Rangers' Vigneault doing it his way
Coach found success in New York by sticking to what he believes in
NEW YORK -- It was exactly a year ago Thursday -- May 22, 2013 -- that the Vancouver Canucks announced the firing of coach Alain Vigneault.
Mike Gillis won't soon forget having that conversation with the coach.
"It was really difficult. Really difficult," the former Canucks GM told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "What was said will remain between him and I. But he's a very good coach and a very good person. We had a strong working relationship. I liked him a lot, and I still do."
There's a clear level of respect that remains for Vigneault from Gillis, who was fired as Canucks GM after this season, so seeing "AV" just two wins from a Stanley Cup finals berth is a welcome sight.
"I'm very happy for him; I'm very happy for him and for [assistant coach] Scott Arniel," Gillis said. "They both worked for me at different points. They're both excellent coaches. I know they had a rough start to the season, but they stayed with it, and pulled it together, and they're getting results. You can't argue with results in this business."
No, you cannot.
And right now, Vigneault is making those who questioned his hiring after the Rangers stumbled out of the gates last fall look foolish.
"For me, it's not surprising," Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, who has known Vigneault for years dating back to when they were minor league teammates, told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I thought he did a great job in Vancouver. Every year, that team was competing for one of the top spots in the conference and their division. I think it's pretty obvious that, just because he got fired from there, it wasn't necessarily -- I don't think -- based on his coaching. This business creates those sorts of things where they think changes will help, and I think they realize right now they lost a pretty good coach. New York is the benefit of it."
The Rangers have benefited from a coach who cut his NHL coaching teeth in Montreal and eventually furthered that NHL coaching degree in Vancouver -- two of the league's craziest and most demanding markets.
Vigneault arrived on the scene in New York with a lifetime's list of coaching lessons.
We asked him Wednesday what was the greatest piece of advice he had ever been given.
"I've had a lot of advice given to me over the years," Vigneault said. "On such a short notice, I don't think I can come up with one specific thing. I would say, though, that everybody says to be yourself and to stick with what you believe in. If at one point you're shown the door, at least you did it your way. I've got to think I was seven years in a Canadian market, and in the other Canadian markets at that time 20 coaches went through. It's a tough environment to coach [in]. I did it my way, and I've come here to New York in another great hockey market, and I'm doing it my way."
His way needed patience this season. The Rangers came out of the blocks dropping seven of their first 10 games, some of that a product of a nine-game road trip to start the season, but some of it a new coach trying to get players to buy what he was selling.
"He's been great," star winger Rick Nash said Wednesday. "He's preached the process the whole year. Obviously at the start we didn't follow it too much and that's why we struggled. Just look at the last three months, we've followed his game plan and it's seemed to have been successful."
Again, not surprising to Julien watching his old pal from afar.
"Watching his team early in the year, he had to change the culture a little bit or the way they played in the past," said the Bruins' coach. "It didn't happen overnight, but they were patient and let him do his stuff. And now it's starting to pay dividends."
The entire approach from Vigneault is what this group of Rangers players needed, despite the slow learning curve.
"It's a total different approach than what was here last year," veteran forward Brad Richards said Wednesday. "I didn't know what to expect other than I heard a lot of good things about him. What I've talked about the most is the calmness that he brings through really what has been an up-and-down year. We had a really tough start. You can look back, you hate to make excuses, but it was a tough way to run a training camp on the road with a new coach and a new system. How we handled all that, and we got embarrassed a couple times, without really making it feel like he lost confidence in the group, he steadied the ship through those waters. We had to have a lot of frank discussions, but we finally got on the same page."
The Rangers were 19-19-2 on the morning of Dec. 30 when Vigneault called a team meeting in which he laid out plain and clear what he believed the team needed to do pointswise to get into the playoffs. Essentially something to the effect of needing to win seven out of 10 games the rest of the way.
The Rangers would go 26-12-4 the rest of the way and claim second place in the Atlantic Division.
What's clear now, with the Rangers playing their best hockey of the season at just the right time, is that the players have totally, utterly bought into what the coach is selling.
"Everyone has a role on this team, no matter who it is, he makes everybody feel like they're a big part of it," Richards said.
"It's been great," defenseman Marc Staal echoed. "We had a bit of a learning curve at the start of the season. New group, new coach, it took us a bit of time to play the way he wanted us to play and get what he wanted from us. He's a guy that respects the older guys and the leadership in the room to make sure that guys are held accountable. If it's a situation where a guy needs to be taught, or just told it's not good enough, he can do that too. He's been fun to play for."
Through it all, Vigneault has been almost Zen-like through thick and thin.
"His calmness carries down into our game a little bit," Nash said. "He's a really positive guy, and that's been a really great thing around here."
Added Rangers forward Carl Hagelin: "He'll get mad when he has to, but he usually takes a deep breath and waits and sees how it goes sometimes. That usually works out."
The journey is far from over. But Vigneault will tell you that, looking back a year ago when he was fired in Vancouver and soon thereafter hired in New York, he was confident of his abilities and of his plan.
"I didn't think it would happen overnight, but I was convinced of my way of proceeding ahead," Vigneault said in French on Wednesday. "I've always looked at the process; I felt it was a matter of time before it came for us this season.
"Also, quite honestly, when the goalie is stopping pucks, that makes my job a lot easier."
Well, there's that, too.
For Vigneault, though, his journey in just 12 months is a reminder of how incredibly fast things change in this business. It also proves that Vigneault is right. Doing it your way is the only way to go.
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