Claude Julien walked out onto Causeway Street, fresh from the first press conference in his new town, and breathed in the West End air. That smell. For just a second, it caused Julien to stop in front of the Garden, made him inhale, made him remember.
That smell . . . what was it?
"Funny," he said a few days later, recalling how the scent made him look around at nearby rooftops, "but it just sort of hit me."
It wasn't the redolent sea air wafting over from Boston Harbor, or the billowing stench of a passing MBTA bus, or a toxic puff of lingering silt from the Big Dig. It was a familiar and pungent odor from long ago, from another part of his life, reminding the 47-year-old Julien of the grueling, backbreaking, back-of-the-neck-gettin'-dirty-and-gritty summer days that helped get him to where he stood that afternoon.
"Tar," said the squat, steel-framed coach. "I could smell the hot roofing tar. When you've worked with it, you never forget it, eh? It stays with you . . . you smell it, and you think about your past. You see those guys up there doing that job and, absolutely, it makes you thankful for what you've got."
A defenseman in his playing days, a roofer by trade, born into a family-owned business that his dad, Marcel, began decades ago, Julien less than two weeks ago was appointed the latest tradesman to work the hockey bench under the Garden roof.
As repair jobs go, this one could prove to be his most challenging, and based on the many who have slipped here in the past, perhaps his most treacherous.
"I am not saying that I am coming in as a savior," Julien said during a wide-ranging telephone conversation last week that lasted some 90 minutes. "But I know Boston is a great hockey city, and the fans are passionate about the sport. It would be great to help the team to get back that feeling of excitement, for everyone to be charged up about hockey again. I'd love to be part of that."
Only time will tell if Julien, a career minor league defenseman who says he started his coaching career "almost by accident," can right a sport that has gone wrong here for the better part of a decade and a half.
By all accounts, including his own, Julien is not a man prone to yelling or screaming. Calm to the point of stoicism behind the bench, he is nonetheless considered a demanding and structured taskmaster. No doubt his approach will be a sharp contrast to the mild-mannered and gregarious Dave Lewis, whose greatest fault in his one year behind the Boston bench may have been that he took at faith the job description that referred to his workers as "professional" hockey players. Lewis, along with associate coach Marc Habscheid, miscalculated the players' ability to figure out the game for themselves, in terms of playing strategies, game-to-game commitment, and work ethic.
"If you don't play his system, it's simple . . . you don't play," said Connecticut-raised defenseman Ron Hainsey, who played for Julien in the minors and for a brief time with the Canadiens. "Is he hard on guys? No. He's not a screamer. Young guys . . . he'll be on 'em a ton. But that's the way he is, just all about teaching. I learned a ton from him."
Hainsey, who played at UMass-Lowell, these days is a key back liner for the Columbus Blue Jackets, coached by the highly respected Ken Hitchcock.
"Hitch is a great coach," said Hainsey. "But so is Claude. Until I played for Hitch, I said Claude was the best coach I ever had."
"I'd say they're the two best," said Hainsey.
Ex-Bruin Dan LaCouture, who played briefly for Julien last season in New Jersey, is a free agent who would love to play for him again next season in the Hub of Hockey. Julien, he said, will design and implement a defensive-zone scheme that he'll demand be executed "down to a science."
"Good guy, and a very smart coach," endorsed LaCouture. "On defense, he'll have everyone on the same page. And on offense, he wants that first forechecker in hard -- you know, not going crazy after guys, but hard. And no guesswork when it comes to dumping the puck in. He wants the puck deep, and he wants you to get right after it."
Structure and repetition are the keys, according to Julien, a man who spent 12 seasons, for a total of 765 games, playing in the minor leagues. Had the Quebec Nordiques not been so talent-rich in those days, perhaps he would have seen more action than those 14 NHL games (0-1--1, 25 penalty minutes). But he plodded on, forever hoping that his break would come, returning home every summer to hoist stacks of roofing tiles on his shoulders, shimmy his way up ladders, stir the hot roofing tar. That smell.
"Not sure I'd last long on a roof today," mused Julien, figuring he made his last foray up there a little less than 10 years ago. "A lot of that work in the summer is what motivated me for hockey. No question. Sometimes I'd get discouraged, disappointed that I wasn't in the NHL . . . a lot of years come and gone, eh? But then I'd think, 'OK, I can be up on these roofs 12 months a year, or . . . I can go play hockey.' All of a sudden, well, the minor leagues don't look so bad."
Scott Gordon, now coach of the Providence Bruins and once a promising netminder in the Nordiques' system, played on squads with Julien in Fredericton and Halifax.
"He was one of the older guys, and he had that father figure presence in the room," recalled Gordon, considered one of the candidates for the job opening here that Julien ultimately filled. "I wasn't aware of it at the time, but you could see he was going to be a coach. He just had this great, hard-working demeanor about him. And he was a very likable guy, too."
A half-dozen years into his pro career, in 1985-86, Julien finally played in 13 games with the Nordiques. By the end of that season, he was 26, and though he didn't know it then, he would never see the big leagues again. At about the same time, he said, he began to plan around his limitations.
