'Coach' Roy surprising critics, friends alike
QUEBEC CITY -- The face is a little fleshier. The body a little thicker perhaps. But the eyes, they remain unchanged by the passage of time.
Blazing with an almost supernatural kind of intensity, they are the same eyes that winked defiantly at Tomas Sandstrom in the middle of an overtime game in the Stanley Cup finals that will go down as a moment for the ages. They are the same eyes that stared down Montreal Canadiens president Ronald Corey and coach Mario Tremblay on that fateful night in Montreal in December 1995, when Patrick Roy played his final game as a Hab and changed forever the fortune and future of two franchises.
He's a man who's accomplished more than any other player at his position -- four Stanley Cups, three Vezina Trophies, three Conn Smythe Trophies and NHL records for games played and victories in both the regular season and the playoffs. But there is a curious blend of the incongruous and the comfortable that comes with viewing Roy in his new environment, from behind the bench as coach of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Roy's eyes now glare at players who dare not bring their work ethic and their focus, they light up when a play goes as planned. As it was on this late-October night, when the Remparts converted a late power play with 6.6 seconds left to edge Drummondville 4-3.
Earlier that morning, Roy and assistant coach Martin Laperriere, the son of longtime Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jacques Laperriere, had spent considerable time working with the team's two power-play units. Then, during the pregame meeting, Roy and Laperriere had warned that the best way to exploit the Voltigeurs on the power play would be to work the puck down low. It was exactly the strategy that led to the winning goal. As jubilant Remparts players piled over the boards into the bench, Roy clapped his hands and leaned back, his eyes fairly glowing with satisfaction.
Explosively passionate about winning (he once destroyed a television and VCR unit in Anaheim after a game in which then-Colorado coach Bob Hartley, now a close friend, had the temerity to briefly pull Roy even though the Avs went on to win the game), many believed Roy simply did not have the proper emotional makeup to coach junior hockey. Yet he has embraced the role, channeling that passion into a completely different space, in a way that continues to surprise friends and critics alike.
On a recent road trip, the team bus arrived in Shawinigan in the middle of the night. After depositing the players at the hotel, Roy joined the training staff at the rink in hanging up the jerseys in preparation for the morning skate.
When the team returns from any road trip, Roy is the first person off the bus and the first person to grab a bag and haul it into the Colisee Pepsi. Every time.
"How much money does he have in his pocket? He doesn't need to do that," Laperriere said. "But he doesn't stand on his pedestal."
And the true mark of a great Canadian boss? Every morning, Roy arrives at the rink with a tray of Tim Hortons coffee and treats for the staff.
The morning after his Remparts defeated Drummondville, Roy spent more than an hour in his office with the father of one of his players, a 17-year-old, before meeting with the local press and an out-of-town reporter.
This is what the greatest goalie of all time and a man bound for the Hall of Fame in a few days calls retirement? What about golfing or car dealerships or endorsements or the ubiquitous "consultant" role in which most elite athletes find themselves when they walk away from the game?
Roy shrugs his shoulders. At 41, he's too young to really retire.
"When you had a career like I had, it's [important] to find something that you love to do. And I'm passionate about the game of hockey, and I have a chance to give back to this world and help younger players to achieve their goals and their dreams. And if it's hockey, it's in hockey, if it's in a different way, it's a different way," he said in a recent interview with ESPN.com.
He even relishes the meetings with parents, many of whom are angry or concerned or want something from Roy.
"I like it. I have no problem with that," Roy said. "That's what I'm here for. Sometimes if [a player's parents] have some concerns, if they have some things they'd like to express, I'm more than [happy] to explain my views and where we are as an organization.
"Sometimes, they will ask for trades, sometimes they ask for help, sometimes they will ask for different things. We're here to develop players, but at the same time, we're trying to provide them with the best teaching we can give them on and off the ice. For some of them, they will have the chance to become hockey players or some of them might be businessmen. It's a bit of a mix of life teaching and hockey teaching."
Mon dieu! Patrick Roy, the man who once reduced Jeremy Roenick to verbal rubble with the classic, "I cannot really hear what Jeremy says because I've got my two Stanley Cup rings plugging my ears," is now Zen coach?
Wonder of wonders, except from those who know Roy best and longest.
Assistant coach Claude Lefebvre grew up with Roy, playing minor hockey with him from the time they were able to tie their skates. He said the calmness Roy exudes behind the bench is merely a reflection of his personality away from the rink. Indeed, Lefebvre figures Roy has managed the significant accomplishment of marrying that blue-hot passion to win with his lesser-known gentle nature.
"As a coach, he's so calm. But that's what he's like in life," Lefebvre said. "He's easygoing. He's honest, loyal. It's easy to be his friend."
