Alain Vigneault stepped behind the Montreal Canadiens bench on Oct. 1, 1997 feeling ready, if a bit green. He was 36 years old, the second youngest coach in Canadiens history behind Claude Ruel.
Vigneault was coaching his first NHL game.
"I was a little French Quebecer getting an opportunity to coach the team from his province," Vigneault told NHL.com on Friday. "I knew the history that was there with the Habs, so I just felt so honored and privileged."
The Canadiens tied the Ottawa Senators 2-2 in Vigneault's NHL coaching debut. They defeated the Boston Bruins 4-1 three nights later to give him his first win.
On Saturday, Vigneault became the 21st coach in NHL history to win 500 games when his New York Rangers defeated the Arizona Coyotes 5-1 at Gila River Arena.
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The self-proclaimed little French Quebecer tied Montreal coach and Hockey Hall of Fame member Toe Blake for 20th place on the NHL wins list. Vigneault is one win shy of tying Pat Burns, another former Canadiens coach and Hockey Hall of Fame member, for 19th place.
Vigneault is 500-335-35-72 in 942 games coached.
"I do understand that 500 is a lot of wins and I've been very fortunate to have coached some real good players, have had some real great assistants working with me, and I've always had support of management," said Vigneault, in his second season with New York.
"So to get to 500 wins, I mean there's not a lot of these jobs out there. When I started there were only 26 of these jobs, now there is 30. I obviously feel very privileged to be one of the 30."
Vigneault got his chance to be a coach in the NHL in 1997 because he impressed former Canadiens general manager Rejean Houle with his preparedness and composure. Vigneault had been a coach for 11 years, including in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and almost four seasons as an assistant with the Senators, by the time he got the job with the Canadiens.
"You could see there was something there with him, that he knew what was going on," Houle said. "He had the feeling for the game and knew the game well. He was a very intelligent person and he knew exactly what to do and how to approach the players. He was a young coach, but he was a very mature person and you could feel that right away."
Rick Bowness felt the same way when he interviewed Vigneault to be his assistant with the expansion Senators in 1992. Vigneault was 31.
"Ten to 15 minutes into the interview I knew I was going to offer him the job and was hoping he would take it," Bowness said. "I knew then he would be a head coach. We played with some of the same guys, and the background checks I did with them, they all said, 'You're going to love this guy, he's a lot like you.' You could sense how serious he was and the passion he had for the game. It just jumps out at you."
Bowness watched as Vigneault learned how to deal with the NHL player, which is much different for a coach coming from working with junior players.
But what truly impressed Bowness was how Vigneault responded to being fired by the Canadiens 20 games into the 2000-01 season. He took some time off and then went back to coaching junior hockey before getting hired by the Vancouver Canucks to coach their American Hockey League affiliate in Winnipeg.
It took Vigneault six years to get another coaching job in the NHL.
"When you're the coach of the Montreal Canadiens, man, you're the king of the province," Bowness said. "But to go back to junior hockey, back to the minors and do what he did to get back to this level just speaks volumes for his passion for the game."
Bowness saw Vigneault's maturity firsthand when he went to work with him in Vancouver in 2006. It was evident in how Vigneault kept his emotion to the side and analyzed the game for what he was seeing, not feeling.
"The worst thing a coach can do is think with his heart," Bowness said. "Alain thinks with his head and he stays one step ahead of everything."
Vigneault has had success -- two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, including last season with the Rangers, and two Presidents' Trophies with the Canucks -- in part because of the respect he has from his players. He's not light on them, but he doesn't ride them to the point where they resent him.
"As long as you worked hard with [Alain] you would get a chance to play," said Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows, who had Vigneault as a coach in the American Hockey League and in Vancouver. "Guys could talk to him and not feel too nervous."
Burrows said he could always tell when Vigneault was unhappy; it was when he didn't come into the dressing room after a game or a practice.
"One thing I learned if I ever coach is that's maybe one thing I'll do," Burrows said. "If I really get angry, you just don't come in, and the next day it's probably better if you thought about things and can teach instead of yelling and screaming."
Canucks forward Daniel Sedin said he can count on one hand the times he remembers Vigneault losing his cool during his seven seasons in Vancouver.
"He was good to the players and that's what counts," Sedin said.
Vigneault hasn't changed in New York. When asked, his players repeatedly talk about the respect he has for them and they have for him. Not once has a Rangers player even hinted at the idea that they weren't prepared for a game.
"His pre-scout and getting the team ready, X's and O's, is the best I have seen," Sedin said.
It helps that Vigneault coaches a system that is player-friendly. His teams thrive on speed and moving the puck quickly, generating a lot of quality offensive chances, and pressuring the puck relentlessly.
The Rangers are fifth in the NHL in scoring with 166 goals in 54 games. The Canucks finished in the top five in scoring in three of his seven seasons, including first in 2010-11 and second in 2009-10. The Canadiens were fifth in scoring in 1997-98.
Vigneault's teams scored 2.75 goals per game entering Saturday.
"I believe that there's one way to play and that's the right way," Vigneault said. "Most coaches that have success in the NHL they all believe in their way of coaching and philosophy in playing, and at the end of the day I believe what myself and my assistants are trying to do is right."
How can anyone say he's doing it wrong? Vigneault is one win away from being the 21st member of an exclusive club.
"Five hundred wins, it's an amazing accomplishment," Bowness said. "He's been to the Final twice, he's going to take that team there again."
NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley contributed to this report.