New Flyers coach Alain Vigneault is a hockey lifer, but spending a year away from the sport and its brutal traveling schedule agreed with him.
He watched some hockey but didn’t go overboard. Instead, he spent more quality time with his two grown daughters, reconnected with close friends, and basically enjoyed himself and his freedom.
“I made the most out of my time away from the game,” he said. “I spent some time with my family. I bought a place in Florida and played a lot of golf and tennis and lost 10 pounds. I watched hockey, but I was watching more as a fan than anything else.
“I rejuvenated myself, mentally and physically,” he added. “I feel reenergized.”
Now his job is to reenergize an organization that has missed the playoffs four times in the last seven years, hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975, and has alienated a sizable portion of its fan base with a ticket-price increase and the hiding of Kate Smith’s statue.
Welcome to Philadelphia, coach.
“I don’t care about the past,” Vigneault said about the Flyers’ long title drought. “… That doesn’t matter.”
All he cares about is molding the Flyers, a team that has a good mix of veterans and youth, into Stanley Cup contenders.
It won’t happen overnight. The Flyers have deficiencies and appear short on offensive firepower unless the power-play units rebound and some of the young prospects blossom quickly. They also have a rebuilt defense, and it will take time for the players to learn the intricacies of Vigneault’s fast-paced, forechecking-happy system.
“We have size and good skill,” Vigneault said. “… I feel good about this group. I like the skill set. I like the youth that’s pushing up.”
The Flyers, he said, remind him of the 2006-07 team he took over in Vancouver — one led by the young Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik — and helped the Canucks make a 13-point improvement in his first season and playing two playoff rounds.
“It was a young team on the uprise; they were making changes. They brought in [Roberto] Luongo in goal, and it was a team that sort of needed direction in building,” he said, his French Canadian accent making the words almost melodic. “It took me five years before bringing it to the Stanley Cup [finals], but we built it and we came one win shy from winning it all. This has a lot of the same components.”
It was late last February when Vigneault started to get the itch to return. He phoned his good friend, Michel Therrien, who lived 15 minutes away from him in South Florida.
Vigneault, 58, had heard whispers that there were going to be coaching openings and he wanted to confer with Therrien to see if he was interested in joining his staff if he was hired.
“I told him, ‘I think if I want to coach next year, I’m probably going to get an opportunity. I’m probably not going to [take] any opportunity, but if the right one comes, would you think about coming to work for me?’ ”
Shortly after the season ended in early April, general manager Chuck Fletcher phoned Vigneault, and a few days later he accepted the fourth head-coaching job of a 16-year career that has a lot of wins (648, 12th in NHL history) but no Stanley Cups.
Vigneault, a Québec City native, later hired Therrien and Mike Yeo to his coaching staff. When Montreal fired Vigneault early in the 2000-01 season, he was replaced by Therrien.
Three new Flyers coaches. Three guys who have been NHL head coaches.
Can they make a difference? Can they do what 17 other Flyers coaches couldn’t during their Cup-less stints with the Orange and Black?
The players and the new staff got a chance to blend during training camp.
“There’s a learning curve for the players and the coaches,” left winger James van Riemsdyk said. “We’re trying to learn about them and what they want from us, and they’re trying to get to know us as players, so obviously you want to put your best foot forward every day.”
“When he talks, he has — how do you say it? — a calmness about him,” winger Oskar Lindblom said of Vigneault, who was a defenseman with St. Louis during his brief NHL playing career.
Vigneault seems like a great communicator, say his players, “and he’s very detail-oriented,” van Riemsdyk said before the team left for its opener Friday against Chicago in Prague. “I actually haven’t played for a coach like that since I played with the U.S. program, where you know the drills before the practice, which is really nice because then there’s no reason to screw things up out there.”
“He seems really prepared and knows what he wants from his players,” Sean Couturier said.
“You know where you stand with him,” said new center Kevin Hayes, who played under Vigneault for four seasons when he coached the Rangers. Hayes said having Vigneault in Philadelphia was one of the main reasons he signed with the Flyers.
Vigneault is relaxed and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“He’s easy to talk to and has a good sense of humor,” said goalie Carter Hart, who, along with Couturier and defenseman Phil Myers, got to spend time with Vigneault last spring, when he coached them at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.
In his first year with teams, Vigneault led Montreal and Vancouver to marked improvement from the previous year and into the second round of the playoffs. His first Rangers team reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
How did he get those teams to buy into his system so quickly?
“My bubbly personality,” he cracked with a wide smile.
When you peel away his good-natured, friendly demeanor, you find Vigneault is a demanding sort who wants immediate results. That’s why he accelerated roster cuts relatively early in training camp. He wanted only the players there who had a legitimate chance to make the team. There was work to be done, a system that needed to be learned. In less than a 24-hour period, he and the brass trimmed 19 players from the roster — three days before they had planned to make cuts.
It was time to get down to business.
Vigneault’s first coaching job in the NHL was as an assistant with the expansion Ottawa Senators in 1992-93. He was 31. The team struggled and so did Vigneault. He half-kidded that he tries to forget that part of his coaching career.
“To be honest, I probably wasn’t ready,” he said. “It was challenging for all of us, including the fans.”
Montreal hired Vigneault to be its head coach in 1997-98. He became a student of the game, studied what made teams successful and wasn’t afraid to try new things.
“I’ve always liked that up-tempo, fast pace,” Vigneault said during camp from his office at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. He wants a defense that “puts the puck in the hands of the forwards. Let’s get up in the play. And when we don’t have the puck, it’s more of a five-man, pack mentality. Create those turnovers and retrieve the puck.”
Vigneault spent four seasons in Montreal, seven in Vancouver, and five in New York with the Rangers. He led the Canucks and Rangers to conference championships, but his teams lost in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Now, reenergized and presumably with a lower golf handicap, he dreams of bringing a title to a championship-starved city.