A long-time Montreal Canadiens
observer was watching a recent game and commented that head coach Guy Carbonneau
looked more comfortable behind that bench than any man since, well, since Toe Blake
. And Blake retired in 1968! After winning eight Stanley Cups.
Scotty Bowman coached the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups and coached three other Stanley Cup winners. Jacques Demers won a Stanley Cup there in 1993. Jacques Lemaire also coached the Canadiens.
But the man said "looks comfortable." Lemaire and Bowman resembled hungry panthers stalking prey.
No names, but there have been others whose firings came as welcome relief from the pressure of coaching the storied Canadiens.
Carbonneau, like Blake before him, gives the impression that leading the Habs is as difficult as a paper route.
Carbonneau has that insouciant, "Who else would you have back here?" look, much as Blake did. Sure, here and there you can see the wheels turning with Carbonneau, but more often, there's the "everything's fine" aura that Blake had, the looking at the scoreboard while he scolds a player – which player, we wonder? The hand that crosses the mouth so the camera doesn't pick up what he's saying. The indecipherable signal to match lines rather than roll them.
That Carbonneau, in his second season as head coach of the Canadiens, has guided them into a surprising tie for first place in the Eastern Conference, shouldn't be that big a surprise.
Carbonneau long has been recognized as having one of the sharpest minds in hockey. It was his slight frame more than anything that led to him being a third-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1979. But then he had 72 goals and 110 assists in his final season with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Two more productive seasons followed with Nova Scotia in the American Hockey League.
When he arrived at the Canadiens' training camp in 1982, the word was out that this was a formidable hockey player in terms of intensity, skill and intelligence.
"You could see right away that he had something special," recalled former teammate Rejean Houle, later the Habs' general manager. "He knew where to go at all times. He won faceoffs and he played with grit. We knew right away he could help us and you could see, right off the bat, that he had a lot of character.
"He would stand up and block shots. He played well in his own zone. He was good offensively and he was a team player. Later, the Dallas Stars made sure they got him. They knew he had won with us and they knew he was a winner."
Houle agrees that Carbonneau projects a rare sense of calm and security on the Montreal bench.
"In French, we call it la presence, that sense of being in control," Houle said. "He's just going to work and doing the job. Now, for sure, things don't always go his way, but you can see him doing the things to make the team go the right way and get better. He's learned a lot from the time and experiences he had as a player. He saw it all and he's the kind of person who can handle the pressure."
Pressure never seemed to bother Carbonneau. After Wayne Gretzky had a big night for the Los Angeles Kings in the first game of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, Carbonneau approached Burns and asked if he could cover Gretzky in the next game. Demers agreed. Carbonneau shut down Gretzky and the Canadiens won the next four games.
Some people think an illegal-stick call changed the series. Carbonneau doesn't feel the need to correct them.
Defenseman Mike Komisarek said Carbonneau is preaching to true believers in the Canadiens' dressing room. Some of the older players competed against Carbonneau, while the younger ones remember watching him win the 1999 Stanley Cup with Dallas.
Carbonneau was named coach at the start of the 2006-07 season, and 18 months later has them in first place, where they haven't been since 1994.
"'Carbo' has been great. He's won as a player. He's won in Montreal. He knows what it takes to get there. He's been there," Komisarek said. "Coach has really stressed the defensive side of the game, making sure we're taking pride in playing well defensively, blocking shots, getting in lanes, playing together.
"This is his second year as head coach. It's been great having Carbo, (GM) Bob Gainey, (associate coach) Doug Jarvis and (assistant coach) Kirk Muller, all former players who won Stanley Cups, to teach us and guide us. Our forwards are tracking back and making it uncomfortable for other teams' forwards, taking away time and space and making sure they're not getting odd-man rushes.
"What I've been told by people who live in Montreal is that Guy was a fierce competitor who took a lot of pride in his game and hated losing. That's the vibe we get from him. It's rubbed off on us. We see his intensity behind the bench and in the locker room."
Carbonneau knew his Canadiens were in unfamiliar territory last month after tying the Ottawa Senators for the Northeast Division lead. He wants his players to appreciate their progress but not get overly excited because there still is six weeks until the playoffs. Win or lose, Carbonneau wants bright eyes and eager minds on the ice at practice the following day.
The whispered "We're No. 1," approach worked as the Canadiens have stayed on a roll while Ottawa has slumped.
"If we win, we try to enjoy it a little bit and then regroup the next day to get ready for the next game," Carbonneau said. "If we lose, same thing, try to forget about it as quickly as possible and get back on track the next day. It's exciting to be competing for first place. We go back to last summer, when we decided to change a few things about our style. We put in a lot of work to prepare our team for training camp and the start of the season. I felt good about what we had and what we added during the offseason. Nobody expected us to be here in first place so we'll enjoy it a little bit.
The Canadiens first pulled into a first-place tie after sweeping a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Flyers, Feb. 16-17.
"The last few games have been really good," he said then. "We're playing hard. Saturday night's game (1-0 over Philadelphia in Montreal) was a like a playoff game. (Sunday) was a little different with so many penalties. The weekend was a big weekend for us. It's a big confidence booster to come out of a weekend like that with two wins.
"I like the way we've been playing since the start of the year. Earlier, we probably didn't have enough production from our third and fourth line. We're able to play four lines and use six defensemen pretty consistently now. We have some young kids who don't have a lot of experience, but our veterans have played well since the start of the season."
The Canadiens have had a great deal of team speed in recent years, but this year's squad greatly has improved on defense. They also are one of only two teams not to experience a four-game losing streak this season.
Carbonneau was asked about the difficulty in introducing a new defensive scheme to a team that loves playing firewagon hockey.
"You can talk about different styles and doing different things, but if the players don't buy it, you can't be consistent," he said. "I think our players believe in what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish and they have really responded well in every game."
"Defense is one of things we knew we had to work on during the summer. We took what we did right last year and what we did wrong and tried to maximize the good things. We're still not a super-skilled team. We don't have the offense that some teams have. We really use our speed well and we advance the puck behind the pressure into areas where we can use our speed."
Carbonneau played 13 seasons in Montreal and one in St. Louis before concluding his career with five seasons in Dallas, ending in back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final. He was an assistant coach in Montreal for a couple of years, worked for Gainey as assistant GM in Dallas, then returned to Montreal. He actually succeeded Gainey as coach (as he had as Montreal captain many years ago), because Gainey had terminated Claude Julien during that season and temporarily added the coaching duties.
There was a funny moment during a recent interview when Carbonneau sent a question right off the tracks:
"Most people hate losing, you more than most people ..."
Carbonneau started laughing at that point.
"You're right about that. It's true, very true," he said. "That's who I am, what I'm about."
Carbonneau was challenged on how he makes coaching the Canadiens look so easy when everyone knows it isn't, and in light of the fact that the job has driven some of his predecessors half-crazy.
"I'm used to this,” he laughed. “I played in Montreal for 12 years, so it's nothing new to me. And the most important thing is I do this job because I enjoy it. I love to come to the rink and I love to teach.
"Believe me, there are parts of the day, of the week, of the month, that are not fun. Winning makes it easier. I played for 20 years and had to retire because it wasn't fun anymore. This is fun and that makes it easy. I enjoy what I do."