There is no greater memory in sport than that of your first coach. It was a relationship that saw you learn not only how to skate, throw a ball or swing a racquet but also how to react in times of pressure, how to work with others, for a common goal and how to believe in yourself. Coach was not simply a figure on the sidelines but rather an integral part of your evolution into adulthood.
But as you became acquainted with the pressures to win, either firsthand or by watching the continuous scrutiny of sports in the media, the definition of coach began to change. Images of Bobby Knight throwing chairs and Ozzie Guillen vocalizing his every thought seemed to become the norm in the pursuit of victory. That’s why it may have come as such a great surprise that the 2006.07 Jack Adams award winner would be a man who is calm, even-keeled and, get this…jokes and laughs at the arena.
It may seem like an atypical approach in professional sports but Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Alain Vigneault’s coaching style is reminiscent of those fond yonder years. The only difference is that he is harvesting big league results. “I think as a coach you have to stay true to yourself with your own qualities and your own faults,” said Vigneault. “I’ve had some good coaches in the past but ultimately I have developed my own style.” A style that has taken a lifetime to craft.
Growing up in Quebec, where many claim is the birthplace of ice hockey, Vigneault began his minor league career. He would eventually go on to play for the St. Louis Blues but his calling in hockey would come as his playing career drew to a close.
Following his tenure as a player, Vigneault chose to return to Trois-Riviere for school where fate would have it that the school’s team would have a vacancy for its coaching position. “I would help out as they were looking for a coach,” says Vigneault. “It was supposed to be a two week thing but we saw success and the job became full-time.”
His abilities were quickly recognized and would eventually earn him positions in the QMJHL and later with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens. In 2005, in perhaps the most underrated move of his career, Senior Vice President and General Manager Dave Nonis hired Alain Vigneault as the head coach of the Canucks minor league affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.
A year later he was asked to take the realms of the newly opened position with the Canucks after an extensive search. The coaching staff was rounded out by old and new acquaintances: Rick Bowness, Mike Kelly and Barry Smith.
Despite his strong coaching staff and extensive credentials, few would predict the results that Vigneault could implore from his team in a single season. With more than 10 new players on the roster, public speculation was that the 2006.07 season would be one of rebuilding for the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks went on to post a franchise record for points and won the Northwest Division title. Vancouver would also go on to play two rounds in the playoffs, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. A feat that was quite impressive, especially considering it was a “rebuilding year.”
“To make it into the playoffs today in the NHL is very challenging,” says Vigneault. “There are a lot of great teams that don’t make it. To get into the playoffs it means that you are doing well and you have to keep doing what you are doing and stick with your process. The main difference between the regular and post-season is that the level of intensity is higher during the playoffs. But we all love the game and that’s why we continue to work so hard in pursuit of our goals.”
Throughout the season and playoffs Vigneault remained true to himself and, most importantly, remained calm. “I think you evolve as you get older,” says Vigneault. “I don’t want to say you get wiser but with previous experiences you are better equipped to deal with situations that arise.”
As the season came to a conclusion, the nominations for the league awards were announced by the NHL. After a strong season, the Vancouver Canucks would be nominated for four awards, including Vigneault for the Jack Adams. In June of 2007, Vigneault, with his two daughters by his side, would travel for three days to Toronto, making a short vacation out of the occasion. Nominated in the same category as Lindy Ruff and Michel Therrien, there was great debate as to who would come away with the trophy, especially since the Eastern based writers voting on the winner rarely saw a Canucks game due to the time difference between the coasts. The envelope opened and Vigneault’s name was announced.
“I’ve said it many times before but the Jack Adams is really a team award,” says Vigneault.
“The Jack Adams was a really good thing for the organization to recognize all of the people involved in making a successful team.”
After the awards, Vigneault shied away from the spotlight and returned to Quebec to spend time with his two daughters, Adreane and Jamie. The trip included a visit to the Quebec games, where one of his daughters was playing basketball. Despite winning the Jack Adams, there was no attempt made by Vigneault to coach his daughter. Rather, he sat in the stands and cheered his favourite player until the post-game ritual. “I always say the same thing after each game,” Vigneault comments. “I ask ‘did you have fun?’ If she had fun and tried her hardest, that’s all that matters.”
A simple yet strong message that has obviously had a profound impact on the way Vigneault approaches the game. His patience and trust in players has in turn seen a team, rather than individualistic, approach take precedence. Vigneault has believed in himself and others have then believed in him. As a result, he has helped lead three Canadian NHL teams and been up for two Jack Adams, winning in 2007—accolades typically reserved for someone coming to the end of an illustrious career. Luckily for Canucks fans, Alain Vigneault, at the young age of 46, has many years and endless possibilities in front of him.