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Penguins

Therrien balances family, hockey

| Sunday, Feb. 11, 2007

There's no telling where Penguins coach Michel Therrien would be if he'd accepted that scholarship to play second base for Palm Beach (Fla.) Junior College 26 years ago.

He might be coaching professional baseball somewhere, or perhaps working in telecommunications for Bell Canada, as he was in 1990 when a chance meeting at a Montreal mall altered the course of his existence.

Back then, Therrien was climbing utility poles for a living.

Today, he is climbing the Eastern Conference standings -- and has little time to ponder what might have been.

The man is busier than a Bill Cowher sweater, splitting his days between running a single-parent household and the NHL's most-improved team. If he isn't monitoring ice times for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he is checking bedtimes for daughter Elizabeth, 14, and son Charles, 13.

Nine days ago, Therrien, 43, sat in his Mellon Arena office and considered the following question: Is there something people would be surprised to know about you?

"You know what, the thing I'm most proud of• I have the custody of my kids," he said, in a thick French accent. "It's three years that we're together, the three of us. I got divorced, and I fought to get my kids. It was important for me that I was the one who raised them."

Turns out Therrien's tale is full of surprises -- some good, some bad. The important thing is that he's still climbing the pole.

And that he has never stopped fighting.

Father and son

Should a hypnotist ever ask Therrien to close his eyes and conjure a pleasant time and place, this would be an option: Feb. 11, 1971, at the old Montreal Forum.

That was the night Therrien, 7, sat next to his father and roared when Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau scored his 500th goal.

"I still remember the move he did," Therrien said.

Jerry and Rachel Therrien raised their only child in Saint-Leonard, a Montreal suburb notable for producing some terrific goaltenders in Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. Jerry Therrien was an accountant for the Port of Montreal. He had a distance runner's build, loved hockey, finished more than one Montreal Marathon and governed his household the way his son would one day govern his hockey teams -- with tough love.

Jerry Therrien was a solid presence in his son's life, instilling in him a keen sense of loyalty.

"Jerry was always hanging around arenas where Mike (a common reference for Michel Therrien) was playing and coaching," said Marc Lachapelle, a veteran sportswriter for the Journal de Montreal. "He didn't miss many games."

Jerry Therrien, 75, still follows his son's career, though a series of strokes has left him blind and bedridden in Montreal. Therrien visited his father last Saturday, the night before the Penguins played the Canadiens.

"He can understand things, but he's paralyzed and blind," said Therrien, whose mother is healthy and living in an apartment in Montreal. "We had to put him in a place. It's tough, because I always had such a close relationship with him."

Indeed, the father was the first person the son called when the hometown Canadiens hired him as their minor-league coach in 1997, and, three years later, as their head coach.

Both times, the father cried.

Ball or puck?

The Canadiens weren't the only team Therrien followed. He also tracked the exploits of Andre Dawson and the rest of the Montreal Expos -- and could imagine himself playing for them.

He was a gifted second baseman with a flair for turning dramatic double plays.

"He was a hot dog," said long-time acquaintance Gilles Courteau.

"At 15, I was maybe the best second baseman in the country," Therrien said. "I was quick. Would you believe that?"

Therrien played for Canadian national teams and seriously considered the offer from Palm Beach Junior College before he finally checked his swing for good.

Baseball was in his genes. Hockey was in his heart.

By all accounts, Therrien was a moderately skilled, competitive and intelligent defenseman.

"You knew what you were going to get from him," said Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque, Therrien's defense partner in 1986-87 with the Penguins' affiliate in Baltimore. "He kept it simple. He had to keep it simple to survive."

Therrien's finest junior season was 1982-83 with the expansion Longueuil Chevaliers of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). He put up 51 points in 64 games under coach Jacques Lemaire and helped the Chevaliers upset the Laval Titans and their superstar, Mario Lemieux, in a playoff series.