Roy and some business partners purchased the storied junior franchise in December 1996. While with the Avalanche, Roy would have tapes of games sent to him and he reveled in assessing players' skills and merit, preparing for the junior draft, and making trades and other moves.
After retiring following the 2002-03 season, Roy returned home and took over the GM role full-time. But he had the coaching bug, so he and Lefebvre coached their respective sons in AAA bantam in Quebec City.
When the Remparts began last season, Roy slowly installed himself behind the bench, eventually leading them to an unexpected Memorial Cup championship.
All of which comes as no surprise to Hartley.
While coaching him for 4½ years in Colorado, Hartley saw Roy breaking down almost every element of the coaching game from his vantage point between the pipes.
"He wanted to know everything that was going on at practice or during a game," Hartley said.
When Roy's sons, Frederick and Jonathan, now 15 and 17, began playing minor hockey in suburban Denver, Roy borrowed some of Hartley's drills, but not before he'd quizzed Hartley on exactly how they were supposed to work.
What was the drill designed to accomplish?
What do the forwards do during the drill? Why?
What about the defensemen? Why?
"He was dissecting those drills down to the finest details," Hartley said. "Patrick the coach is Patrick the player."
Last year during the junior playoffs, Roy would often call Hartley to talk about tactics and plays. At one point, Roy e-mailed Hartley video of a play that was befuddling the Remparts and the two spoke on the phone for more than an hour working on a solution to the problem.
The Remparts won the following game, and within minutes, Roy was on the phone to his old coach. "Hey, it worked," he said excitedly.
Remparts captain Brent Aubin, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, has been wowed by Roy's attention to detail.
"In practice, it's unbelievable. He talks to the forwards, he knows everything. He talks to the defense, he knows everything. That surprised me," Aubin said.
Coaching junior hockey might be the most demanding job in the business.
Imagine a dressing room full of teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 (plus the odd 20-year-old thrown in for good measure), all at varying degrees of development emotionally, physically and professionally. There is the pressure to play well enough to get drafted, to get an agent, to get noticed. There are the issues of being away from home for the first time, sometimes in a foreign country. There are girlfriend issues. There's media attention, especially in Quebec City, where the Remparts are the No. 1 show in town with an average attendance of around 9,000, second in the QMJHL behind Halifax. Then, toss in the pressure on the coach to form a winning broth from that potentially explosive stew.
After the Drummondville game, for instance, Voltigeurs coach Guy Boucher unleashed a profanity-laced tirade on his players that lasted at least 10 minutes and left local reporters shaking their heads in disgust.
"People know Patrick, the competitor. That's when you get people who love you and people who hate you," Hartley said. "But I know a different Patrick. He is such a loving, giving person. Patrick is probably the player that allowed me to find out so much about him. Knowing Patrick is more rewarding than saying I coached him."
That's not to say Roy does not go to the whip when the velvet glove doesn't produce the desired results. The Remparts' mantra, and the mantra of their coach, is that the players will decide what kind of coach Roy is.
"It's just about being able to control your emotions," Roy explained, stretching his long legs out in the coaches' office. "I know that I'm having 16- to 20-year-old players and I don't expect them to be like I was. That's the last thing I want to do. But I always told them that I will be the coach that you guys decide that I will be. The only thing that I expect from our players is to work hard.
"We have great support from people in Quebec and we're very involved in our community, and I expect them to work hard and that has nothing to do with talent. If they work, they're going to have a blast with me. If they don't work hard, they know it's going to be painful."
Like the night last season when the Remparts turned in a less than acceptable performance on home ice. Roy told the players to wait in the dressing room after the game. When the crowd had dispersed, the players put on practice jerseys and went back on the ice for a late-night practice session.
"It was like a 'Miracle' kind of thing," said forward Angelo Esposito, referring to similar tactics employed by former U.S. national team coach Herb Brooks (oddly enough, another member of the Hockey Hall of Fame's Class of 2006). "Obviously, it was tough. But it helped our spirit. That was a big turning point in the season."
Laperriere, who also oversees the Remparts' demanding educational programs, said it's been an education watching Roy learn his new role.
"He's able to talk about his experiences without it being, 'Oh, here's another story from the old pro guy,'" Laperriere said.
Sometimes, Roy will come into the dressing room between periods and simply glare at his players and leave without saying anything, an act that speaks volumes.
Roy's confidence, his belief that no challenge is too great, has rubbed off on his team. Even this season, with a dramatically overhauled team that is among the youngest in the QMJHL, and without defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, whose play earned him a surprise roster spot in San Jose, the Remparts are 13-9 so far.
Roy has surrounded the team with the best equipment and resources money can buy. There is an NHL-style dressing room, workout facilities and training room. There is top-notch food and a classroom upstairs at the Colisee. At least once last year, Roy chartered a plane so his team would have an extra couple of days at home rather than taking a daylong bus ride.
