Commentary

Coaches take similar paths to finals

Updated: June 4, 2011, 2:50 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It is not uncommon to see teams adopt the personalities of their coaches: tough, emotional, stoic. It is less common opposing coaches reflect similar traits and tendencies and further present mirror images of themselves.

Yet it should come as no surprise that the two coaches left standing this season, Claude Julien of Boston and Alain Vigneault of Vancouver, do just that. Not only are the two men good friends and former teammates, the paths they have charted en route to their first Stanley Cup finals are eerily similar.

"We go way back," Julien said. "From being teammates in Salt Lake City to being both from the Ottawa area, him being on the other side of the river, on the Quebec side. We built a friendship throughout those years."

Not only did both men cut their coaching teeth in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but they did so with the same team, in Hull, albeit at different times. Their simultaneous arrival at the Cup finals also marks the first time two francophone coaches are facing off against each other. In that sense, they represent role models for coaches across the province.

"I've known them both for a long time," former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien told ESPN.com. "It's a big thing for Quebec to have these two coaches end up in the Stanley Cup final."

Therrien's career is likewise intertwined with the two Cup finals coaches. He worked with Vigneault in the Montreal Canadiens organization when Vigneault was the Habs coach and Therrien was the coach of the team's AHL affiliate in Hamilton. Then, when Vigneault was terminated by the Habs, Therrien took over for him. When Therrien was likewise given his walking papers by the Canadiens, he was replaced by their mutual friend, Julien. Montreal was the first NHL head-coaching gig for all three men.

"I worked with Alain and we became really close friends at the time," Therrien said. "He's a guy that's really well-organized [and] very smart defensively."

Despite being fired from the pressure job that is coaching in Montreal, Therrien said the experience there was invaluable to all of their NHL educations.

[+] EnlargeClaude Julien
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesClaude Julien has been head coach of the Boston Bruins since the 2007-08 season.

"[When you get your first NHL job], you've got to learn a lot and there's not a better place to learn than Montreal," Therrien said. "You learn from those experiences."

After being fired by the Habs, Vigneault went on to coach in the QMJHL a second time then in the AHL before returning to the NHL in Vancouver; Julien went from Montreal to New Jersey to Boston. Both coaches have known their fair share of playoff disappointments -- Boston blew a 3-0 series lead and lost to Philadelphia last season, while Vancouver was ousted by Chicago in 2009 and 2010.

"I think we both came into this season pretty much under the same situation," Vigneault said. "[Julien] was in his four-year window, I was in my four-year window. We both knew we had good teams, we both knew we had to win, so from that standpoint, I'm real happy for him. Now, we're going to get an opportunity, both of us, to compete for the Cup.

"I've known him a long time and we both know what coaches go through on a daily basis and a yearly basis. So he can relate to me and I can relate to him. I've got a tremendous amount of respect for what he does and what he has done with his team this year."

Vigneault is correct. If both teams had not enjoyed successful playoff runs this spring, there is every possibility both coaches would have been in jeopardy of losing their jobs. But that is the nature of the business, and the two friends were supportive of each other given that backdrop.

"I think this year, more than any other year, we were very supportive of each other, knowing the demands of both organizations and hoping to have those teams in the Stanley Cup final," Julien said. "The expectations were very high. I remember at one point saying we hoped to see each other in the Stanley Cup final, and here we are."

The two coaches have known each other for many years. They were briefly teammates in the Central Hockey League, playing in Salt Lake City. Hall of Famer Joe Mullen played with Vigneault and Julien in the CHL and remembers them as terrific teammates. Mullen, an assistant coach in Philadelphia, said he always enjoys crossing paths with both of his old teammates and is not at all surprised the hard-nosed defensemen went on to successful NHL coaching careers.

"We always chat at the benches and try and catch up as quickly as we can," Mullen said. "It's great to see them doing so well. Both guys were solid stay-at-home defensemen and became students of the game."

Vancouver assistant coach Rick Bowness also played in Salt Lake City, although he was ahead of Julien and Vigneault. When Bowness took over the head-coaching job in Ottawa in 1992, he was asked by management if he would talk to a hot-shot young coach working in the QMJHL across the river in Hull.

"So we met in Ottawa, and 10 minutes into the conversation, I knew I would hire him," Bowness told ESPN.com. "The chemistry was there. I knew [Vigneault] was a hardworking, loyal guy and I knew we were going to have a tough couple of years in Ottawa. So, when you go into that, you want to surround yourself with people that are going to be very loyal and that are going to be very committed to the long-term picture of where we were going. It wasn't going to be easy and it wasn't, but his knowledge of the game [was great].

"Was he ready for the national league at that point? No, he wasn't. I wasn't putting a staff together that was ready 'right now,' it had to grow with the players, with the organization."

When Vigneault took the job in Montreal in 1997, he asked Bowness to join his staff, but Bowness declined and headed to Phoenix, where he thought the Coyotes had a better chance to win the Stanley Cup. Vigneault called again when he took over in Vancouver after the lockout, and Bowness jumped at the chance to work with his old charge, the student having become the teacher with the talented Canucks.

[+] EnlargeAlain Vigneault
John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images Vancouver's Alain Vigneault is coaching his first Stanley Cup finals series.

Never mind the past 20 years, Bowness said; he's seen an evolution in Vigneault over the past five years.

"Actually, one thing about coaching as a career, you get better every year," Bowness said. "You have to grow, you have to change the way you do things. You change your approach with players. You change your approach to how you think the game, and he's continued to grow as a coach and grow as a person and he's made the necessary changes as we've gone along here."

Although both men are considered no-nonsense guys when it comes to their teams, Bowness insisted that, along with being a poor golfer, Vigneault has a great sense of humor.

"No, he's not a very good golfer; I've seen that swing, it's ugly," Bowness said. "You know, he's got a great sense of humor. We have a lot of fun. We could be screaming at each other every day and arguing every day, and then we just put it aside and we have lots of laughs."

Longtime NHLer Doug Jarvis has worked with Julien since his Montreal days, when Jarvis ran the Habs' AHL club. Jarvis said he thinks Julien's intuition has served him well as he's evolved as a coach.

"I think he has very good instincts in terms of what a player is thinking in a certain situation," Jarvis told ESPN.com. "I feel like he's got a real good balance on when to push and when not to push as strong, for the group and the individuals."

Beyond their friendship, Julien and Vigneault are sticklers for defensive detail, and the Canucks and Bruins ranked 1-2, respectively, in goals allowed during the regular season.

Just don't expect the two to do much reminiscing during this finals.

"I know that throughout the playoffs we were kind of encouraging each other," Julien said. "Now that we've made it here, we've both gone silent and don't plan on talking to each other until it's all over."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.