Coach Alain Vigneault gave standout center Sean Couturier, of all people, a curse-filled thrashing during a recent team meeting, but since the words were spoken in French, only a handful of Flyers understood what he was saying.
When the meeting ended and everyone left the room, the English-speaking players had their curiosity piqued.
“Guys are coming up to me and wondering what that was all about and what exactly he said to me,” said Couturier, who speaks French and English fluently. “I just told them I had a bad turnover and got called out for it and that he told me to try to make the play next time.”
Couturier smiled. He kept the coach’s salty language, and some of his other criticism, to himself.
“That’s not all he said,” Couturier added. “At the time, it was kind of embarrassing, but looking back on it, it was a lot of laughs.”
Vigneault, known by most around hockey as “AV,” said he figured the players eventually would ask Couturier what he had said.
“So I get a double [hit] on it,” he said. “He knows, and then the rest of the team knows. So when everyone needs to understand something, it’s a pretty good way to get the point across.”
When talking to the entire team, Vigneault usually speaks in English. The same goes for the other French-Canadian coaches on his staff, Michel Therrien and Ian Laperriere.
But when they are one-on-one with a fellow French-Canadian — such as Couturier, Claude Giroux, or Nic Aube-Kubel — they like to speak in French.
“I’ve found through the years they have a tendency to understand better in their native tongue,” Vigneault said. “Obviously, French is my first language. I can probably pick and choose my words a little better in French.”
Vigneault is the leader of the Flyers’ French Connection of coaches. The Flyers have had a few French Connection lines in their history — Andre Lacroix centering Jean-Guy Gendron and Simon Nolet during the team’s early seasons, Simon Gagne with Giroux and Laperriere (briefly) in 2009, and Danny Briere with Couturier and Gagne in 2013 — but never on their coaching staff.
The staff also includes three English-speaking assistants: Mike Yeo, Kim “Dilly” Dillabaugh, and Adam Patterson, who handles video duties.
“You know what? They’re starting to pick up some French,” said Vigneault, who sometimes ends his news conferences with an upbeat merci beaucoup. “A lot of the words are the same. And the swear words in French are easy” to learn.
“I think they know the swear words,” Therrien agreed. “Especially Yeo-sy. He’s been surrounded by French coaches before. Maybe they’re not going to speak them, but I know they understand them.
“We try to be respectful when they’re around, and we speak English so they are a part of our conversation,” he added.
Vigneault, Therien, and Yeo have been NHL head coaches. That has contributed to the team’s 21-11-5 record at the Christmas break.
“The way they handle the bench and the lines and the team, there’s a lot of respect [for them] there,” Couturier said.
Besides speaking French, having good-natured personalities, and trying to help mold the much-improved Flyers into Stanley Cup contenders, Vigneault, Therrien, and Laperriere are all connected to Montreal.
Laperriere and Therrien were born and raised there; Therrien and Vigneault have been head coaches there.
“The fact that we’re all three from Quebec is really a coincidence,” Vigneault said. “Really, it’s three hockey guys. You’ve got Lappy, who is an unbelievable former player to have around, a guy who played the game the right way. He played hard, he played through injury, and he was a team-first guy. I kept him on the staff that was here already. It’s a great fit with both Mikes [Yeo and Therrien], and Dilly handling the goaltenders. It makes for a great staff.”
Laperriere, 45, wasn’t familiar with Vigneault or Therrien on a personal level until this year. On the other hand, Vigneault, 58, and Therrien, 56, go back a long way.
“I never knew them,” Laperriere said. “I knew of them, and I think they knew of me, but I had no relationship with those guys. Obviously they’re older than me. They coached against me when I played junior, and they coached against me when I played pro, but there was no connection.”
Laperriere likes all the French conversations he’s had with his fellow coaches this season.
“For me, personally, nothing gets lost in translation,” he said. “When I do say something in French, it’s pretty much the way I’m thinking. But I think the biggest thing with AV is the experience he brings. It doesn’t matter if it’s English, French, or Chinese, it’s just the experience of coaching 1,300 games that he brings into this room, and that’s why I think he makes a big difference. I know we’re all French guys, but we’re hockey people first and French people after that.”
