Ten years ago, the Montreal Canadiens were a pretty bad team. Yanic Perreault was the top scorer, with just 56 points. Karl Dykhuis and Patrick Traverse took regular turns on D. Captain Saku Koivu missed all but the last three regular-season games while fighting cancer. Until the last two weeks of the schedule, it looked like the Canadiens would go a fourth consecutive year with no playoffs. I remember that desperate stretch run leading up to the 2002 post-season very well. Goaltender Jose Theodore stood on his head for the last three weeks of the season, running off seven consecutive wins that culminated in the unexpected comeback of Koivu. The captain's return sparked a rush of emotion and passionate support for the team, and even though the Canadiens barely scraped into eighth place, the stellar goaltending of Theodore and the players' new-found sense of purpose, pushed them past the first-place Bruins in the opening round.
Then came Carolina. The Habs got the split they wanted on the road against the Hurricanes. Back at the Bell Centre, they won a very tight Game Three in overtime. Game Four would set the tone for the remainder of the series. Either the Canadiens would put a stranglehold on it, pushing the Hurricanes to the brink, or they'd lose and let the 'Canes back in it. Rarely have I been as angry during a Habs game as I was that night. The Canadiens had a 3-0 lead after two and looked like they'd take the game easily. Then, at 2:40 of the third period, Stephane Quintal took a cross-checking penalty.
That wouldn't have been too bad, as the Habs had killed off four previous penalties (two of them to Quintal) earlier in the game. Unfortunately, that's when Michel Therrien decided to lose his mind. In an angry tirade to protest the call, he bellowed obscenities across the ice at referee Kerry Fraser. Fraser, not being one to sit quietly and take any crap, assessed Therrien a bench penalty for abuse of officials. The Hurricanes scored on the two-man advantage and got back into the game. That goal turned momentum entirely in their favour. They scored another halfway through the period and Erik Cole, Habs Killer, sent it to OT with 41 seconds to go. Three minutes into the extra period, Niklas Wallin, on a shot to the heart of the Habs playoff hopes, scored to tie the series. Two thumpings later, the 'Canes sent the Canadiens packing and rolled all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. For the Habs, that loss in Game Four erased the fragile confidence built by Koivu's return, Theodore's excellent play and the victory over the Bruins. I, as so many fans did, blamed Therrien. I hated him all that summer, and when he got fired the next season, I was glad.
That's why I decided to take a day to absorb this hiring before immediately condemning it, as my instinct demanded. A day later, I still don't like the hiring much. History, when made, can't be rewritten. However, the beauty of sport is that there's always another season, another game, another period, and each of those "anothers" gives a team a chance to make new history. While I strongly feel the choice of coach doesn't match the fresh, new feeling we were getting from the front-office revamp, he is the coach.
Marc Bergevin has decided to go the Therrien route, so we, as fans, either throw in the towel based on history and condemn the G.M.'s first big move, or we get behind it and give it a chance. I don't really feel like giving it a chance, but that choice is more palatable than looking at a fresh new season with instant pessimism. So, with that in mind, I will wait until the Canadiens are 20 games into the new season before I say anything else about Michel Therrien. Perhaps Bergevin is smarter and more hopeful than most of us. And, perhaps, Therrien really has learned from the mistakes in his past and has developed into the kind of coach who won't ruin P.K.Subban or divide the team when it most needs unification.
It's wrong to judge a person based on a temper tantrum ten years in the past, even if that moment cost his team dearly. I'll have more to say around mid-November. Until then, Therrien has a better cast than he had in his first go-round in Montreal. It's up to him to prove he's got the tools and the smarts to handle it.