Claude Julien leads Bruins with simple style
Coach commands unique respect from his players
The way Claude Julien sees it, he has been fired as Bruins coach five times in six years. At least that’s what his heated critics on talk shows and blogs have demanded.
They thought he should have been dismissed three years ago after the Bruins squandered a three-games-to-none lead over the Philadelphia Flyers and then a 3-0 lead in the seventh game of that Eastern Conference semifinal at home. Or again last year when his defending champions went out in the first round to Washington.
And had Boston not pulled off a miracle finish in the overtime finale at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs last month, the clamor for the coach’s balding pate would have been heard for miles beyond Causeway Street.
But Julien survived, and will be behind the Boston bench Wedneday night in Chicago when his club of ursine growlers takes on the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.
There he will apply his formula for success. It is what he calls “clarity of expectation” — understand your role and perform it.
“It’s just about doing your job on a daily basis and it’s a pretty simple concept,” he said. “And that’s the way we’ve approached it every year and all the time.”
Julien, who is soft-spoken in street clothes, needs no amplifier when he is displeased with the Bruins on the ice. He clung to the game by his fingernails during his playing days and expects the same sweat equity from his players, from stars to grinders.
“Claude has been that player that has been up and down so when he talks to them they respect that,” said Peter Chiarelli, the general manager. “The players know that he’s put in the time and that they have to put in the time. It’s easier to deliver that message when you’ve been through it.”
Julien, whose six seasons on the job stand as the longest tenure for a Bruins coach since Milt Schmidt in the 1960s, has won 256 games, second only to Art Ross, whose 361 victories were recorded during 16 seasons.
His 48-and-counting playoff victories are the most in team history and the Bruins, who formerly were playing golf in June, have not missed the postseason since Julien arrived.
“If you go back prior to 2007 to see the up-and-down seasons of the teams here, it’s nice to see some stability and the results that come with that,” said club president Cam Neely, the Hall of Fame forward whose retired number 8 hangs from the Garden rafters.
Before Julien arrived, the Bruins had missed the playoffs four times in seven seasons and had been ousted in the first round when they did make them. The fabled club of Eddie Shore and Bobby Orr had not won the Stanley Cup since 1972 and had not played for one since 1990.
If the Bruins best the Blackhawks, they will be the first team to win the silver chalice twice in three years since Detroit did it consecutively in 1997 and 1998 and they will have done it by playing the same lunch-bucket style that their fans have demanded for decades and that has been Julien’s foundation.
“It’s a very compatible style with the way this city thinks and sleeps and feels,” said Chiarelli. “Which is kind of odd that there’s always these murmurings about the wrong system, because it’s a real work-ethic based system.”
Julien grew up in Ontario as a roofer’s son who spent his summers spreading hot tar. And while he is comfortable in a big-city spotlight and relaxed with the media, with whose members he is affable and voluble in both English and French, Julien isn’t a man to get behind a microphone in a bar. “Karaoke is definitely not my style,” he concedes.
Julien played 14 NHL games as a defenseman with the Quebec Nordiques in the mid ’80s and spent a dozen years riding buses in the minors in places like Port Huron and Fredericton and Halifax and Moncton.
“He was always prepared,” recalled Scott Gordon, a former New York Islanders head coach and present Maple Leafs assistant who played alongside Julien. “One of the first guys in the room and last guys to leave. He was kind of a father figure relative to the younger guys.”
After retiring as a player in 1992, Julien worked his way up the coaching ladder with the Hull Olympiques in juniors and Hamilton Bulldogs in the minors before taking over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens, perhaps the sport’s hottest seat.
“Coaching in a city like Montreal, you better be able to take it, that’s for sure,” observed Neely. “Certainly the hockey talk here has picked up over the last few years, but in Montreal, it’s day-to-day.”
Julien’s bleu-blanc-rouge bunch shocked the Bruins in 2004, coming from two games down to prevail in seven and winning twice in the Garden. But the club let him go after the next season began going south, and the New Jersey Devils scuttled him on the eve of the 2007 playoffs when general manager Lou Lamoriello concluded that the club was not ready to perform.
His truncated résumé didn’t bother the Bruins when they hired Julien to replace Dave Lewis, who lasted only a year.
“In the coaching profession, I think you have to be given up on two or three times before you become really good,” said Chiarelli. “I think you learn from your previous tenures.”
Julien had what a floundering franchise was looking for.
“I knew Claude was a good communicator and he was grounded and he had thick skin,” said Chiarelli, who had been on the job for only a year. “I knew those were traits that he’d have to have to be here.”
The operative term, then and now, is “buy in.”
“Everyone knows that this is a team atmosphere, it’s not an individual locker room,” said forward Chris Kelly, who arrived from Ottawa late in the 2010-2011 season and promptly had his fingerprints on the Cup.
“You’d better check your ego when you come into the locker room because we’re about a team, right from our captain all the way down.
“When I came into this locker room right from Day 1, you could tell that. It’s an easy room to come into if you’re willing to buy in.”
Winning the Cup that way provided an ongoing validation of Julien’s approach.
“We believe in our system,” said forward Shawn Thornton. “We have for a long time. For whatever reason, Claude’s system is questioned a lot in this city but we’ve had success with it.
“There’s no guesswork involved. There’s a lot of hard work involved, but everyone’s on the same page.”
The Bruins’ bread-and-butter is playing from the goal outward and is based on aggressive forechecking and relentless backchecking that creates a layered defense that the punchless Penguins found impossible to penetrate.
“It’s not complicated, it really isn’t,” said Julien. “What we try and do is eliminate the gray areas, make it black and white. It really is easy.”
When Jaromir Jagr came to Boston from Dallas in April, he wasn’t expecting a Hall-of-Fame role at age 41.
But when the Bruins were on the verge of pushing Pittsburgh to the brink and needed a bit of blue-collar work done along the boards to finish the job, it was Jagr who filched the puck and set up the double-overtime winner in Game 3.
“Nobody should be on a pedestal,” said Julien. “There’s a lot of guys in there that you could easily put on a pedestal. Not only are they not put on a pedestal, they don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I think we appreciate the fact that everybody is important.”
If the Bruins were to reclaim the Cup, Julien would figure to qualify for a statue, atop the Garden roof in tar-stained boots. Not that he feels he would be entitled to one.
“What you see in me here in Boston is what you see in me for the most part,” he said. “I know for a fact that I’m not a self-promoter. I don’t need that in my life.”
Julien allows that he has evolved since he came to Boston, but he has not changed.
“I can’t change myself,” he said. “I accept myself the way I am and I’m comfortable with it.”
The same man who was fired twice at other NHL outposts is the same man whose clarity of expectation directed his players to a championship. For the man behind the bench in the hockey Hub of the solar system, champagne inevitably is followed by criticism.
“You know, those kinds of things really are not important to me,” Julien said.
“What’s important is the result. As long as the people I work for appreciate what we do, that’s what matters. At the end of the day, winning hockey games for our fans and for the city is what matters to me.”