When Vigneault decided to get back into coaching, he was living near Therrien in South Florida. Therrien was the first person he called, asking him whether he would join his staff when, or if, he got another head-coaching job.
Therrien has had two head-coaching stints with the Canadiens sandwiched around a stretch with Pittsburgh.
“I’ve known Mike since before my first year with the Habs,” said Vigneault, referring to his time coaching Montreal. He usually refers to Therrien by his English name instead of the French version, Michel.
“When we coached against each other in junior, he had beaten me in the finals and had won the Memorial Cup. And when I got hired by the Habs, I told Reggie [Houle], our general manager, ‘If you’re looking for a good coach to coach our minor-league farm team, I think Michel will do a good job for you.’ ”
Therrien coached the Quebec Citadelles, the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate, for parts of two seasons. Ironically, he replaced the man who recommended him for the job. When Vigneault was fired early in the 2000-01 season, Therrien was named the Canadiens’ head coach.
Through the years, they have remained close and are able to confide in one another.
“First and foremost, I love his hockey mind; he’s got a great hockey mind, and our friendship has evolved though the years,” Vigneault said. “When I was thinking I might get back into coaching, we were having supper one night in Florida, and I asked him if he’d be interested.”
When Vigneault got the Flyers’ job, Therrien was ready to return after sitting out for two seasons.
“I wanted to go with a group I felt comfortable with and a group that had a chance to win a Stanley Cup,” said Therrien, who also worked with Yeo, his assistant in Pittsburgh and with the Penguins’ AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “For me, it wasn’t just going back to the NHL, because I’ve been there. Like AV, I want to win a Stanley Cup. We’ve been in the game a long time. And the fact I know AV really well and know [Flyers GM] Chuck Fletcher so well, so I knew I would be very comfortable to work with those two guys, and Philly is a great hockey market. For me, it was a no-brainer to join those guys.”
Vigneault, Therrien, and Laperriere have quickly formed a bond, and they mentioned how Yeo, Dillabaugh, and Patterson fit seamlessly.
A big reason the Flyers are in a playoff spot — they were just 15-17-5 and buried in the standings at a corresponding point last season — is Vigneault.
“Obviously, he’s an experienced coach who knows the game really well,” Couturier said. “I think he knows what to expect from his players and how to prepare us the way he wants us to play. At the same time, he’s not buddy-buddy with guys, but he’s honest in a cool way. He makes guys comfortable. But when it comes down to [getting serious], he’s also capable of switching around and getting down to business.”
Vigneault, the 12th-winningest coach in NHL history — he should move into the top 10 before the end of the season — is a jokester with his fellow coaches. And with reporters. A fan of fancy clothing, he admired a reporter’s striped shirt last week, starting his news briefing with: “Even a French guy would wear that.”
“And you know what, Hak was like that, too,” said Laperriere, referring to former coach Dave Hakstol, who was mostly stoic with the media and behind the bench. “I know he didn’t portray that and didn’t do that with you guys [the media], but he did that with us and was always loose, and Chief [former heach coach Craig Berube], too. They’re just all different personalities.
“But, again, AV has seen it all. He knows how to deal with people. Everybody,” Laperriere added. “When you coach that long in the NHL, there’s nothing he hasn’t seen yet, and that’s why he can be relaxed. But when it’s game time, go time, there’s a switch that goes on, and personally I love the way he is.”
Laperriere hopes to become a head coach some day. If it happens, he will use Vigneault as his role model.
“I’m learning a lot from AV and his demeanor, his swagger. Call it what you want, the way he is around us and the way he is around the players,” Laperriere said. “It’s something I really appreciate seeing from him. His preparation is unbelievable. You can go back to this summer. Have you seen us on the [white] board yet explaining a drill? We haven’t, because everything is ready before we go out on the ice. The guys know [what they’re doing] and we go, go, go.
“If I ever run my own team, I’m going to take a lot of what he’s teaching right now. It’s not him telling me what to do; it’s more like me watching and learning.”