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Claude Julien has been here before

Fired Bruins coach has kept job in perspective his entire career

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- A vacuum cleaner was roaring in the hallway outside coach Claude Julien's Bell Centre office at 8 a.m. on a late January morning in 2003.

It had been a dozen days since Julien took a Jan. 17 call from then-Montreal Canadiens general manager Andre Savard, summoned at 90 minutes past midnight from Hamilton of the American Hockey League to the parent Canadiens, where he would replace the fired Michel Therrien.

So here was Julien sitting for a wide-ranging talk in his office, 12 days, three wins, a loss and two ties into his NHL coaching career, speaking above the din of the cleaning staff. The tidy, freshly painted office down the hallway from the dressing room was still mostly without decoration less than two weeks after he had been introduced on Jan. 18 as the 26th coach of the Canadiens.

At age 42, he was still pinching himself, coaching the team he had adored since he wore its thick wool sweater for his boyhood games of shinny 100 miles to the west in Orleans, Ontario, pretending he was Rogie Vachon, Ken Dryden, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire or Guy Lafleur.

The first thing I lightly ran past Julien that morning was that during 12 seasons as a player, he had suited up for 10 professional teams in five leagues and three countries, having outlived eight of his teams and two of the leagues.

"I can't be taking the blame for all of that," he protested with a laugh. "Am I a bad omen? Maybe I've just been around too long."

On Tuesday morning, the struggling Boston Bruins announced that Julien's shelf life had expired. He was put to the curb after 997 regular-season NHL games coached for Montreal, the New Jersey Devils and the Bruins, meaning he won't be behind the bench at TD Garden on Sunday for what would have been his 1,000th game -- against the second-time-around Therrien and the Canadiens.

I've spoken with the now-former Bruins coach many times the past 14 years, usually in scrums after a practice or game but twice at leisurely length alone.

He was energetic and enlightening that January morning in 2003, taking questions that were both serious and totally off the wall -- "I've seen 'Slap Shot' maybe 30 times, but I don't think I have much in common with Reg Dunlop," he said with a laugh.

He was just as engaging and funny last March when we sat rinkside in a corner of New York's Madison Square Garden. The latter talk, after a Bruins game-day morning skate, was to consider Julien's body of work, discussing his having recently become the winningest coach in Bruins history, his 388th victory on March 7 pushing him one past the legendary Art Ross.

Video: E.J. Hradek talks Bruins firing coach Claude Julien

I have come away from every talk with Julien impressed by his knowledge of the game and his respect for those with whom he works and the opponents he would face. But more than that, I've admired his humility and sense of values and the strong bond to and pride in his blue-collar roots, having grown up as the son of an Ottawa Valley roofer.

"I have a rear-view mirror in the way that I really enjoyed my upbringing, which was very modest but very good," Julien said last March in New York. "I also to this day really feel that the fact I grew up in a roofing business and worked hard built my character.

"A lot of that stuff, when I look back, made me who I am today. I come from a very modest, humble background, and when you're happy you don't want to change. No matter what's happened to me in this game, I still feel that I'm part of the everyday crowd. I don't feel that I'm in the upper echelon. If people see me there, well, I see me down here. I'm proud of that."

Julien said he was almost embarrassed to have passed Ross atop the Bruins' all-time coaching wins list, keenly aware of the role that Ross played in bringing the franchise to life in 1924, serving as the Bruins' first vice president, general manager, coach and scout, a man who pioneered not just the Bruins, but the early days of the NHL as an official and inventor who patented the modern puck and hugely improved the goal net.

Julien has never been big on personal statistics. He learned of No. 500 of his now-538 NHL wins only when his phone lit up after the game.

By last March, Julien already was the longest-tenured NHL coach with his current team.

"Which means," he said with a gallows-humor grin, "that I'm at the top of the totem pole and I'll be the next one to fall."

If not the next, Julien wasn't far down the list. He spoke that day knowing full well that the business of hockey was "finicky," having been dismissed by the Canadiens after 159 games spanning three seasons and then by the Devils, three games shy of one year in 2006-07.

"I've been in Boston for nine years now," Julien said. "I've found a place where I've been able to coach for many years and have a certain amount of success. It's worked out well. That's what happens in this game. You have to realize at some point you're going to end up having to move. Whether it's a firing or a new contract, you're prepared for that."

Julien had taken a roundabout road to the NHL when we first sat in his Montreal office 991 regular-season games ago. He had enjoyed success coaching junior players, winning the 1997 Memorial Cup with the Hull Olympiques and a bronze medal at the helm of Canada's 2000 IIHF World Junior Championship team, and was working wonders with Hamilton when the Canadiens gave him the call that would change his life.

Of all he's done in the game, Julien said brightly as the Garden's Zamboni machine rumbled by last March, of course he'd also resurfaced a rink, a thrill he still cherishes to this day.

"I was playing with the (AHL) Fredericton Express in the mid-1980s," he said. "I had a good relationship with the arena guys and told them I always wanted to drive one. I probably did half the rink. They did the first circle, probably to keep me away from the boards, but they thought I did a good job."

And then, with a laugh:

"I've got something to fall back on. You know, in case hockey doesn't work out."

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