one year after Gauthier gave him a vote of confidence over Boucher. When the ship was sinking and Martin was fired, Gauthier gave Cunneyworth the helm, but there wasn’t much that could be rescued from the Titanic crescendo of the 2011-12 season. Cunneyworth would become the third person to coach both the AHL and NHL teams after MacNeil and Therrien. Gauthier was fired by Geoff Molson, and The Two Randys found themselves demoted to assistant coaches at the end of the season, awaiting the selection of a new head coach to determine their fates.
Ultimately, a returning Therrien chose to pick his own assistants. One of whom was Clément Jodoin who coached the Bulldogs for the 2011-12 season. Jodoin was previously the assistant coach of the Habs from 1997 to 2003 before returning to junior hockey. Therrien also brought back Dan Lacroix who was an assistant coach for the Bulldogs under Boucher, but that doesn’t really count as an internal promotion since Lacroix left the organization for several years before returning.
Jodoin would be the final internal coaching promotion for the Canadiens for an entire decade until Burrows received his promotion.
For the most part, promotions from within came at opportune times as these sorts of promotions require the circumstances to be aligned in their favour. Just like a player call-up from the AHL, a coaching promotion requires someone else to have most likely failed at the NHL first. If time is on the side of the General Manager, they have proven time and time again that they will favour a retread coaching solution than trying someone new to the role and hence considered a higher risk.
Hopefully, Burrows’ promotion is the start of a new trend. Bouchard has certainly shown tremendous ability, and his understudy Daniel Jacob is described as having a very bright future. Could they be the next to get the call?
With the Canadiens financial resources being arguably more vast than other teams, there is little reason that the Canadiens should not continue investing in strengthening their coaching pipeline, not only to nurture quality but hedge on quantity. Various personnel can then specialize and offer a unique voice as the circumstances and needs arise. Next season the Canadiens will finally have a stable ECHL affiliation in Trois-Rivières and this is where their coaching development strategy should start. A three-tier development should not just be a buzzword for players, but also for the coaches who take these players to higher highs. And now, of course, the Laval Rocket is looking for a new assistant coach. I would suspect that this gets finalized quickly.
Just like the Canadiens have a Player Development department, there should be a Coaching Development department to act as a gatekeeper to this whole concept and to oversee this coaching pipeline. I suggest the creation of a new position in the organization named Director of Coaching Development, as hiring from within is the greatest indicator of a healthy organization, and the Canadiens have been deficient in this area for a long time.