Bruins coach Claude Julien a man of low profile, high achievement
|07.04.13 at 10:30 am ET|
Claude Julien‘s New Jersey Devils had just defeated the Bruins, 3-1. Winners of four of their last five, with their stars finally healthy, the Devils stood second overall in the Eastern Conference with 102 points and appeared poised to make another extended postseason run.
“They are a good example of one of the best defensive teams in hockey,” Bruins coach Dave Lewis said during the postgame press conference. The defeat marked the eighth loss in the Bruins’ last nine games, and Boston was firmly entrenched in the basement of the Northeast Division.
The game was played on April 1, 2007. The next day, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello fired Julien. The biggest blemish for a coach in the National Hockey League is to lose his players. The loss of the coach’s job, naturally, soon follows. Speculation ran rampant that Julien had lost control of the players in the dressing room.
The reason for Julien’s dismissal in New Jersey, in Lamoriello’s eyes, was not complicated.
“I don’t think we’re at a point,” Lamoriello explained in 2007, “of being ready both mentally and [physically] to play the way that is necessary going into the playoffs.” Lamoriello, recognized as one of the finest executives in hockey since the day he arrived in East Rutherford in 1987, already had led to the Devils to three Stanley Cups. His words against Julien — a man whose life was completely intertwined with hockey — were condemning. He had lost his players.
A REBUILD IN BOSTON
Move ahead six years, and the Bruins, having just swept the extremely talented Penguins, huddled together to accept the Prince of Wales trophy. A collection of superstars, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, were no match for Julien’s well-balanced team.
In the midst of the ensuing postgame celebration, Julien was asked what going to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years meant to him. ”What it means to us,” the polite Julien corrected, “it means a lot.”
While slowly silencing detractors, Julien has built a family on the ice in Boston. He is the longest-tenured Bruins coach since Milt Schmidt, who guided the Bruins from 1954 until 1961. Since his hire in 2007, Julien has won more playoff games (50) than any other coach except for Detroit’s Mike Babcock (51). Two more victories would have catapulted Julien atop that list, as well as captured another Stanley Cup for his Bruins. Yet the man born in Blind River, Ontario, does not care to hear about his success or tell you how much he knows about the game. He has no time to share anecdotes from his playing days. Even after a painful defeat at the hands of the Blackhawks, his narrow lens is focused entirely on the ice.
“Our team likes to deflect credit,” says Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. ”The humble roots of Claude and the team, it’s an important part of our makeup. It starts from the top and works its way down.”
“It shows how our team is,” says Tuukka Rask, whose play in the postseason was sublime. ”We don’t like to talk about ourselves too much on a high note, not try to push ourselves to the front page. He’s definitely done a tremendous job here. He deserves a lot of credit for that.”
After Boston’s second Cup appearance in the past three seasons, Julien’s success has not gone unnoticed. A former boss in New Jersey is particularly impressed with the way his one-time employee has guided the Bruins.
“I have nothing but admiration and respect for him,” says Lamoriello. ”Claude’s honest, he’s sincere, and he respects the players. He gives those an opportunity to succeed who deserve an opportunity to succeed.”
Since Julien’s dismissal in New Jersey, the Devils have employed six different head coaches while the Bruins have only had one. Julien has won 256 games in Boston since his hiring in 2007, while the Devils have won 250. Only one of those two teams captured a Stanley Cup in that period of time, and it was not New Jersey.
Bruins forward Jay Pandolfo knows what it takes to win in New Jersey. The Burlington native and former Boston University star won two Stanley Cups during his time with the Devils. He knows that coaching for Lamoriello isn’t easy.
“I was in New Jersey for 13 years and I had eight head coaches,” says Pandolfo. Three of those coaches (Lamoriello, Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson) were hired on two separate occasions in Jersey, showing the team’s lack of stability at head coach.
“It’s the type of place where it’s a short-term job,” says Pandolfo. ”It’s definitely not the easiest place to coach, I know that for sure. Lou is not afraid to make a change, but he’ll admit that they’re not always the right decision.”