Lemaire, now coach of the Minnesota Wild, would become Therrien's primary coaching model.

Twists of fate

If Pierre Creamer hadn't stopped coaching, Therrien might never have started.

Therrien ditched his skates in 1989, at 26. He still wore a protective helmet, though. It was mandatory at his new job with Bell Canada.

Coaching didn't enter his mind until Creamer, an ex-Penguins coach, quit the Montreal-based Laval junior team just before training camp in 1990. The new coach, Jean-Maurice Cool, needed a part-time assistant. He didn't expect to find one at the mall, but that is where he ran into Therrien, an old junior opponent. The two quickly struck a deal.

"It was a side job -- $150 a week," recalled Therrien, who kept his gig at Bell Canada.

Therrien hardly was crushed when he lost his "side job" after Christmas. Laval's demanding ownership group -- the fabled and much-feared Morrissette brothers -- went through three head coaches that season, the third of whom decided to coach by himself.

Before camp the following season (1991-92), the Morrissettes made yet another change, bringing in untested Bob Hartley, who hailed from Ontario and had no contacts in Montreal. The owners gave him a list of numbers from which to cull an assistant.

Hartley claims the first one he dialed happened to be Therrien's. And that continued an odd trend in Therrien's career: He has yet to formally interview for a coaching job.

"As soon as we met at the rink, I said, 'You're hired,' " recalled Hartley, now coach of the Atlanta Thrashers. "We became instant friends."

Instant winners, too. The Titans won the QMJHL title in 1993 and turned the league on its ear with their brutally physical play, the kind the Morrissette brothers craved. Whenever the home team scored a goal or won a fight, a giant banner reading "House of Pain!" was lowered from the rafters at the Colisee de Laval.

Hartley's intensity lit a bonfire in Therrien.

"It was the first time I really got a focus about making a career out of coaching," he said.

When Hartley left before the 1993-94 season, Therrien was promoted. He would soon give new meaning to the term, "House of Pain."

Reign of Therrien

The Morrissette brothers were junior hockey's equivalent of the Hanson brothers from the movie "Slap Shot." Their teams were stocked with talent but also with the likes of future NHL enforcers Sandy McCarthy, Gino Odjick and Georges Laraque.

"The Morrissettes were viewed as bad guys, prepared to do anything to win a game," said Gilles Courteau, long-time commissioner of the QMJHL. "Don't talk to them about being No. 2."

The lead brother was Jean-Claude Morrissette. Therrien was his kind of coach.

"He will not take any mediocre type of effort," said Morrissette, no longer in the hockey business. "You've seen him in action in Pittsburgh."

Therrien won more than 70 percent of his games in junior, where players range in age from 16 to 20. When the Morrissettes left Laval for Granby, they took Therrien, who coached the team to the 1996 Memorial Cup, awarded to the champion of junior hockey in Canada.

Therrien also carved a reputation as a coach who would defend his players -- fight for his kids -- at any cost.

One such instance occurred when he was with Laval, in an exhibition game against Granby. He used his younger players. Granby coach Alain Rajotte countered with veterans.

Things got ugly fast.

"My kids were getting abused," Therrien recalled. "I saw the other coach laughing. I started getting (ticked off)."

The benches were on opposite sides of the ice. When Therrien saw Rajotte rip off his jacket and motion to him, he figured it was time to fight. Or at least to pretend he wanted to fight.

Surely, someone would stop him before he met Rajotte at the Zamboni entrance.

"In your mind, you're thinking security is going to stop you," Therrien recalled, laughing. "Well, the freakin' security, it was like a wrestling match. They were holding people back and clearing a lane for us! So, a fight happened."

Who won?

"I broke his nose," Therrien said. "I got suspended for 10 games."

The fight resulted in one of Therrien's many talks with Commissioner Courteau, who'd drafted Therrien as a junior player and knew him quite well.

