Martin St. Louis reminded the Canadiens what they do best. It’s working
It’s easy to say in retrospect that he was an obvious choice. He wasn’t.
For everyone involved — those who first thought of the idea, those who decided to implement it, and maybe most of all the person who accepted the challenge — it was an enormous risk.
At least it appeared that way. Early results say otherwise.
Martin St. Louis seems to be a perfect fit behind the bench as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
The engineering of the hire started mid-season when owner Geoff Molson fired Marc Bergevin, the general manager who had unexpectedly taken the team to the Stanley Cup final last spring. Molson then structured an unusual front office: bringing in an executive vice-president of hockey operations, Jeff Gorton, who hired a first-time GM in player agent Kent Hughes. At some point the name Martin St. Louis surfaced, and it didn’t go away.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and, mired at 8-30-7, things were desperate in Montreal. Nearing disaster mode, the new management team had leeway to step out and do something different. Something that shouted change. Something unconventional and edgy that would put them on a different path.
They hired a bantam coach from Fairfield, Conn. who was working with 13-year-olds.
Six-plus years into retirement after a pedigreed playing career that saw him rise from college free agent to National Hockey League MVP, St. Louis had no professional coaching experience. He had simply been teaching kids, his sons included, how to play the game and was having fun doing it. No one, including the coach himself, could have possibly known if he would be effective at the highest level.
What everyone did know was Martin St. Louis the player: his belief in himself, his perseverance through challenging times, and the questions that constantly arose early in his career about whether he was big enough or good enough to be a regular.
Could he pass those lessons on? Were they transferable? Would the same things he taught at the bantam level translate to the NHL?
The sample size is small, but after a rough 0-3-0 start the Canadiens won six of seven games heading into Saturday night’s road date with the Edmonton Oilers. Things are beginning to fall into place. And the answer to all of the questions above is yes.
Coaching is an art centred on the ability to teach; St. Louis appears to have that ability. He is stressing simplicity, accountability and enjoyment of the game.
His small-game concept, reducing space to accelerate decision-making and quickness, has been well received. It has been used effectively for years at youth levels and translates well to skill development and fun. Of course, the students have to be willing to learn. Canadiens players have been open and receptive to the message.
They are all in the NHL for a reason, and he is reminding every one of them what those reasons are. He isn’t trying to fit them into a system he has devised; he wants them all to play better, and the system will follow. Many of the same players were on the team that saw so much success this past spring, yet they’d struggled mightily with the simplest of tasks this season.
I’ve referred in the past to a sign I’ve carried with me for years: Attitude is Everything. It’s a choice you get to make every single day. You don’t get to choose everything in life, but you do get to choose your attitude. St. Louis is convincing players of that, and the freedom in their play is evident.
You play hockey; you don’t work hockey.
No player has benefited more than veteran defender Jeff Petry, who was struggling through one of the worst stretches of his career.The simplest of plays seemed impossible. The past few weeks have seen a shift back to the Petry of old.