Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Adieu Guy Boucher

This past week, the Montreal Canadiens lost their young dauphin, the rising star that is Guy Boucher. A French Canadian student of the game who has succeeded at every level so far due to his diligence and the creative new development of tactics.

He’s the coach that any team would want. Eventually.

Habs fan reaction has been predictably sour on this departure. Boucher was seen as a star signing last season, even before he went to work for the organization. Following a season of success in the AHL and of player development the likes of which we have seldom seen in three decades in Montreal, his star only seemed brighter.

My personal take on this is that the Habs did the right thing here.

First, they did the right thing for the man. Boucher now leaves the Canadiens family with nothing but cherished memories. This will always be the team that gave him his break, and now too the team that didn’t begrudge him his next one.

Second, they honour their commitment to Jacques Martin, who like his calm demeanor or not, must be given loads of credit for his revamp of the team that can suddenly compete with the big boys.

Finally, they didn’t panic. Panic would have been hiring Boucher on as head coach for fear that he may be great. Such hirings are unwise, as they take us further from the well laid plan that was so painful to instigate one short year ago. A veteran coach was needed, and probably still is, while veterans are forged from the young generation of leaders coming through.

Still reasons to denounce this move do exist. In the vein of a Leclair trade that still haunts many a fan’s dreams, there’s the what if? What if Boucher wins the Cup elsewhere? What if he wins the Jack Adams?

It’s easy to get caught up in all these what ifs, but often forgot is the other side of the coin: What if Guy Boucher takes time to adjust to the league like the vast majority of coaches who come through?

Among the reasons to take confident comfort in this move, the story of one William Scott Bowman is foremost.

Scotty Bowman entered the Canadiens organization as a star more than 50 years before Guy Boucher ever did. At his hiring in the early 1950s, Bowman was a former junior Canadien who had impressed his mentors. Early in his post-player days, Scotty was made assistant of the Junior Canadiens under the mercurial Sam Pollock. Memorial Cup finals and championships followed as he made his name within the Forum’s halls.

After stints coaching in Ottawa and Peterborough, Scotty was moved internally to the position of chief scout of amateur talent (a latter-day Trevor Timmins). In any case, the Canadiens weren’t going to let his feet get cold. When he was ready, he took full duties as coach of the Montreal Junior Canadiens ¬ the main feeder to the star-laden team in the NHL.

Then, in 1967-68, the NHL expanded its operations to include 6 more cities. Opportunities that had been sewn up by playing and coaching talent alike until then were suddenly doubled. For the Canadiens, this presented a choice. Would Scotty Bowman be shoehorned into the pro ranks alongside Toe Blake, would they put their organizational foot down and try to bar his way, or would they let the star they had nurtured fly the coop.

They chose the latter and Scotty was allowed to depart in order to become an assistant to Lynn Patrick in St. Louis. As Scotty recalls it, he decided to take a chance then too:
"Montreal was a very strong team at the time. Toe Blake was coaching. I got a chance to go to the NHL when they expanded. It's hard to turn down a chance to get into the NHL. I was coaching the Junior Canadiens who had moved back to Montreal. I got the opportunity to go to St. Louis from Lynn Patrick. He was going to be the general manager, and I coached his son Craig in junior hockey in Montreal. When he got the job with the Blues, he hired me as his assistant. I decided I really should take a chance. I was fortunate the league expanded and I got an opportunity to get to one of the expansion franchises."
His time in St. Louis was a success, after becoming head coach after mere weeks into the season, Scotty’s teams went on to reach the finals in each of his first three seasons in the NHL. No doubt Scotty learned much.

Apprenticeship completed, his old head coach and friend Sam Pollock convinced Scotty to rejoin his hometown club in 1971. The rest is history.

Guy Boucher may never match Scotty Bowman’s achievements, but his path to the NHL coaching ranks is at least somewhat similar. In both cases, the coaches had keen eyes for talent, a commitment to winning and the determination to outstretch their rival coaches. Both were also known stars of the Canadiens organizations they were part of.

In following Bowman’s path out of the Canadiens family to stretch his legs, we hope that the similarities continue ¬ there’s really nothing else to be done. In the new world of the NHL, where teams from one season rarely resemble the one three years down the line, there’s no real reason to fret over Boucher. We simply hope he can learn and thrive while keeping the candle he has for the Canadiens organization flickering until the opportunity for his return may come.

Suivant, next.

On a related note, one would think that the hiring of Guy Boucher last year will have taught the Canadiens management team a valuable lesson about installing quality personnel under the main team. I hope that in addition to holding early camps, firing scouts, signing Americans and negotiating with Plekanec that Gauthier is dedicating a substantial slab of time to scouting the next Bulldogs coach.

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