"You can't imagine how many times I talked with him," Courteau said. "I would say, 'Michel, be careful. Calm down. You're a very good coach.' At the beginning of his career, he was overreacting, doing things he would never do today."

Morrissette and Hartley will tell you there is another side to Therrien. Morrissette is like a second father to both men.

"I'm telling you, most people who show outside they are very tough are very emotional," Morrissette said. "I've seen Mike cry quite a few times. The guy's got a lot of heart. He cares. He's a good man."

Dream come true

Only a decade removed from climbing utility poles in downtown Montreal, Therrien found himself climbing behind the Canadiens' bench.

A rapid rise through the minors won him his dream job Nov. 20, 2000, when he replaced Alain Vigneault.

Therrien was 36. In his only full season -- 2001-02 -- he led a mediocre Canadiens team past the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round.

Unfairly, perhaps, people tend to focus more on what happened in the second round against Carolina. The Canadiens were leading the series, 2-1, and Game 4, 3-0 early in the third period, when Therrien drew a bench minor for arguing a penalty call by referee Kerry Fraser.

Carolina scored on the subsequent 5-on-3, won the game and crushed Montreal the next two games.

"Unfortunately for Michel, that is what Montrealers remember most if and when they ever think about him," said legendary columnist Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette. "Obviously, the guy has some smarts as a coach, but if you want to describe his brief tenure in Montreal, he was little more than a blip on the screen."

Therrien intends to be much more than that with the Penguins, though a vague notion persists that because he was inherited by new general manager Ray Shero, he might just be a temporary caretaker of the young team. He has a year left on his contract.

Only a month ago, an anonymous NBCsports.com columnist called "The Bellowing Moose" reported, erroneously, that Penguins management was contemplating a coaching change.

At the time, the Penguins were on pace for a 25-point improvement over last season.

The column brutalized Therrien, calling him "the NHL's Archie Bunker, an ill-tempered, ill-mannered hothead with only a vague grasp of how to use the talent provided for him."

No such criticisms were levied during the 10-0-2 streak the Penguins carried into the weekend.

Eyes on the prize

Therrien was hired in Wilkes-Barre four years ago on the recommendation of then-Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk.

On Dec. 15 of last season, Therrien succeeded Olczyk and soon afterward dropped the hammer. He ripped his players after a 3-1 loss to Edmonton, saying half of them didn't care.

The intent was to create bonding among the players, even if the glue had to be outrage toward the coach. That strategy was cultivated back in junior hockey.

"He didn't care if the players liked him or not," recalled Montreal Canadiens defenseman Francis Bouillon, captain of Therrien's Memorial Cup-winning Granby team in 1996. "The goal was to win."

Therrien also created a stir by stripping veteran John LeClair of his assistant captaincy and giving it to the 18-year-old Crosby.

"We had to concentrate on the young players, and I didn't like a lot of the things that happened in the dressing room," Therrien said. "After my big comment, the next game was in Columbus. We didn't win, but we started to look like a team. It was a first step."

Several steps later, the Penguins are the talk of the NHL. Going into the weekend, they were on pace for a 41-point improvement, which would be the fifth-largest in NHL history.

If the fact that so few are talking about Therrien as a coach-of-the-year candidate bothers him, he hides it well.

On the day of this post-practice interview, he'd dropped his children at school (they attend in the Chartiers Valley School District) and was planning to attend his son's hockey practice that night. A nanny helps run the household.

Therrien has a girlfriend who lives in Montreal.

It's a full life, void in only respect. Therrien wants a Stanley Cup. There is a photograph in his office, of himself and J.C. Morrissette holding the Memorial Cup. A reporter pointed to it and wondered if Therrien could picture himself and Shero ...

Therrien interrupted the question.

"I will win a Stanley Cup one day," he said. "I will. I won a Calder Cup (AHL), I won a Memorial Cup (CHL), I won President's Cup (QMJHL). I won them all. There's only one I need to win.

"It's the Stanley Cup."

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