On coaching the Canadiens: Carbo unplugged

Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau and his wife, Line, on the red carpet in Toronto, arriving at last June’s NHL awards.
Bruce Bennett, Getty Images Sport

AUDIO: Carbo in his own words (25 minutes)

No one told Guy Carbonneau that it would be easy coaching the most successful hockey club in the world, in what arguably is the toughest, most demanding market.

But Carbo says he accepted all that when he agreed to become the Canadiens’ 28th head coach 2 1/2 years ago, stepping behind the bench as the No. 1 guy at the beginning of the 2006-07 season.

It’s been a remarkable learning experience for the former Montreal captain, who answered GM Bob Gainey’s call to come back north from Dallas, where they had worked together in the Stars front office.

Running the Canadiens has its many challenges, obviously, and Carbonneau says he continues to learn day by day, growing into a job that he believes might have been his destiny.

The Gazette’s Dave Stubbs sat alone with Carbo at the team’s Toronto hotel on Saturday morning to discuss the impact this job has on every part of the coach’s life. The feature story appears below. And click on the link above to listen to 25 minutes of their wide-ranging conversation.

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

TORONTO – Guy Carbonneau describes himself as a salesman.

"I love the game, I’m passionate about it and I want the sport to be known
for the right reason," the Canadiens head coach said Saturday morning over
coffee in his team’s Toronto hotel.

Little did he know he’d be flogging defective merchandise and factory
seconds a few hours later, the Canadiens producing a bargain-bin effort in
their 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a game Carbonneau would
describe as "the most embarrassing in the 2 1/2 years I’ve been behind the
bench."

It is said there is no tougher job in all of hockey than coaching in Montreal.
Some would claim the distinction for Toronto, and Carbo himself puts the
two cities on roughly the same plane.

Different expectations in Toronto

But Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson rarely hears complaints that a shootout
victory is a point lost to the opponent. Wilson works in a crowded sports
landscape shared by pro baseball, basketball and even the NFL, where NHL
success is a rumour to an entire generation, the bar of expectation has been
almost underground for decades and his every move isn’t dissected hourly in
two languages with blunt scalpels and sharp tongues.

Carbonneau arrived behind the Montreal bench 2 1/2 seasons ago, one of the
game’s best defensive forwards having become an efficient front-office
executive. Here was a former Canadiens captain returning to the scene of his
prime, eager to begin his head-coaching career.

The 48-year-old Sept-Îles native said at the time that he knew what awaited
him.

But honestly, did he?

"Not really," Carbo says now, laughing. "I don’t think anybody is prepared.
When Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Demers (Carbonneau’s coaches in Dallas
and Montreal) changed teams, they had an idea what they were getting
themselves into.

"I’ve never been there. The fact I was in Montreal, that I came from
Montreal, made the transition a lot easier. But I don’t think you can ever be
prepared for what it is to coach in Montreal or Toronto."

Carbonneau continues to learn this not just with every game, but every time
he sets foot out of his West Island home. Every time he goes out to buy a
loaf of bread. Most times when he’s behind the wheel of his car, recognized
by the guy in the passing lane or at the traffic light.

Everyone has an opinion, and he’s going to hear every last syllable.

Carbo understands all of this, though he admits the scrutiny can be almost
overwhelming.

Carbonneau’s destiny?

"It goes to the extreme at times," he says. "That’s when I go home, sit on my
couch, watch TV, have a glass of wine with my wife and relax. Some people
can have money, fame and be invisible, but in hockey it’s tough, especially in
Quebec."

It’s part of the price Carbo is paying for what he believes might be his
destiny, a job that is financially rewarding, often gratifying, sometimes
frustrating but never, ever dull.

"When Bob called, I knew the timing was right," he remembers. "It was the
right place to come."

Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey had taken over as the club’s
interim coach on Jan. 14, 2006, having fired Claude Julien, and immediately
imported his trusted lieutenant from the Dallas Stars, where Carbo had been
Gainey’s assistant.

Carbonneau came home, served as associate coach to his long-time friend
and former teammate, and on May 5, 2006 was named the 28th head coach
of the Canadiens.

"I still owned a house there, came back every summer, I knew the people,
the media and the fans and I knew how the organization runs," he says of
taking the leap of faith with Montreal. "All I had to concentrate on was the
hockey part."

Carbo missed the playoffs on the season’s final weekend of his rookie year,
then last season won the Eastern Conference and went two rounds into the
playoffs, named a finalist for the NHL’s Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s
top coach.

