Diving Back In
By Jeff Paterson
In the world of hockey, things change quickly -- shift by shift and game by game. So you can imagine the challenges Alain Vigneault faced at the start of this season climbing back behind a National Hockey League bench after a six year absence.
He kept his coaching skills sharp and remained in the game he loved by coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and last season with the Canucks' American League affiliate in Manitoba. But rather than taking his teams into big league cities like New York and Los Angeles, Vigneault was riding buses to Moncton and Milwuakee, Rimouski and Rochester.
But judging by his first month on the job with the Vancouver Canucks, it appears the 45-year-old is a quick study. Vigneault has earned high praise from his bosses and his players, has been a hit with the media that covers the club and his team's 7-5-1 record through the end of October has earned a strong approval rating with the fans who voice their opinions on local sports talk shows.
While many of the faces and even a few of the places in the National Hockey League have changed while Vigneault patiently waited for another shot in the big leagues, fundamentally, the game itself has not changed that much. Oh sure, there's plenty of talk about the 'new NHL', but Vigneault says at the end of the day it's still a game played with a puck on the ice. And his job as the coach of the Vancouver Canucks is the same now as it was when he coached the Montreal Canadiens from 1997 to 2001.
"Hockey's hockey," he says, relaxing in his office at GM Place after practice. "I mean junior, the American League, the NHL, it doesn't matter -- coaches coach and players play and it's our job as coaches to give the team direction. We start off with a vision, put the plan together and give them the direction they need. Players will always follow direction when they think they're going to be successful by doing it. It's no different here than any other category I've worked in."
Vigneault has had a number of factors help him get up to speed on the NHL - many of them were reasons he was selected to replace Marc Crawford during the off-season. Vigneault was hired by Dave Nonis to coach the Canucks' top farm club in Manitoba in the summer of 2005, so there was a trust and respect in place. Vigneault attended the Canucks training camp in Whistler a year ago and had at least a working knowledge of the veterans he inherited when he took over in June. And as coach in Winnipeg last season, he had worked closely with a number of players now in Vancouver -- Kevin Bieksa, Alexandre Burrows and Josh Green - who spent time in the AHL last year.
But hard at work down on the farm and busy worrying about his own team, Vigneault admits he didn't see many Canuck games - or NHL games for that matter -- last year.
"Seven, eight, ten at the most," he recalls. "I could catch games a lot of times on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. On weekends, we were playing and the Canucks were playing, so I didn't see many games on weekends."
Among those helping Vigneault make the jump back to the big leagues is assistant coach Barry Smith, the lone holdover from the Marc Crawford regime. With an intimate knowledge of his own hockey team and a handle on players around the league, Smith has served as Vigneault's number one resource in terms of preparing the Canucks for their opponents.
"With Alain, where we probably give him more feedback is on players and the idiosyncrasies on opposing players because he's been out of the league," Smith says. "This guy or that guy, usually it's those guys other than the top players, sometimes it's information on the fifth and sixth defenceman and those types of things. That's where we really come into it on those guys that he hasn't seen before. To break teams down, that's easy to do. You just watch the DVD's and away you go."
The results speak for themselves and based on the first month of the season, it would appear that Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff of Barry Smith, Rick Bowness and Mike Kelly are doing what they have to in order to have their team prepared for games. And if Vigneault's having any troubles readjusting or adapting to life at the National Hockey League level, it has gone unnoticed by his players.
"It's new to him again, coming up and coaching different guys and against different guys, but I think he's handled it well," says captain Markus Naslund. "I don't know what he was like when he coached in Montreal, but I think he's working fine so far."
"Well he mispronounces some names, but other than that, he's been good," Trevor Linden says with a laugh. "The fact that he may not know every player as intimately as another coach, I don't think that's a big deal. A lot of coaching is making sure your team is prepared and that you're staying on task. He's done a good job with our group. He doesn't let us get too far off where we have to be and he's quick to put guys back where they should be."
Among the many changes for Alain Vigneault has been re-acquainting himself with National Hockey League officials. After six years, there's a new crop of guys wearing the stripes. But they're not totally unfamiliar to the coach who's in the process of trying to build a rapport with the men who call the games.
"Actually I remember a lot of them from before and some of the new ones worked games when I was coaching junior or even last year in the American Hockey League, so it's not that big a deal," he explains.
One of the biggest adjustments for Alain Vigneault as head coach of the Canucks has been the travel - and with 11 of his team's first 15 games away from home, he's been hit with a strong dose of the West Coast lifestyle. Gone are the good ol' days with the Habs of playing road games in places like Ottawa, Boston and New York and being able to sleep in your own bed that same night.
Starting in Detroit and carrying on to Columbus, Colorado and Minnesota to open the season gave Alain Vigneault a quick and harsh reminder that he wasn't in the eastern conference anymore.
"Columbus and Minnesota were just coming into the league when I left Montreal, I had never coached in those buildings before," he says. "And four games in six nights like that was tough."
"We talked in the summer about travel," says Smith of helping Vigneault get used to life on the road. "He was used to playing in the east. So we talked about things like 'This might be a good time to stay overnight here' or 'We found we were more successful and more rested if we stayed the night and flew back the next day', so those kinds of things were important."
And overall, Barry Smith says he's been impressed with just how quickly Alain Vigneault has adjusted in his return to the NHL.
"I think it was real seamless," he says. "There are some things that are going to change like systems and that but I thought it was an easy transition. There are always little things, but nothing that we were saying 'Oh my god, is this going to take for ever?' I thought it went really well that way."
And with seven wins in his first 12 games back behind a National Hockey League bench, Alain Vigneault would have to agree.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org