VANCOUVER -- As Alain Vigneault prepared to coach his 1,000th NHL game when his New York Rangers visit the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, it wasn't hard for the 54-year-old to find perspective on a career that came really close to ending 15 years earlier.
Vigneault was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 1999-2000, but was fired by the Montreal Canadiens 20 games into the following season. Despite three-plus seasons behind the bench in Montreal, he couldn't find another job in hockey. With his marriage breaking up and no jobs lined up, Vigneault thought he might have to "recycle myself into something else," and was "dabbling" with work in the media.
"'Challenging' would be an understatement," Vigneault said. "Even though I had sent my resume to tons of people and I had just been up for coach of the year with the [Canadiens], I couldn't find a job. I was six months out of work, I was going through a challenging separation, with two young daughters and a lot of bills. … There was a six-month period where anybody that's out of work, you ask yourself a lot of questions."
Vigneault found the answers by taking a step back and coaching again in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2003; that led to him being hired by the Vancouver Canucks in 2005 to guide their American Hockey League affiliate. The following season he was promoted to the Canucks after Marc Crawford was fired and Vigneault never looked back, winning the Jack Adams Award in 2007, the first of six winning seasons in Vancouver.
His teams have been at or near the top of the NHL ever since.
When the Canucks fired Vigneault after the 2012-13 season, two years after he coached Vancouver to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, he was quickly hired in New York, where he led the Rangers to the 2014 Cup Final in his first season and to the Presidents' Trophy, his third, last season. Vigneault enters his 1,000th NHL game with a 538-349-112 record. Only Scotty Bowman had more wins when he reached 1,000 games, but that doesn't mean there weren't a lot of doubts along the way.
"It was six years between [NHL jobs], so to say I was very confident I would get back would not be the truth," Vigneault said. "I was just trying to work and pay my bills, and I was fortunate to do a job I liked. Whether it was junior hockey or the American league or whatever, it was still a pleasure for me to be a coach and work with young players."
A lot of those young players have nothing but praise for Vigneault, but there were few on whom he had a greater impact than Vancouver forward Alexandre Burrows, who started as an undrafted free agent in the ECHL before graduating from the AHL to the NHL with Vigneault and the Canucks in 2005. Burrows started as a penalty-killing depth forward before Vigneault gave him a chance to play on the top line with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin; he averaged just under 30 goals in his four seasons in that role.
But it wasn't always positive for Burrows, who remembers their year-end meeting after his first NHL season. He had a one-way contract for the following season, but realized quickly it didn't mean much.
"He told me, 'You're not good enough, son.' That's all he used to call me," Burrows said. "He's like, 'You're not strong enough, you're not good enough right now, you don't compete hard enough. You really need a good summer of working out in the gym making sure your weight is up. He took 20 minutes to tell me I wasn't good enough and I better come back [better]. It wasn't always pretty, it wasn't always fun to hear, but sometimes that's what you need as an athlete and as a boy trying to become a man.
"You need those real talks. That was one of them. It changed my career."
There are still stories of Vigneault's sometimes brutal honesty to be found throughout the Canucks' locker room; that's no surprise considering 540 of his 999 games and 313 of his 538 victories came in Vancouver. But Rangers forward Tanner Glass, who also played for Vigneault with the Canucks, said his coach hasn't changed much in New York, where the frank honesty has included challenging star goalie Henrik Lundqvist at times.
"He's been really good for this group and for me personally," said Lundqvist, who credits his fast start in 2015-16 to a frank exit meeting with Vigneault at the end of last season. "He challenges you at times, and in a good way. He's pretty up-front with what he wants, and when you're not on your toes he will let you know as well."
Vigneault makes no apologies for his sometimes blunt assessments.
"I'm not about gimmicks," Vigneault said. "I really believe players have a responsibility. There's certain things they are expected to do, and I will be very demanding and I will hold them accountable to do those things. In that aspect I probably haven't changed much, but through the years as you get more experience you're able to recognize situations quicker, when it's time to step in, when it's time to pull back and give players a little bit more space. Experience is a big thing and it's an important thing."
Experience behind an NHL bench is something Vigneault has plenty of now. Looking back at a career that almost ended early, he knows it came with a cost but it was one he had to be willing to pay to succeed.
"You sacrifice a lot of things on a personal note," he said. "Once hockey season starts, basically all we do is work in hockey. The balance people have in life between their family lives and their work is really tested and put to the limit. It's like anything else. I've never felt I worked a day in my life because I love the game, I love being around the team and building a group and making it come together. I was willing to make that sacrifice."