In his 176 regular-season games, he has compiled a record of 97-61-18.
Which he knows only when you tell him.

"I don’t know what my record is," he says. "When you play, you know your
stats because you look at them before a game. But if you ask me how many
points I had, how many goals over my career, I don’t know. Same thing as a
coach.

"As a player, I concentrated on the game I had, talk about it for awhile after
then forget about it the next day. Now, after the game, we get into the office
on the road or at home, talk about it for 30 minutes, if we’re mad we air out
what we think, then we think about the next game."

Carbonneau has learned there’s nothing good that comes from staring into a
rear-view mirror, especially after Saturday’s debacle in Toronto. He’ll sift
through the news clippings awaiting him in his office, though he’ll find little
positive in their words, for good reason, about the implosion against the
Maple Leafs.

He even listens to the broadcast jackals and speed-dial lamebrains on
Montreal sports radio, for which "people tell me I’m crazy," he says brightly.

"The same idea seen by nine different guys is written nine different ways.
When I make a line change, decide to put one centreman instead of another
for a faceoff, one guy instead of another on the power play, it’s seen (by the
media) as either a great move or a weak move.

Playing a hunch with lines

"They don’t know the background or thought process to it, and that’s
sometimes frustrating."

The matchups and tendencies might tell a coach one thing, but there’s
always a hunch to be played, a whim that cannot be denied. In Columbus on
Friday, Carbo threw the Kostitsyn brothers together, not a common
occurrence, and they scored a pretty power-play goal.

"You’re looking for chemistry long term," he says of line tinkering. "That’s
why I kept (Tomas) Plekanec and (Alex) Kovalev and (Andrei) Kostitsyn
together. When (Christopher) Higgins came back healthy, I put him back
with Saku (Koivu), and (Alex) Tanguay, because there’s chemistry. You try
to find that for the third and fourth units.

"Short term, you look for little sparks."

The responsibilities are many, of course, as they were when Carbo captained
the Canadiens from 1989-94, leading the club to its most recent Stanley
Cup.

"I say coaching is tougher, but if you ask Saku, you might get a different
answer," he says. "The only problem Saku ever had was probably because
his name was Finnish, not French. I didn’t have that.

"He’s been an unbelievable player, a great ambassador on and off the ice.
They blame him because he doesn’t speak French and that’s too bad because
the rest of the man is unbelievable."

The advice pours in to Carbo from everywhere, and not just the 21,273
assistant coaches he has at every Bell Centre game. It arrives by email and
fax and letter and phone, the vast majority well meaning if somewhat
impractical.

"A fan of Georges (Laraque) will ask me why I don’t play him with Plekanec
and Kovalev," he says, not needing to explain that one.

Busy offseason

It was an eventful offseason; the coach underwent major hip surgery, signed
a three-year contract that was announced almost inaudibly and arrived at
training camp for the Canadiens’ 100th season knowing his team has a bulls-
eye on its back, a by-product of winning the conference then beefing up
during the summer with the acquisition of Tanguay, Robert Lang and
Laraque.

If the Canadiens’ recent spinning of their wheels has been troubling, more
painful is the hip which he’s getting checked today, fearful now that he’s got
bursitis. All things being equal, the left hip sees the surgeon next June.

Coaching the Canadiens, Carbonneau says, is an enriching life lesson,
gratifying when he can shape 23 players into a unit. It wasn’t pretty at the
start, and the learning continues.

"Playing hockey was easy," he says. " I was born to play hockey. I had no
problem reacting to tough situations as a player. You gain experience every
day.

"The scary part as a coach is that I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know
what the reaction would be to what I’d do or say. This is a process I’m
learning. I did things the first year that were good, some were bad, and
some were bad because I didn’t know the reaction of the players. Now I have
a better idea. You get better prepared as the years go by because you have a
better understanding of what the process is."

Carbonneau says it helps to have a consistent core of players and stability in
the front office and on his coaching staff, which fosters a better mutual
understanding of personalities.

"They know me now and I have a better idea what they’re about, too," he
says of his players. "I know more about which button to push, when to push
it, what they need to do. Some people you need to leave alone, give them a
tap on the back, some people you need to squeeze a little harder.

"Everybody is stronger, faster and they have better skills. It’s trying to
mold what you have into something that will work long term. In the past,
every game I had to say something to get them going. Now, I walk in the
room and they’re already talking. I think they understand they don’t need
me all the time. They can do it by themselves, and that’s gratifying."


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