But along with the perks come the understanding that these aren't favors but tools players have to take advantage of. Twice last year and twice already this season, Roy has benched players who were either missing school or whose grades weren't up to snuff.
Aubin was acquired by trade last year at Christmas from Rouyn-Noranda, which he believed was a well-run organization.
"But once you look at the Remparts, it's not even close. I think it's a privilege for every guy on the team to play here. I hope every guy in the locker room realizes that," Aubin said.
More than one player likened his relationship with Roy to that of a father and his sons. It is on a number of levels.
Three years ago, Roy opened the doors to his home to rookies Joey Ryan and Andrew Andricopoulos when their original billets' marriage broke up.
Last year, Russian star Alexander Radulov, the player of the year in the Quebec league and a top Nashville prospect, moved in while Radulov's billets moved into an apartment in Roy's new lakefront home.
This year, Russian twins Roman and Ruslan Bashkirov are living with Roy and thriving under his tutelage.
For Ryan, a Los Angeles Kings prospect, the memories of sitting down with Roy and watching "CSI" and other shows will linger as long as those of hoisting the Memorial Cup.
"It was awesome," he said.
Not everyone, of course, is a charter member of the Roy fan club. The man who made headlines early in his career when he appeared to engage in chats with his goalposts made headlines during the past spring's Memorial Cup tournament when he critiqued opposing teams' goalies. The tactic, clearly an effort to get in the other teams' collective kitchens, worked and prompted Moncton coach Ted Nolan, now the bench boss on Long Island, to label the comments as "tasteless and classless."
After the Drummondville game, Boucher made repeated bowing motions across the ice toward Roy as if in mock praise. Asked later if he thought Roy received favorable calls because of who he is, Boucher said that everyone in the QMJHL feels the same way.
"But I didn't say anything," he said with a wry grin.
In the coming days, Roy will reluctantly take time away from his Remparts to travel to Toronto, where he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He will be reminded again and again of his heroics as a rookie in 1986, leading the Habs to a surprise Stanley Cup. And of his mind-boggling 10 straight overtime wins en route to a mystical Cup win in 1993, the last for the Habs. And of his single-mindedness in leading the Avs to a Cup win, his final, in 2001.
It will be a time to relive moments that are indelibly etched in the minds of hockey fans around the world.
These are the kinds of journeys through the past that Roy rarely makes himself, journeys he admits he perhaps should have embraced more readily.
"I've never been a guy like that. After the year is over, it's over, and we're moving on to the next year. And when this year's over, we're moving on to the next. I think that really helped me to be consistent. It really helped not scaring me, I guess, at the same time," Roy said. "If you try to match your best years, it's hard coming back the following year and wanting to win No. 40 before winning No. 1. It was so much easier for me to focus on one game at a time and focusing to do my best and win this game and to do whatever I had to do to win that hockey game."
If this focus allowed Roy to ascend to the very pinnacle of the game, it has also allowed him to walk away from the game unfettered by remorse or regret. A year ago, Hartley asked Roy if he wanted to come out of retirement and join Hartley's Thrashers. Roy laughed when remembering the conversation.
"No. I was done. I did what I had to do. I pushed my limits and I think I'm proud of pushing it as far as I could go and it certainly helps me to have no regrets. I'm not on the bus, saying, 'Oh, I could be on the plane from Colorado to Detroit,'" Roy said. "There's not too many times I can say watching a game or behind the bench at a game I said, 'Oh, I wish I could be on the ice.' To be honest with you, it rarely happened. It happened maybe once or twice but not more than that."
Given what we know of Roy the competitor, the assumption is that this is merely a stepping-stone to a return to the NHL as either a coach or a GM. Things are not so simple from Roy's perspective.
"It's tough. One of the reasons I'm not looking to go to the NHL level is that junior is such a perfect fit in my life," he said. "You know you go and play in Shawinigan and you don't need to leave the day before. You're leaving at 4 o'clock on game day, you're coming back the same night and you're in your bed. You're spending so much more time than what you're doing at the NHL level. And if I want to play golf Thursday afternoon after practice, I don't feel bad doing it. At the NHL level, maybe you need to work differently and you're judged because, 'Ah, we saw the coach at the golf course.' At least I could go at my pace and do it the way I like it."
But surely there will come a point when the need to challenge himself at yet another level, to see if he can do it, will supersede creature comforts, right?
"That's a good question. I will do the junior until I don't enjoy myself," Roy said. "And I won't look to upgrade until I don't enjoy myself, until I need a different challenge. To be honest with you, as we speak today, it's not in my future to go into the NHL level. It's to enjoy what I'm doing and doing this for about 10 years, if I can, and then maybe after that, then maybe, just relax and enjoy life."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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