Lamoriello agrees that Julien had his Bruins ready both mentally and physically to play the way that was necessary going into the playoffs.
“There was never any question whatsoever in the character, the personality, and the humility of Claude,” says Lamoriello. ”That has never changed. Claude’s overcome any slumps and handled situations to get his guys back on track, putting his faith in the right people, and he’s done a tremendous job for the Bruins. He went through some different things in Montreal and New Jersey, but he’s always been a great coach. There’s no question.”
Julien just needed to find the right home or, dare it be said, the right system.
FROM THE ROOFTOPS
“In the coaching profession, you have to be given up on two or three times before you become really good,” says Chiarelli. “You learn from your previous tenures. If you go through it — a number of coaches — you’ll see they learned from working with previous organizations and then getting fired.”
Claude Julien grew up in a loving family that knew hockey nearly as well as it knew the meaning of hard work. His father, Marcel, started his own roofing company in 1971 when Claude was 11 years old. Claude and older brother Rick both roofed for their father, beginning each work day by walking together to the nearby general store and picking up a morning snack and a carton of chocolate milk.
(Rick now coaches in the National Capital Junior Hockey League. His Cumberland (Ontario) Bandits just captured their first-ever league championship, and Rick, who also serves as the team’s general manager, was named Coach of the Year for the second time in five seasons.)
Before becoming a coach, Claude had dreams of skating in the NHL. As a player, however, Julien could never seem to catch his big break. While he was a star defenseman playing junior hockey, Julien was limited to a brief career in the NHL. In addition to 14 NHL games with the Quebec Nordiques, the Ottawa native played for such teams as the Port Huron Flags, the Baltimore Skipjacks and the Kansas City Blades. Julien’s humility increased with each season over a 15-year playing career.
Julien worked his way up the coaching ranks, beginning as an assistant with the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Ottawa Junior Senators. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Hull Olympiques were his next stop before he moved on to the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Unlike his playing days, Julien finally caught a few breaks as a coach.
“I felt I had a lot of roadblocks as a player trying to get to the NHL,” Julien told Ottawa Sun sports writer Don Brennan in 2009. “It’s like everybody will tell you, you have to be in the right place at the right time. At one point I thought I was in, and had people believing in me, then those people went to another organization and I got traded, so it was like starting all over again. Where I got lucky as a coach, it’s all about timing, again. My first year as a head coach in Hull, we win a Memorial Cup. Three months later I win a gold medal with the under-18 team.”
Julien caught his break in coaching from Charles Henry, a living legend in the QMJHL. In 25 years with the Hull Olympiques, Henry oversaw a team that won a record seven President Cups, including one with Julien as head coach, as well as one Memorial Cup with Julien at the helm.
“When Claude started,” reminisces Henry, “he was an assistant coach in Tier II hockey [one level below the QMJHL]. I said, ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m a roofer.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. If you want to coach, you won’t have to be a roofer.’ He thought that was very funny.”
Yet Julien was serious about his job with his father’s roofing company.
“When he came to work for me as an assistant coach, he was still roofing,” says Henry. “He would come into the rink with his big boots and his hands full of tar. The next year I said, ‘You can’t do that. If you’re going to be a coach …’ then Claude cut me off. ’If I can be a coach,’ he said. I told him he could. He is so talented because he is a hard-working man of the street. He graduated from the university of the streets. Humility is part of his core. He works hard one day, harder the next. And it’s unbelievable the skills he has to turn things into positives.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG-CITY HOCKEY
By 2002, Julien was coaching the Montreal Canadiens. His tenure in Montreal included a memorable playoff series as the Canadiens and the Bruins reignited their rivalry in 2004. After falling behind in the series, 3-1, the Habs stormed back and won three straight behind the play of goalie Jose Theodore.
Julien never had a chance to coach the Devils in the playoffs. He proved he could deliver wins in the regular season, winning 119 of his first 238 games as a head coach in the NHL, but had no experience of producing an extended run in the postseason.
