When Jean-Francois Houle spoke to the media during his first press conference on Tuesday afternoon as head coach of the Laval Rocket, there wasn’t much talk about changes, in fact, the tone was more trying to build and continue the success that the Rocket had under Joël Bouchard.
Houle knows the ups and downs that could come with the American Hockey League. In six years with the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate in Bakersfield as an assistant coach, he saw teams that missed the playoffs, and teams that won division titles. More importantly, he understands the importance of the AHL as a developmental league.
When the Bakersfield Condors went from the ECHL to the AHL, Houle was the team’s head coach. When the level increased, he would be replaced as head coach, but was asked whether he wanted to stay as an assistant. He jumped at the opportunity to learn in a higher league. After six years, he was ready to take the top job again, but this time in Laval.
After years as an after thought, the Canadiens development system took off while Bouchard was coach of the Rocket. For the last three years, the AHL team had incrementally better results, and, more importantly, provided the NHL team with more options. Bouchard deserves a lot of credit, especially for building the Rocket’s hard-working, team-first culture. There are aspects that won’t go away even with his departure. When you listen to what Dominique Ducharme says, and if you listened to what Houle said, you see very similar philosophies. Houle was asked what similarities he had with Bouchard. He said that he wouldn’t speak for Bouchard, but when he listed his values and vision, he didn’t have to.
“Engagement, discipline, and integrity. Those are the values I find very important, and I want to pass those on to every player that goes through Laval,” Houle said. “It’s very important for a coach to communicate well with their group. To have a connection with the person, not just the hockey player. For me that’s something very important. Form a partership with the player. When a coach does that, they can have a lot of success.”
“The Laval Rocket will be fast, fight hard, and sportsmanlike,” he continued. “Those are the three words I like to use. Hockey is a sport you need to play at a high speed and that’s what I think we’ll do with the Rocket.”
Houle’s coaching path has taken him through the NCAA, CHL, ECHL, and the AHL. The varying path will help him in the AHL, where he will be dealing with players who have come from different places.
“I’m probably one of the only coaches that I know of that’s coached in the CHL and the NCAA and I think that’s a great thing for me,” Houle said. “I’ve learned to kind of get to know players and I can sense and know where they come from. If they come from the NCAA or major junior. I even coached in the ECHL, so I know how they feel when they get sent down or sent up.”
Houle’s coaching staff will be filled out shortly. He said that he will bring his list of potential assistants to Canadiens assistant GM Scott Mellanby, and he said that Mellanby may have some ideas of his own.
One name that won’t be on that list, but that Houle will lean on is Alexandre Burrows. While other coaches have been in the organization, Burrows worked very closely with a the Rocket for most of his time in the organization before being promoted to the Canadiens. That’s something Houle will use to hit the ground running.
“When you’re a coach and you’re involved with the players day in and day out you get to know so much about the players. It’s unbelievable what you can learn. Alex has been there with them for two years and I’m sure I’ll be able to lean on him about little details about players. In the AHL, the little details of their game are the most crucial ones and he will be aware of most of the little details that players need to work on. That will be a good connection and I’m going to use it.”
After a year where a lot prospects haven’t had much time on ice, it isn’t yet known whether the Canadiens will have a development camp due to the pandemic. After the Draft this weekend, we may get more news on that and when Houle’s first day on ice in the organization will be.