Second time could be charm for Therrien

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
11:52
AM ET
We recall sitting down with Michel Therrien (or "Mike," as he prefers to be called now) for the first time in his office in Pittsburgh more than five years ago.

The Penguins, under the iron-willed Therrien, had gone from post-lockout laughingstock to a team on the rise.

That spring, the Penguins were a surprise playoff team that had gone from an embarrassing 58-point total to 105 points.

Those young Penguins were dispatched in the first round by Ottawa but the next spring they took the next step, advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992, dropping a six-game set to the Detroit Red Wings.

In that spring of 2007, Therrien was generous with his time, talking about his family and the challenges of raising two children, who were in their early teens at the time, as a single dad.

The juxtaposition between the doting father and the take-no-prisoners bench boss helped to illustrate the divide that often exists between public perception and reality. But as events unfolded, it also helped to explain the need to evolve as a player or coach if long-term success is the goal.

Midway through the 2008-09 season, the Penguins seemed to have gone adrift, the feeling being that Therrien’s relentless ways and rough edges had turned his players’ ears deaf to him.

GM Ray Shero, who had inherited Therrien when he took over for former GM Craig Patrick, made a coaching change in February, bringing in Dan Bylsma from the team’s AHL affiliate.

The move paid off, as the Penguins went on to beat Detroit in a Stanley Cup finals rematch in the spring of 2009.

Therrien?

Well, as time passed each coaching vacancy that was filled by someone else suggested that perhaps that ship had sailed.

Therrien worked as a scout for the Minnesota Wild for a time and he did some broadcast analysis in Montreal, and he continued to be the doting father.

On Tuesday, though, his wait came to an end as the Montreal Canadiens announced they would return Therrien to the bench where he first got his taste of NHL head coaching.

Who says you can’t go home again?

Therrien coached the Canadiens for parts of three seasons before the lockout, making the playoffs once. A number of factors -- inexperience, dealing with his marital situation and a temper that often bubbled perilously close to the surface -- conspired to make his stay a short one.

One night in Atlanta, Therrien heaved all the sticks onto the ice after a local timekeeper’s error at the end of regulation allowed the Thrashers to tie the game and then go on to win in overtime.

Yet new Montreal GM Marc Bergevin clearly sees something in Therrien that we have noted as our paths have crossed over the ensuing years, a kind of mellowing, a smoothing of those rough edges.

While accomplished coaches such as Marc Crawford were in the mix, and there was some discussion about Montreal legend Patrick Roy making the jump to the NHL, Bergevin settled on Therrien.

Will the Canadiens, no strangers to underachievement, have an easy time with Therrien? Don’t bet on it. We expect there will be lots of sharp words and long practices if the Canadiens start next season playing as they did through much of last.

But we don’t expect some of the public lashings that marked his early days in Pittsburgh, where he once wondered aloud to the media if his players were actually trying to become the worst defensive team in the NHL.

No, this time around the Habs will be getting a more refined Therrien. Not necessarily kinder or gentler but refined, seasoned. He’ll certainly have a better grasp of the always mercurial relationship with the media covering the Habs, having been on that side of the camera now. He will be more able to channel his emotions and not let them interfere with what has always been solid game planning.

Indeed, there is just something about this hire that speaks to a good fit, especially with the Habs in the midst of a significant metamorphosis.

We remember talking to Therrien’s good friend Bob Hartley in that spring of 2007 about their relationship. Hartley had given Therrien his first job as an assistant in Laval in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, in the early 1990s. The two combustible coaches meshed immediately, the team’s building coming to be known as The House of Pain.

It’s a relationship that has remained strong over the years.

"We connected right away. We became partners and we became friends," Hartley told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

Both men spent their time looking for a portal back to the NHL, working in the media. This past season Hartley went to Europe and enjoyed a successful coaching stint with Zurich of the Swiss elite league.

Funny how things work out but both Hartley and Therrien returned to the NHL within a few days of each other as Hartley was recently named the head coach of the Calgary Flames.

"We talked many times how great it would be to work together. We’re two head coaches but at the same time the friendship is there," Hartley said. "We were on the phone every week, every two weeks."

Both coaches have great challenges ahead of them with teams that most recently failed to qualify for the postseason.

But they also embrace their new challenges, having gone through their own evolutions.

"For me, we are all different, whether you’re a reporter whether you’re a policeman," Hartley said. "Just the fact that you get older as an individual should make you automatically better.

"We see things differently. It’s a process. Not only of sports but also of life."

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