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Therrien-Stevens: A simmering rivalry

| Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eddie Olczyk doesn't know where this latest Michel Therrien-John Stevens get-together is headed, but he knows where their relationship has been.

"Obviously, there's been tension in the past," said Olczyk, an NBC/Versus analyst and a former Penguins coach.

With Therrien's Penguins and Stevens' Philadelphia Flyers on a collision course in the Eastern Conference final, can a resumption of hostilities be far behind•

"Maybe 'hate' is a strong word," former Penguins winger Colby Armstrong said. "Maybe it's not a strong word for Michel and John. I'm not sure where they stand."

If that winds up being toe to toe amid the tumult of a conference championship series, it won't be anyplace Therrien and Stevens haven't been before.

Twice they've met in the American Hockey League playoffs, with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Philadelphia Phantoms trading jabs and punches and insults and series victories.

It got loud.

It got insulting.

It got obscene.

And it may be just getting started.

Armstrong, who played in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for Therrien against Stevens in the 2003-04 and the 2004-05 AHL playoffs, recalled "some pretty good battles in the minors.

"The glass between the benches in Wilkes-Barre was hanging by a thread as they were trying to get at each other," Armstrong said.

Defenseman Chris Kelleher, a fifth-round pick of the Penguins in 1993, was a part of the '05 postseason affair, won by the Phantoms in five games.

He recalls volume and lines being crossed.

"Both coaches weren't afraid to yell at the other team's players," Kelleher said. "There was a lot of pointing and a lot of words that you wouldn't want your children saying.

"There was a lot of gamesmanship."

The "gamesmanship" included the two taking shots at one another in the media as well as raising the decibel level during games.

One such exchange occurred after Game 3 in 2004.

Stevens: "Therrien must get three timeouts a game. (The referees) go over and talk to him for 30 seconds at the bench, and he rests his star players. They just let him go on and on, and I don't get a two-second conversation at any point."

Therrien: "Is he going to complain about (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton mascot) Tux• It's about the only thing he hasn't complained about yet. I am expecting next game he's going to talk about Tux."

Stevens has complained about Therrien's AHL players allegedly taking dives.

Therrien has taken exception to Stevens' AHL teams taking perceived physical liberties, especially after falling behind.

Sound familiar?

"They just stick up for their teams," said current Phantoms coach Craig Berube. "They do what they can do to stick up for the teams, and that means voicing their opinion sometimes."

Here we go again

The upcoming NHL renewal of this personal rivalry reeks of bad blood that neither is willing to publicly acknowledge.

Asked about his history with Stevens, Therrien chuckled and paused before ultimately coming up with one of the cliches he's so often referenced this postseason in response.

"It's always been a good, hard-nosed series," was as far as Iron Mike was willing to go.

Stevens went as far as to deny the two had a shared, checkered past, other than to acknowledge that "we met twice in the AHL."

"But this is not me vs. him," Stevens said. "It's Flyers vs. Penguins, nothing to take away from that."

Stevens, 42, is a former third-round pick of the Flyers in 1984 who appeared in nine games for Philadelphia and 44 for the Hartford Whalers during his 13 professional seasons.

He coached the AHL Phantoms to the Calder Cup championship in 2004-05 and has the revamped Flyers in the third round of the NHL playoffs in his first full season behind the bench.

Therrien, 45, never made it to the NHL as a player. He won a Memorial Cup (Canadian junior) championship with Granby of the Quebec league in 1996 and took Wilkes-Barre to the Calder Cup final in 2003-04.

He coached the Canadiens to the second round in 2001-02 and has the Penguins four wins from a Stanley Cup final in his second full season in charge.

Stevens said he doesn't remember the two playing against one another, although their paths surely must have crossed in the AHL in 1986-87 when Therrien played 70 games as a defenseman for the Baltimore Skipjacks and Stevens 63 on the blueline for the Hershey Bears (the two teams both called the AHL's South Division home that season).

Stevens is a communicator by nature. His style is personified by the 10 minutes he spent sitting and chatting with center Daniel Briere in the empty quiet of the Verizon Center seats a couple of hours prior to the Flyers' Game 7 victory at Washington in the opening playoff round.

Therrien is a tactician by trade and is best identified with bombastic rants such as the one he delivered in a fit of frustration early in his Penguins tenure in 2005-06 ("I think their goal is to be the worst defense in the National league, and they're doing such a good job at their goal.").

They share a common approach, if not a common admiration.

"They're both similar coaches," Armstrong said. "Look at the way the two teams play, with the transition game and (emphasis on) defensive-zone coverage."

Added Kelleher: "I'm sure they both respect one another, but from some of the shouting matches they've had, I don't think they're out playing golf together."

The first tee beckons for one of them after this best-of-seven series, an eventuality that will no doubt delight the other.

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