"When you love what you are doing, you stick with it," he said. "A good portion of the early part of my career, I worked hard to get my break. But in, oh, the final half or one-third of my [playing] career, I realized, 'Hey, I'm at an age now, my opportunities are getting slim.' And, I don't know, from then on I just began to think it was important for me to be a good veteran on whatever team I played. Coaches would pair me with young kids, and I worked with them, and you know, I liked it. So a lot of my early coaching experiences came at that stage, without really realizing what I was doing."
Late in his playing career, when back home in Orleans, Ontario, just east of Ottawa, Julien regularly joined other area pros and amateurs in summer skating sessions. The guys found a rink, usually on the opposite side of town (Ottawa's West End), and scrimmaged in preparation for the upcoming season. Future Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman was a regular, along with Blackhawks goalie (now TV personality) Darren Pang. Claude Loiselle and ex-Bruins Dave Ellett and Garry Galley were mainstays, along with Peter Chiarelli, another local kid, who went on to be Harvard captain and today is Julien's boss as general manager of the Bruins.
His playing days finished at the conclusion of the 1991-92 season, Julien returned from Moncton to Ottawa and soon began a training and conditioning business for area pros and amateurs. Meanwhile, after a very brief stint playing in Europe after graduating from Harvard in 1987, Chiarelli earned a law degree and began working for Ottawa-based scout Larry Kelly.
When Kelly wanted clients to tune up for NHL camps, he directed them to Julien's camps, and it was Chiarelli, said Julien, who typically handled the details for Kelly's firm.
"For sure," said Julien, "hockey sometimes can be a very small world."
Julien ran the camps for nearly 10 years, during which time he also launched his coaching career, initially reluctant to coach the Ottawa Junior Senators, a Tier 2 club, in 1993-94. "I wasn't all that focused, but I did it, so I started almost by accident," he recalled. He followed that with a two-year stint as assistant coach of the Hull Olympiques, and he was soon on an accelerated pace that led him to 2 1/2 seasons in Hamilton (AHL) before the Canadiens put him behind the Montreal bench during the 2002-03 season.
More than 22 years after beginning his pro career as a defenseman with the Port Huron Flags (IHL), Julien scored regular work in the NHL as the Habs' mentor. Is it any wonder he believes in structure, perseverance, repetition?
"I'm like most coaches, I guess, I'm a little bit of everything," he said, when asked to describe his coaching style. "I find the best success is when the team is well structured, physically together, and in synch. I like to have an environment where we can build on good team chemistry, so you have guys who enjoy coming to work every day. I like to give them a system to play -- simple system -- and I like to think I have motivational skills as well."
"I like long runs, starting early in the morning," he said. "It's a good time to think. For me, it's therapeutic."
Julien didn't marry until his early 40s. Wife Karen (Savoie) teaches figure and power skating and runs a skating school in Ottawa. They have a 22-month-old daughter, Katryna, the twist in her spelling intentional.
"She was born about the same time as Hurricane Katrina," said her proud father. "We loved the name, and we considered changing it . . . but we just couldn't."
Julien is from a family of hockey coaches. Brother Richard, 49, coaches Midget Double A hockey in the Ottawa area. Sister Natalie, 35, will join Angela Martin, daughter of Florida Panthers GM/coach Jacques Martin, behind the bench of a nearby Midget Double A girls' team in 2007-08.
Natalie, reached late last week at the office of the family business, Almar Roofing Ltd., said she often discusses strategy with the NHL coach in the family.
"He's very calm, and he's very positive," said Natalie, who works for Sun Life, the insurance giant, helping to direct and implement physical therapy practices and standards. "He chooses his moments to give feedback. He always tells me, 'You can't teach during a game . . . practices are for teaching.' "
Richard, who owns the business with his father, and partner Henry Vandenhannenberg, recalled that his younger brother was a strong, committed roofer.
"It's very hard work, and not just because of the height," said Richard. "It's the weather, too . . . always so hot, eh? . . . especially the last couple of years. We've noticed the change. It's not an easy trade, believe me, it's not. And the way Claude worked, he always, always gave it more than 100 percent, and that rubbed off on how he played and how he coached. He's like a workaholic. When he was coaching in Montreal, and in New Jersey, you could call him any time at the rink, and he was in his office. We're all excited that he'll be in Boston, and maybe now he'll get to finish what he started."
Julien was fired halfway through what would have been his second full season in Montreal, where GM Bob Gainey moved him off the job as a precursor to putting favorite son Guy Carbonneau behind the bench. Last season in New Jersey, Julien was sacked with only three games remaining in the regular season. GM Lou Lamoriello, not convinced his club was performing at its fullest, lopped Julien with the Devils' record at 47-24-8 and 102 points -- second in the Eastern Conference.
"I certainly didn't expect it," said Julien. "We were in first place [in the division], and it was a real shock to me. I know, it's such a bizarre firing . . . people look for answers, figure it has to be more than what Lou said. But it wasn't. He made a decision based on how he felt, and he said, 'We need to be better.' He has his way of working. He strives for perfection. He has won three Stanley Cups and he has that quality. I have no ill will toward Lou. We get along fine, to this day.
"But if you want to survive, you can't look behind, you have to look ahead. That's the way I see it."
Claude Julien, new coach of the Boston Bruins, man with a rooftop view.