Only in Montreal will a hockey team sitting atop their division fire their head coach. This was exactly the scenario last Tuesday Feb. 14, when the Canadiens terminated Head Coach Michel Therrien.
Earlier this year, Therrien was selected to coach the Atlantic Division at the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 29. At the time, his team had a comfortable lead in the Atlantic Division and he was in the running for the Jack Adams Trophy for best NHL coach. Two and a half weeks later, he now finds himself unemployed.
On what must have been a heartbreaking Valentine’s Day for Therrien, the 53-year-old was dismissed to be replaced by former Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien. Longtime Habs fans probably brushed aside the initial headlines, thinking they were just old news. Julien was hired by the Canadiens in the middle of the 2002-2003 season to replace Therrien after his first stint with the team. Fifteen years later, there’s a combination of shock and déjà vu in Montreal.
While firing a winning head coach might sound ridiculous anywhere else, job security isn’t part of coaching in Montreal. Canadiens fans demand more than just a winning team: The expectation year in and year out is to win the Stanley Cup. Being first in the division meant nothing to the Habs’ front office who doubted Therrien’s ability to lead the team down the final 24 game stretch and into the playoffs. After starting the season 13-1-1, the Habs went a mediocre 18-18-7. In Therrien’s final 10 games as head coach, they were a pitiful 3-6-1.
Last year, the team had a similarly strong start and early Stanley Cup favourites, but the squad imploded soon after goaltender Carey Price was injured. Refusing to endure another disappointing season without change, Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin made the proactive decision to replace Therrien.
Besides the team’s recent struggles, Julien’s departure from the Boston Bruins on Feb. 7 likely pushed the Canadiens to make their coaching change. Simply put, Julien is a talented coach who can speak French. While linguistic skills shouldn’t be the key factor in hockey coaching, in Montreal, if you can’t speak French, you can’t coach the Habs. Luckily for Canadiens fans, their new coach is also a proven commodity. During his ten-year stint with the Boston Bruins, he took them to the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning in 2011. Having a francophone coach of that calibre, along with current problems the Canadiens are experiencing, likely pushed Bergevin to offer Julien the position.
Even though the new coach arrives late in the season, he will face the same pressure–if not more–to win as Therrien. Being a former Canadiens coach means he knows the expectations placed upon him. The Canadiens and their fans have no patience when it comes to winning and, as seen with Therrien, can be heartless. While going back to an ex isn’t always the best idea, when they’ve gone out and made something of themselves, it can’t be all bad to try again to make the most of it.