MONTREAL - When we learned that Claude Julien would be making his return behind the Habs bench, we started sifting through our archives to see what gems we could unearth. We stumbled upon the then-rookie coach's first ever CANADIENS magazine story from 2003, just before he took the reins of his first NHL team 14 years ago.
Hockey fans may have been unfamiliar with a man named Claude Julien a few short weeks ago, but all that has changed since the Ottawa native took his new job with the Canadiens. The hockey world has now taken notice of the new Habs coach, who pauses from his suddenly very busy schedule to talk about the great passion in his life - hockey.
The road has been long and bumpy on some occasions, but all things considered, Claude Julien has seen his fair share of hockey players - lots of them, in every size and shape. From his days in the Tier-2 league in Ottawa, as well as in the junior ranks and the AHL, Julien has seen plenty of talent, attended countless practice sessions and lived through never-ending, uncomfortable bus rides. But when hockey flows through your veins and the sport fuels your life, and today, you finally reap the benefits of your work, is there any better feeling? Without a doubt, Julien is feeling mighty fine these days.
Sitting in his office, Julien is friendly and easygoing. He is a man who likes to be close to people. He has a firm look in his eyes and his smile is not only friendly, but honest. He looks like someone who doesn't want to disturb or annoy. A newcomer to the Bell Centre, Julien is only starting to settle in. While his office still needs to be organized, there is no doubt that, behind the bench, Julien has quickly and firmly set up shop. Julien is a great communicator - he is neither bullish, nor abrupt. Since coming to Montreal, he has wasted no time painting this new team in his image. Indeed, Julien's fingerprints are all over these Habs. As he did during his professional hockey playing days, Julien emphasizes hard work, effort and, most importantly, perseverance.
Why is that hockey stars rarely make good coaches? And why do most of them not have the knack for teaching and leading? Julien considers the question and responds: "A guy like me, who took his bumps in the minors and started at the bottom rung as a coach - that's how you learn the game. You look at everything, you listen more attentively than the more talented players - in a certain sense, you're like a student. When you learn the game this way, you realize that it's easier to pass on this stuff to others."
Julien laughs when he's reminded that, in coming to Montreal, he was a part of a special compensation package with the Edmonton Oilers, that also included a draft pick and a promise to attend a pre-season game in Edmonton in September. He says this situation wasn't all that unusual for him.
"When the Blues asked the Nordiques permission to offer a contract to Jacques Demers, Gord Donnely and I were considered as compensation for the Nordiques," says Julien.
The coach says he understands that his pressure-packed job can be a thankless one, and that the pressure-cooker can be a relentless grind. But, he doesn't seem fazed by these factors. In fact, Julien was the picture of calm when he quietly took his position behind the Habs' bench for the first time on January 18, . If the pressure that night was at a fever pitch, Julien didn't show it. Remember: this is a man who graduated from André Savard School of Cool. No wonder: both played for the Nordiques in 1984 and 1985.
"Strategy is one thing, but even before you can apply certain game strategies or a game plan, the most important thing to work on is player dynamics. I compare this to a teacher and his students. Before they can understand the lesson, there has to be a complicity," says Julien, who adds that this is the basis of success.
Claude Julien says he is impressed by the history and tradition that surrounds the Canadiens organization. The team's illustrious history is present in the everyday functions of the Canadiens. It comes in the form of photographs that are mounted along the corridors leading to Julien's office, and it happens when you make eye contact with the portraits of the great Canadiens Hall-of-Famers that hang proudly in the dressing room - these may be overwhelming reminders that this is more than just a hockey team.
But Julien sees it as a reward for a life dedicated to the game, especially for someone who once proudly donned the Canadiens jersey when he was barely old enough to stand in his skates and who only saw the Forum for the first time as a player. Julien's passion for hockey began in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans, when, as a young boy, he would wear his favourite Habs jersey at the local outdoor rink and defend the team's honour when he played against his brother. When you've got Habs passion in your blood, it's there forever. One need only look at Claude Julien's face these days to see that this phenomenon is real.
The little guy from Orléans never fulfilled his dream of playing for the Canadiens, but being coach isn't a bad consolation prize, either. Becoming the Habs' coach is a dream he never dared to dream.