If the resurgent Penguins make a strong run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring, one of their biggest fans will be watching alongside Penguins Nation from his home in Pittsburgh. Maybe he’ll even turn to his two kids and say, with his signature quarter-smile and dry cadence, “I told you so.”
Shortly after his firing, with the Penguins then in tenth place in the Eastern Conference, Michel Therrien told KDKA’s Bob Pompeani, “I believe they’re going to make the playoffs.”
He may have been the only one in town who truly believed it.
Curt, detached, and prone to criticizing his star players in front of the media, Therrien never received universal support from Penguins Nation. Even during the team’s nearly flawless run through the Eastern Conference to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, Therrien was often an afterthought – a fortunate bystander in the eyes of some. A generation of hockey fans weaned on the grandfatherly charisma and unflappable optimism of ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson and the legendary brilliance of Scotty Bowman found Therrien a hard man to love.
“When I saw that we were not capable of changing the mentality of what it takes to win, I decided to go hard,” Therrien said after taking over the underachieving Pens in 2006. “Let’s break it and fix it.”
Therrien was a highly effective demolition man. He benched slumping players, however high-priced or glamorous – Peter Sykora, Miroslav Satan, Ryan Whitney, Kris Letang, and even Evgeni Malkin all road the pine during dry spells. In 2006, with the young Penguins off to a lackadaisical, undisciplined start, Therrien stood glass-eyed in front of television cameras and called his players the ultimate hockey curse word. “Soft.”
Say what you want about him, but after Therrien’s exasperated tirade in September 2006, a young, unorganized team was broken and put back together again. Practices were filled with push-ups, “bag skates” (endless sprints made popular by “Miracle on Ice” coach Herb Brooks), and one-on-one checking drills. After particularly uninspired losses, Therrien would tell the team to come out to practice the next day without their sticks. He gave the team an identity, and with it a gritty intensity. He gave them a structured system in which his teenage-to-early-twenties stars had defined roles.
Former Penguins Head Coach Herb Brooks trained the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team with bag skates – named for the plastic bags players kept on the bench in case of sickness.
During the dog days of 2006, when the crowd at Mellon Arena was still dotted by empty, burnt orange seats, Therrien quietly laid the brick-and-mortar foundation that would usher in the bright lights and merchandise madness of the Pittsburgh hockey culture resurgence from 2007 to present.
Now, as the Penguins take flight again under Interim Head Coach Dan Bylsma’s free-wheeling, end-to-end system, the path of least resistance is to vilify Therrien. In the end, the Penguins’ maturing team outgrew his disciplinarian style. For evidence, just watch early-season footage of Jordan Staal and Kris Letang. Sitting on the bench with Therrien’s specter looming over them, the pair looked more like they were sitting in a dentist’s office waiting room.
In 38-year-old Bylsma, the Penguins have a coach who they can more easily relate to, himself not far removed from “the show” (what players call life in the NHL). Bylsma, like fellow trigenarian Mike Tomlin, is somehow concise and glib at the same time. Both have a knack for deflecting media pressure off their players instead of using it as a motivational tactic. Early this month, after Sidney Crosby singlehandedly split two Florida Panthers defensemen for an enormous go-ahead goal in a 4-1 victory, Bylsma channeled his inner-Tomlin in front of local reporters, who had become increasingly critical of #87.
“The telephone was ringing, and that was a big answer,” he said.
Hockey players, even superstars like Crosby, appreciate that kind of respect.
Consequently, the smiles have returned. Even Jordan Staal’s Chiclets are showing. Post-game victory huddles once again feature face-washes and bear hugs (see: Matt Cooke’s man-embrace of Mathieu Garon after a rollercoaster win over Boston) instead of the glove-taps and relieved exhales that preceded Therrien’s exodus. The game, is once again a game, it seems.
But just remember, Penguins Nation – behind every weaving, whirling Malkin rush, behind every Crosby no-look pass, there was a foundation of suicide sprints. There were morning practices with no sticks. There were grimaces and groans and black-and-blue shins.
And for every pink Sidney Crosby jersey or baby blue throwback packed into the sold-out Mellon Arena crowd in these heady times, the Penguins’ organization has Michel Therrien’s boot-camp practices, uncompromising discipline, and tough love to thank for it.