BROSSARD, Que. -- The Montreal Canadiens are calling on a familiar face to lead the team back to the playoffs, and Michel Therrien couldn't be prouder to be coming home.
"To coach in the NHL is a privilege," Therrien said Tuesday afternoon after the Canadiens announced he will be taking over for Randy Cunneyworth behind the bench for the 2012-13 season. "But to coach the Canadiens is an honor."
Therrien leaves his job as a television analyst for RDS to begin his second stint as Canadiens head coach, having broken in to the NHL with Montreal on Nov. 20, 2000 as a replacement for Alain Vigneault.
The Montreal native held the job for parts of three seasons, compiling a regular season record of 77-77-36 before being fired 46 games into the 2002-03 season.
While Therrien's first stint with the Habs did not end particularly well, he insisted on numerous occasions during his press conference that an ability to adapt and to learn are two of the greatest attributes a coach can have.
The Canadiens have announced that Michel Therrien will be taking over behind the bench for the 2012-13 season. (Photo: Andy Marlin/NHLI)
And he feels his prior experience in the Montreal pressure cooker will only help this time around.
"When I got here I was 38 years old, I came through junior and the American Hockey League and then, from one day to the next, I found myself behind the bench of the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL. It seemed to go too quickly," Therrien said. "So I was trying to coach the team based on the experience I had at the time. But I obviously feel far better prepared today than I did when I was 38."
In his lone full season behind the Canadiens bench, the team finished the regular season with 87 points, a 17-point improvement from Therrien's first year. Powered by a Hart and Vezina Trophy-winning performance by Jose Theodore and a heroic return from cancer by Saku Koivu, the Canadiens upset the favored Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Therrien's lasting image for many Canadiens fans, however, was during that playoff loss to Carolina.
After taking a 2-1 series lead and leading Game 4 by a comfortable 3-0 margin in the third period, Therrien was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by referee Kerry Fraser for arguing a penalty call, and the Canadiens wound up giving up a goal on the ensuing 5-on-3 power play before losing the game 4-3 in overtime and eventually the series in six games.
Therrien was then fired in 2002-03 after the Canadiens started the season with a 16-12-6 record, but won just two of their next 12 games.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, who gave Therrien a three-year contract, says it would not be fair to judge him on that one incident.
"Everyone changes," Bergevin said. "We can all improve, we can all recognize our past mistakes."
Therrien was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins to coach their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre the following season, and was promoted to take over for Ed Olczyk in Pittsburgh on Dec. 15, 2005.
He inherited a team led by Mario Lemieux playing the final season of his illustrious career, and featuring an 18-year-old rookie named Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins missed the playoffs that season with just 58 points in the standings, and that season produced perhaps Therrien's most infamous moment where he ripped his team's effort following a 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers in January 2006.
Among the many criticisms he lobbed at his relatively new team that night was saying that his defense was trying to be "the worst defensive squad in the League," but Therrien stood by that incident Tuesday, saying it was a calculated attempt to coax a better performance out of a team that had been far down in the standings for years.
"Doing that was a decision we made as a group," Therrien said. "I don't think we'll need to do that in Montreal."
In Therrien's first full season in Pittsburgh in 2006-07, the team skyrocketed to 105 points before being knocked out in the first round in five games by the Ottawa Senators, who would go on to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
The following season, it was the Penguins' turn to reach the Final after a 102-point regular season, but they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games.
Therrien was fired by the Penguins and replaced by Dan Bylsma the following season, when they won the Stanley Cup by beating Detroit in the final.
"I was proud," said Therrien of his time in Pittsburgh, where he had a 135-105-32 record with the Penguins. "From when I got there to the day I left, there was a huge improvement."
From the time he left Pittsburgh, Therrien spent one year as a professional scout for the Minnesota Wild and a year working in television with RDS, where he was often called upon to critique the Canadiens during a difficult season that saw them finish last in the Eastern Conference and 28th overall.
He said both jobs helped better prepare him for his new one.
As a scout he says he learned to appreciate just how difficult it is to find players, and how important it is for a coach to get the most out of the players he has. As a television analyst, he says he better understands how the media works and the role they play in communicating with fans, which in Montreal is a big plus.
"I know what it's like on the other side now," Therrien said. "You can't ignore the fact that in Montreal, the coach of the Canadiens has a responsibility to communicate with the fans. It's going to be very important for me."
What Therrien's work in the media also did was give him a good perspective of what the Canadiens have, and he feels the team has the potential to make the playoffs again as soon as next season. He noted the presence of a first line -- that of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole -- that "can compete with any first line in the League. He noted the presence of an elite goaltender in Carey Price, and a defense corps that will have a healthy Andrei Markov in training camp.
"This team has potential, we can't forget that," Therrien said. "There are some good, young players to work with here."
For Bergevin, this was his first major hire since taking over as general manager in Montreal a little over a month ago.
He joked that the most gratifying part of the day for him was that the coaching search was finally over.
Bergevin is believed to have interviewed six or seven candidates, including new Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley, TSN analyst Marc Crawford and former Habs coach Guy Carbonneau. There were also a few candidates with no prior NHL coaching experience.
What set Therrien apart for Bergevin was his focus on building hard-working teams, his emphasis on teamwork and his qualities as a leader. He also called on his childhood friend Lemieux to give him some insight into the man.
He clearly liked what his old friend had to say.
"Our team needs leadership, it needs a presence," Bergevin said. "I feel Michel is the perfect fit."
Bergevin gave his new coach the news at Therrien's house, where the two men had a barbecue on Sunday night. Therrien has had his 80-year-old mother living with him and his children for the past year after the death of his father, and he asked Bergevin if it would be alright to share the news with her.
"I saw a few tears on her cheek," Therrien said. "It was a nice moment."
Her son had a nice moment of his own on Tuesday appreciating the privilege of coming back to the NHL, and more importantly the honor of doing it at home.