Carbonneau fulfilling his destiny

For the past 21/2 seasons, Habs head coach has thrived in Montreal pressure cooker, overcoming NHL's most rabid fan base, constant scrutiny and loss of anonymity to lead a Cup contender

By Dave Stubbs, Montreal Gazette, 11/10/08

MONTREAL - 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 21/2 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.

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 21/2 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 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.

"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 says. "It was the right place to come."

Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey had taken over as Canadiens 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, went two rounds into the playoffs, and was 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, talked about it for awhile after, then forgot 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.

"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 in detail.

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 that 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."