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Claude Julien prepared for second stint in Montreal

New coach puts Canadiens through energetic first practice with swarm of media, fans in attendance

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

BROSSARD, Quebec -- When Claude Julien was hired by the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, he said he was excited for the challenge of coaching in a hockey city, one where the game was front and center on everyone's mind.

When he led his first Canadiens practice on Friday, Julien got a glimpse of just how big of a challenge that will be.

The Canadiens' suburban practice facility was packed with hundreds of people, a practice crowd unseen here since the Canadiens reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014. The practice was broadcast live on both Francophone all-sports television networks, and the English all-sports radio station did its flagship drive show live on location as well.

All eyes and ears not only in Montreal, but the entire province of Quebec and beyond were fixed on this one sheet of ice.

 

READ: Julien's first practice with Canadiens

 

General manager Marc Bergevin called Julien a superstar coach on Tuesday, and he was received like one Friday.

Julien has coached in this environment before. He's seen it. He's lived it.

But when Julien last coached the Canadiens in 2006, this was not the reality in Montreal. Practices were not broadcast live on television, fans did not come in droves to watch him run drills.

Still, Julien took all the attention in stride.

"To see all these fans up there, it reinforces the fact that this is a great hockey city that loves their team," Julien said. "[I've had] a lot of experience in 11 years, my total focus was on the ice and what's going on. It was almost like those people up there, and I don't mean that in a bad way because I appreciated that they came to watch, but it was almost like they didn't exist when I was running practice.

"My whole focus was on the ice."

It's difficult to imagine maintaining focus in this environment. The Canadiens practice on a rink that can be seen from the building's concourse, but which is sheltered from the crowd by a glass wall. The fans, six or seven rows deep, pressed up against that glass to get a better view, unable to hear what is happening on the ice but watching their favorite players skate around in circles and go through their drills.

If playing hockey in Montreal is often compared to playing in a fishbowl, the rink's setup drives that home.

"It's crazy," defenseman Nathan Beaulieu said. "But the craziest thing is I expected it. You knew it was going to happen."

The people came to watch practice because of what Julien represents. He is among the most qualified coaches in the NHL, a Stanley Cup champion, an Olympic gold medalist, a World Cup of Hockey winner.

He has done what Canadiens fans have waited so long for their team to do.

What those people saw was Julien put his first little stamp on the Canadiens, putting center Alex Galchenyuk back on the top line between Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov, and putting veteran center Tomas Plekanec on the second line between Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron, promoting both centers and moving Phillip Danault from the first to the third line.

Otherwise, Julien ran a high-energy practice to allow the players to get their legs back after their five-day break and prepare them for his first game Saturday at home against the Winnipeg Jets (2 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

The superstar coaching moves will have to wait, but that is also part of the superstar coaching plan. Julien did not want the Canadiens to think he was there to change everything. Instead, he wanted them to act and play like a team that is in first place in the Atlantic Division.

"Guys had to go on the ice today feeling good about themselves," Julien said. "I made sure that happened."

For so many, seeing Julien wearing Canadiens gear, standing in front of a Canadiens backdrop and speaking at a podium with a Canadiens logo on it probably looked strange. He had coached the archrival Boston Bruins for 10 years and was in the middle of some of the best moments in the Canadiens-Bruins rivalry over that time.

While most adults would have no trouble remembering Julien getting his first NHL coaching job with the Canadiens on Jan. 17, 2003, or him being fired on Jan. 14, 2006, younger fans see him as the longtime coach of the Bruins.

For those young fans, in both Montreal and Boston, Friday must have been weird. But it wasn't for Julien.

"I'm back here and happy to be back here," he said. "Is it weird? Not really."

Video: Kevin Weekes on the Canadiens' new head coach

Julien made a point of emphasizing how much he has changed as a coach over the past 11 years, how his experience has him better prepared to handle the unique nature of coaching in the Montreal fishbowl.

The city, too, has changed in those 11 years.

But one thing hasn't; the Stanley Cup banners that hang from the Bell Centre rafters. The most recent one still has the years 1992-93 written on it, just as it did when Julien last coached here.

All those fans who came to watch their new superstar coach run a practice on Friday want Julien to add a banner to that collection.

And through their mere presence, they made sure he knew it right from Day 1.

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