Julien returns to Gatineau, longs for return of NHL

 

Claude Julien was honoured Wednesday at Gatineau’s Robert Guertin Arena Wednesday night, where his impressive coaching career began with the Olympiques 18 years ago, but he wasn’t mincing words.

In his perfect world, he would have been behind the bench for his Boston Bruins at the TD Garden in Beantown. Or barking instructions to the Bruins at Scotiabank Place. Or doing the same at one of the NHL’s other 28 arenas.

“I’m as frustrated as the fans are,” Julien said, keeping his fingers crossed that the end to the NHL lockout is imminent, that talks between players and owners Wednesday could lead to a new collective bargaining agreement. “We’re all creatures of habit and right now I should be coaching and doing my work. And I’m not. So, it has been a tough year.”

Due to the lockout, Julien has spent more time with family and watched plenty of American Hockey League hockey – Providence, Worcester, Portland and Springfield are all within easy driving distance of Boston – but coaching is where it’s at for him.

When and if the NHL returns, he has a Plan A and a Plan B – probably even a Plan C – in place to handle a brief training camp which will involve countless moving parts involving players arriving from Europe, the AHL, and possibly from junior.

“I haven’t heard a thing, I haven’t even got a phone call from Peter (Chiarelli, Bruins general manager) yet,” Julien said in the early evening. “Peter knows I’m here. If there’s something going on, Peter would reach out to me. But I’m hearing the same things as you guys (in the media) are. People are optimistic about the negotiations.”

Of course, Julien, who won the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year in 2008-09 and led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, is fully aware that he would never be in his lofty position, waiting for the NHL’s return, without the training provided by the Olympiques. He won the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year in 2008-09 and led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup, but the bench work started innocently enough.

Following his 11-year professional playing career, which included one assist in 14 NHL games with the Quebec Nordiques, Julien spent two years as an assistant coach with Gatineau.

In 1996-97, his first season as head coach, he promptly won the Memorial Cup. With a severely depleted lineup the following season, Gatineau made the playoffs. And the year after that, with a lineup still short on talent, he led the Olympiques to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League finals.

All told, Julien had a 141-109-16 record in five seasons as head coach. He had a brilliant playoff mark of 42-21.

Leaving for the pro ranks – with Hamilton of the AHL, then Montreal, New Jersey and Boston in the NHL – was not easy.

“This is probably the toughest decision I ever had to make, going forward,” Julien said. “I was surrounded by great people in the front office, the hockey people, the scouts and a GM (Charlie Henry), who I consider the best general manager ever in junior hockey.

“He gave me guidance and made me a better coach along the way because of the way he handled me. I don’t think I could have asked for anything better. Everything, I remember, was first class. The organization knew how to run a hockey club and was successful year after year. I’m extremely pleased to be part of that.”

Julien, 52, says he was “humbled” by the pre-game ceremony in his honour, claiming that it was a “privilege” to coach here.

Chris Kelly, the former Senator and current Bruins centre, says Julien is widely respected and not just because of his 347-218-83 record as an NHL coach.

Kelly still remembers the way Julien handled him when he was traded from the Senators to the Bruins before the trade deadline in 2011. At the time, Kelly didn’t know much about Julien or the Bruins.

“It was a tough move, being traded for the first time, and he called me that night, said Kelly, who returned Saturday from a one-month stint in Switzerland. “He didn’t really bring up anything to do with hockey, it’s just that he understood that I had a young family. He said ‘if you need anything’. It was more about family and personal things than anything to do with hockey.

“I thought that was pretty neat, that there’s more to this game than just skating up and down the ice. That’s what I found pretty special.”

So, too, was Wednesday’s ceremony. Julien arrived on the back of a white convertible, with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing over the loudspeakers. Julien was at centre ice when testaments from former players played over the PA system, praising him for his coaching abilities and the “family atmosphere” he brought to the team.

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