Vigneault calm behind Canucks' bench

April, 25, 2010
04/25/10
5:18
PM ET

LOS ANGELES -- Less than a week ago, favored Vancouver was down 2-1 in its first-round series with Los Angeles and Canucks fans jammed radio phone lines and Internet message boards with calamitous rants.

In the middle of the near hysteria and panic from a city that has had its heart broken too many times by this hockey team over four decades, there stood Alain Vigneault. Like a man yawning in the middle of a tornado, the Canucks coach calmly and confidently predicted his key players would raise their games and the Canucks would be fine.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened. Now, Vancouver is hoping to wrap up its first-round series tonight with a road win over Los Angeles. The Canucks lead the series 3-2.

That Vigneault oozes serenity in these types of moments can be explained by a coaching career molded in hockey hotbeds. From a junior hockey coaching career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to becoming the youngest head coach in Montreal Canadiens history (1997-2001) to stops as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators (1992-1996), a head coach with the AHL's Manitoba Moose (2005-06) and his current post (hired in 2006) in one the NHL's most passionate markets, Vigneault is well-weathered.

Nothing, at this point, seems to rattle this guy.

"Coaching is coaching," Vigneault, who turns 49 next month, said Sunday morning at Staples Center. "Whether you're coaching in Montreal or Vancouver, or in PEI [QMJHL] and you're in the playoffs, it's the same pressure. There's maybe more attention outside, but on the ice and behind the bench, it's the same thing."

More attention outside? When you're coaching in Florida or Nashville or Phoenix, you don't have an army of media following your every step, and you don't live in a city where hockey is debated 24/7, as was the case in his previous NHL coaching jobs in Ottawa and Montreal and certainly right now in Vancouver. It's relentless.

"Obviously we're used to being in a Canadian environment, where everything is big and everything is important," Vigneault said. "It has less to do with me and more to do with my players. I've got a lot of faith, I've been around them a long time; they're ready for this moment and they're going to go out there and prove it."

He has to believe in his core players because his fate is tied to theirs. Win or lose, Vigneault, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Roberto Luongo and GM Mike Gillis will be the faces of this Canucks era.

Two years ago, Vigneault could have easily been erased from the picture. Gillis replaced Dave Nonis as GM and inherited Vigneault as coach. In this league, that's usually a recipe for a quick firing; GMs traditionally like to hire their own coaches, the first step in putting their stamp on their new team.

Don't think Gillis didn't think about it. But after a feeling-out process between two men who didn't know each other, Vigneault survived, to the surprise of most people.

"That was the first major and probably biggest decision I was facing," Gillis told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I wanted to accomplish two things: one, I wanted to get to know him and find out what his philosophy was and why the team played the way it did ... all the regular coaching issues."

Even more important, Gillis wanted people to see everyone was going to get a fair shake.

"That everyone, from our head coach to assistant coaches to the training staff, would get a fair opportunity to put their best foot forward," Gillis said. "To me, for credibility issues, that was vital."

So Gillis set out to grill Vigneault before making his decision.

"I put Alain through a very strenuous period," Gillis said. "I designed 32 questions that I wanted him to answer. He answered them and we talked about why he felt the way he did about certain questions, and I was not only satisfied but very pleased with the answers. A lot of them went to the real core of coach-player relationships and he handled it admirably."

They talked coaching philosophy, with Gillis asking Vigneault whether he could adjust if the GM brought in players designed to help their offensive game. The Canucks were a defensive-minded team in Vigneault's first two seasons, a team that won the Northwest Division title in his first season. But Gillis believed they had to change their style when he took over.

"We had to become a more offensive team," Gillis said. "If you're going to succeed in the playoffs now, you're going to have to score goals; instead of the reverse -- for years, you had to prevent goals. Right now, with the way penalties are called and the style of play, you have to be able to score."

Vigneault had to convince Gillis he could adjust.

"After going through that process, I was satisfied and I felt we could work together," Gillis said.

The GM did make changes to Vigneault's coaching staff, bringing in assistant coaches Ryan Walter and Darryl Williams. But Vigneault did survive, and thrive.

"I have tremendous respect for Alain," Gillis said. "I think he's a professional coach who works extremely hard. His staff works extremely hard. He's accountable. He doesn't shy away from accountability. He accepts it. It's worked well."

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