MONTREAL — Claude Julien is now two hours east of his native Ottawa. He is coaching the Canadiens for a second time. As a child, Julien was a Habs fan to such a degree that he refused to enter the Montreal Forum unless he did so as a player, which he did with the Quebec Nordiques in 1985.
Every connection to his two-time workplace, however, is not as strong as the pull of home. On Thursday, following a five-hour-plus drive through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Julien left behind a place where he planted deep roots.
“When you’ve been somewhere for 10 years,” said the ex-Bruins coach, “it had become home.”
For 10 years, before each game at the Bell Centre, Julien shuffled across 85 feet of slippery fresh ice from the visiting room to the bench. On Saturday, two weeks after coaching his final game in Boston, Julien walked from the home dressing room to the spot where he stood for 159 games.
For his first game back, a 3-1 loss Saturday to Winnipeg, Julien wore a black suit, a white shirt, and a crimson tie, a collection he had probably pulled on at some point for one of his 856 regular-season and playoff games in Boston.
A day earlier, Julien wore a wardrobe of a different kind. At approximately 7 a.m., Julien arrived at Bell Sports Complex, the Canadiens’ practice facility in nearby Brossard. Shortly after 4 p.m., Julien skated onto the ice in a blue Canadiens hat, a blue Canadiens track suit with red shoulders and the CH logo stamped on his left chest and left leg, and bleu, blanc, et rouge gloves. It was two weeks to the day Julien ran his last practice at Warrior Ice Arena wearing Black-and-Gold gear.
“After all the intense rivalries we’ve had, it was really weird to see him walk through the room with a Habs hat and a Habs jump suit,” said captain Max Pacioretty. “I almost did a double take.”
Even if he never dropped his R’s, Julien had become a Bostonian. He wore his “Do Your Job” T-shirt ahead of the Super Bowl, became friends with Bill Belichick, Doc Rivers, and Terry Francona, and settled into suburban life like a multigeneration New England Yankee.
Naturally, Julien had tilted to one end of the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry. He didn’t care for the way Tomas Plekanec sprinted for the Best Actor award every time a stick approached his turtleneck. He wasn’t crazy about Alexei Emelin’s dangerous hits. He hated how Carey Price — someone he regularly called the world’s best goalie while being Tuukka Rask’s boss — turned slam-dunk Bruins wins into zero-point results.
Saturday marked the first time Plekanec, Emelin, and Price were under Julien’s watch. Julien deployed Plekanec, promoted to the second line alongside Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher, as a matchup center. He asked Emelin and partner Shea Weber to defend stoutly and move the puck the other way.
Price is Julien’s most important player. If Julien’s current roster is better than his previous one, it’s not by much. Price, however, can be a difference-maker, even if he hasn’t been for much of the season.
By the end of Michel Therrien’s reign, the former Vezina Trophy winner’s game was in tatters. On Dec. 16, Price let in four goals against San Jose. When Therrien gave him the hook, Price stared down his ex-coach as he skated off the ice. It was the start of a 22-game crumbling in which Price posted an .895 save percentage.
Maybe it was the coaching change. Perhaps it was because of the break. But Saturday, especially in a 15-for-15 first period, Price looked like Price once more. Pucks thudded off the ace. He cruised around the crease. At 10:42, Price made his best stop by snatching Patrik Laine’s close-range snapper.
“I felt a lot better,” said Price (30 saves), who went ice fishing during the break. “It’s always good to get some time off just to get refocused.”
Julien promoted Alex Galchenyuk to top-line duties between Pacioretty and Alex Radulov. Galchenyuk had been centering the second line under Therrien. Even after a shaky start in which he coughed up the puck and wobbled around in defensive coverage, Galchenyuk remained on the line long enough to help set up Andrei Markov’s net-front strike at 11:04 of the first.
But by the third, Julien had seen enough. He dropped Galchenyuk to the third line and replaced him with Phillip Danault. As skilled as Galchenyuk is, the 23-year-old will have to improve defensively to earn Julien’s trust. Galchenyuk can call Ryan Spooner for advice.
“We need to be better without the puck so we can play with the puck a little more,” said Julien. “Getting caught in between gave them way too much time.”
Julien is adjusting on the fly. After arriving in Montreal on Thursday, Julien, wife Karen, and daughter Katryna had dinner with general manager Marc Bergevin — a meal that had the GM-and-coach combination taking pictures with the rabid locals. On Friday, Julien consulted with assistants Kirk Muller, Dan Lacroix, J.J. Daigneault, and Stephane Waite.
Less than two weeks ago, Julien was immersed in other minutiae, such as when Anton Khudobin should play, whether Jimmy Hayes should be in uniform, or if Matt Beleskey belonged on the fourth line.
“My sleep hours have been very short,” Julien said. “Rightfully so. Because you think and you have things to do. It’s important for me to be willing to put in those hours now to better the hockey team. The old term, ‘Sleep when you’re dead,’ I can do that.”
Julien’s other immediate task is, in Roberto Luongo’s words, to pump tires. Therrien was a grinding coach. He did not hesitate to jump on his players when they made mistakes. The Canadiens had become fragile, even as the Atlantic Division’s pace setters.
“Guys had to go on the ice today feeling good about themselves. I made sure that happened,” Julien said of Friday’s practice. “Guys want hope. Guys want excitement. Guys want positive messages. It’s easy for a new coach coming in to give those positive messages. I wanted them to know how good I think the team is. We’re in first place, OK? There’s no need to panic. There’s a need to fix.”
Julien will be on his own in Montreal, he hopes, until June. His wife and three children — the Juliens adopted their two youngest from mothers with histories of substance abuse — will stay in Massachusetts until the end of the school year.
“I’m going to miss them,” Julien said. “You try and stay in touch the best you can. But that’s the sacrifice you have to make sometimes too at this level. People don’t always understand how tough it can be. We stand up here and we’re humans like the rest of you guys. We have families. The job at times forces us to do some tough things. It’s going to be tough for me. It’s not going to affect my work. I’m going to miss them and I’m going to do the best I can to see them as much as I can.”
Julien is 56 years old. He spun his sacking into a five-year contract with Montreal. According to ESPN, it is worth $25 million, making him the NHL’s third-highest-paid coach behind Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville.
This could be Julien’s last job. He originally planned to wait until after this season to make his next move. But Montreal’s offer was too good to decline. Julien accepted it to support his family. He took it clear his name.
But after a week of unemployment, Julien is back doing a job he cannot imagine not doing.