“Sometimes you have a chance to recover, sometimes the circumstances dictate that you don’t, but there’s no price on experience,” says Lamoriello. ”He remained humble, remained sincere, and never changed his character. He never blamed anyone, either, whether it was a good situation or a bad situation. You really have to applaud Claude.”
Alongside Chiarelli and team president Cam Neely, Julien has found a home with the Bruins. His defensive style may leave a lot of fans frustrated, but what it does well is protect the net and the slot. Under Julien, the Bruins apply consistent pressure on the puck, though the style often looks like the team is constantly killing a power play even in the midst of five-on-five action.
“Any system in hockey is a good system if everyone buys into it,” says Boston College coach Jerry York. A five-time national champion at BC and Bowling Green, York appreciates the almost-collegial style of hockey which Julien has brought to the professional ranks in Boston.
“No egos, the importance of chemistry, they’re all about being a team,” continues York. ”His players, led by [Zdeno] Chara and [Patrice] Bergeron, they’re all sold on his system. He’s reemphasized the importance of being part of a club, part of a team. He’s done the very best he can molding the Bruins organization and, if anything, he doesn’t get enough credit. The NHL has a lot of good players, you have to admit that, but they’re all on the same wavelength. It’s amazing what he’s done here.”
A straightforward team, the Bruins always play the same way. They are a team that moves the puck forward, puts it in deep, and battles along the boards. Julien’s Bruins will never be confused with Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers, or even the ’97 Red Wings, but this is a team that knows its identity. The Bruins grind it out and use their speed by pushing pucks forward, and this is a style in which Julien believes. He laughs off criticisms, fully aware that this “system” runs much deeper than configuring several layers of defensemen to prevent opponents from getting good looks at his goalie.
“It’s the energy in the game, the effort,” says Julien. “You see our guys, they’re backchecking, having layers, so when somebody makes a mistake, you have somebody covering up. We’re blocking a lot of shots. The commitment is totally there. Throughout a whole season, it’s not easy to have that full commitment. But I think when you get to this stage, players start feeling it. They go above and beyond. That’s what you’re seeing from our team.”
The Bruins have fully embraced Julien, his style and system.
“We’re committed to do the little things, and really buy into our structure. We don’t pay too much attention to what’s going on outside of this locker room,” says Chara, the team captain. “We know what we have inside this locker room, and obviously the coaching staff is part of it. We’re all on the same boat.”
“We won the Cup with our system a couple of years ago, so we know it’s working,” adds Rask. ”Sometimes we know it’s working but we tend to change things and make things harder for ourselves, and that never works for us. That series [against Pittsburgh] was a pretty good example when we play our system, good things happen.”
Aside from the fact the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals, there are other areas that validate Julien’s system.
“You don’t have to look any further than Jags [41-year-old Jaromir Jagr],” says Julien. “He’s played a certain way his whole career, and now he sees a team that plays a certain way and he’s bought into it. Our guys believe in what we’re trying to do here as a group. We’ve won that way, and it doesn’t matter who comes in, eventually those guys realize how strong a belief we have in that dressing room and they just jump in. It’s a credit to the players for believing in what we do and what we preach, and going out there and executing it.”
Jagr, who only spent three months in Boston, exited the team’s dressing room and noted he was proud to be one of Claude Julien’s Bruins.
“He’s one of kind,” Jagr says about Julien. ”He’s a player’s coach and never panics. He stays cool no matter what kind of situation he’s in. That’s when you know you are coaching a very good team. No matter what happened, you stay cool, do the same, and don’t panic. And that’s what he is.”
Perhaps it’s just taken a few years to fully appreciate everything Julien brings to the Bruins. His teams do not play a magical style of hockey, but they are well-drilled and relentless on the ice. They play a certain style, similar to a college team, and, in collegiate terms, the Bruins have a successful program.
