VANCOUVER – Alain Vigneault still thinks back to one of his first experiences as a member of the Vancouver Canucks organization as one of his fondest memories from the seven-plus years he spent in the city.
Vigneault was coaching the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate, but with the big club for training camp at nearby Whistler when the coaching staff walked into a restaurant for dinner.
"Everybody started chanting 'Go Canucks Go' -- it was one of the best moments I ever had," said Vigneault, who took over for then-coach Marc Crawford the next season. "My seven years following Marc have been just the same, so I am thankful to everybody."
Thursday was the first chance Vigneault got to thank anyone since the Canucks fired their franchise wins leader in May after a second straight early playoff exit. His return four months later as coach of the New York Rangers -- and against coach John Tortorella, who was fired by the Rangers and is now behind the Canucks bench -- was a little more awkward than that first experience in Whistler.
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"Strange would be a word I could use right now coming in here this morning and saying hi to the staff I worked with for a long time," Vigneault said. "It was a little special."
His past and present players all used similar adjectives to describe the first meeting after what was essentially an offseason coaching trade, a first in the NHL according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Defenseman Kevin Bieksa joked he expected to hear Vigneault yelling at him from the Rangers bench during Thursday's preseason finale. But like the other veterans in Vancouver for all seven seasons under Vigneault, Bieksa had plenty of good things to say about his former coach, even if he agreed it was time for a new voice.
"Sometimes you need change," Bieksa said. "He had a long tenure here and a successful career. It was up to (general manager Mike Gillis) to make the tough decision and maybe he felt team-wise, we needed just a fresh start, much like the Rangers did the same thing."
Few questioned the importance of Vigneault's role in the Canucks' rise to Western Conference powerhouse during his tenure, winning six Northwest Division titles and consecutive Presidents' Trophies as the NHL's top regular season team.
Vigneault won the Jack Adams Award as the League's top coach in 2007, his first season with the Canucks, and was nominated two more times. Several of his players also received accolades during his tenure, including the Art Ross Trophies for Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, Hart and Vezina Trophy finalist honors for goalie Roberto Luongo, and a Selke Trophy for Ryan Kesler -- a lot of them firsts for the franchise.
"He was important as an organization and for us as players too," said Daniel Sedin, who was a Hart Trophy finalist a year after his brother won the NHL MVP. "He gave me and Henrik a chance to be first-line players and we'll be thankful forever for that."
There was also a trip to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, but with just one win in two playoff series since losing that deciding game to the Boston Bruins, something had to give. So the laid-back Vigneault was fired and replaced by the fiery Tortorella.
"Alain brought us to play like an elite team," Bieksa said. "Alain was responsible for that. Now, maybe it's time for a new era."
On the ice, Vigneault said he was most proud of the 2011 run to within a game of the Stanley Cup. Off it, he pointed to the players.
"Not for me to say," Vigneault said when asked about his legacy. "I took a lot of those players when they were just young guys coming into the League and they have grown into mature players and mature fathers, and very good people. … On a personal level, to see where they are as human beings, as parents, as responsible adults, for me is probably the thing I cherish the most."
Vigneault wasn't worried about how he might be received by the fans that cheered him the last seven years, but conceded it might be best to get this trip, and say thank you to all the people that weren't around when he was fired in the summer, so soon.
"It was unfortunate that I didn't get to say bye the right way, but I've been able to talk to almost everybody I worked with and thank them for everything they've done and now, as much as this might be strange, you've got to turn the page and move on," Vigneault said. "And maybe getting this out of the way is a good thing."
Especially now that all those chants are for someone else.