“Claude has them committed to playing the right way,” says recently retired Boston University coach Jack Parker. ”They make good decisions and play hard without the puck. You see the puck get turned over, and all of a sudden, the Bruins are backchecking and coming back hard. Their ‘star’ players are their best defensive players — [David] Krejci’s a great penalty-killer, and you can’t get a better center ice man than No. 37 [Bergeron]. They have all the right ingredients as a team to be successful, but it stems from — I won’t call it the system — I’ll call it the attitude.”
Parker, who coached at BU for 40 years and whose Terriers won the national title on three occasions, can see the dedication all across the Bruins organization.
“They have an attitude of, ‘We’re not going to get outworked.’ They have an attitude that says, ‘We’re going to make the smart play,’ which could lead to the next big play. When a star defenseman like Chara comes around and finds an opening, he passes it up and gives it to his teammate. He doesn’t try to force something bigger, he just makes the right play. That has a lot to do with the chemistry of the team, and has a lot to do with the character of the team, and certainly has a lot to do with the leadership of the team.”
The Bruins flirted with Parker in 1991 and 1997, but both times he chose to return to BU. During Parker’s 40-year run as coach of the Terriers, the Bruins hired 19 head coaches. Julien has outlasted all of his predecessors from those years.
“When you’re good, and you know you’re good, it’s the greatest feeling in the world,” says Parker. ”I think Claude Julien knows he’s a pretty good coach, he knows he’s getting the job done, and — not in an egotistical way — but that must make him feel pretty good about himself.”
The Bruins were known for the longest time as a team that could not find the right fit behind the bench. That all changed the day Chiarelli hired Julien.
“I’ve told Claude privately, I’ve said it publicly,” Chiarelli says, “how strongly I feel about him and his staff, but specifically about him and how he handles players. He has composure and intensity at the same time. That’s a terrific match and he’s able to pull it off. You may not see the intensity, but I see it behind the scenes, and the players see it. It’s really important, you talk about stability, the way he handles himself. He’s one of the top two or three coaches in the league.”
Julien’s supporters continue to grow.
“I never did understand why some Bruins fans or the Bruins press were belittling Claude Julien,” says ESPN hockey guru Barry Melrose. ”I think he’s done a heck of a job. It’s a lot tougher coaching when you’re expected to win than when [you have] a team that no one thinks has a chance. An underdog team is the easiest thing to coach. The Bruins are no longer underdogs when they go into a playoff series.”
And Claude Julien is the reason behind that.
“If I could come to work every day, do this stuff, then walk out of the rink and nobody knew who I was, I’d be the happiest guy in the world,” Julien says.
“I enjoy the job. I enjoy being around the players. I enjoy the whole process … just don’t like the limelight that comes with it. I’m low profile. That’s just the way I am.”
The Stanley Cup loss was tough on Julien. His watery eyes during the press conference after Game 6, while the Blackhawks celebrated on the Bruins’ ice, were just a glimpse into his broken heart. Not only did his Bruins lose a chance at another championship, the coach knew changes were coming. The glue of the dressing room, Andrew Ference, is moving on, as are Nathan Horton and Jagr. Chara will be a year older next season, and there are other changes in store for the Bruins before the puck drops on the 2013-14 season.
“This is a game that, two years ago, we had it going our way,” says Julien. ”This year, a couple of bounces here or there, and we could have had a different ending. That’s the hard part you have a tough time accepting. It’s going to take a while, but it certainly doesn’t take away the pride I that I have and how our team battled throughout these playoffs. We had a tough season. Somehow we were able to find our game at the right time, so you’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit for the way they battled.
“You realize that you only get so many chances to accomplish what we’ve tried to accomplish here, but knowing our players — and what we’ll have here next year — you’ll have a bunch of guys that are going to remember how it felt and they’re going to be hungry to get another crack at it.”
With that, the coach of the Boston Bruins is back to work. Back to his staff, back to his players, back to the dressing room. Hockey season may have come to an end, but Claude Julien still has a lot left to accomplish.