Therrien learned a ton about coaching in recent years
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Michel Therrien hadn't forgotten about his daughter's dance recital last week on the eve of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, but he wondered what Elizabeth, 15, was talking about.
"She said, 'Dad, don't forget, you've got to buy flowers.' I said, 'What do you mean, I have to buy flowers?' " the Penguins coach said, with a laugh, before leading his team into the series against Philadelphia.
"So I'm learning."
And so he is.
Therrien, 44, is a single father of two teenagers and the head of a tight-knit group of men ranging in age from 19 to 41.
Over his 2 1/2 seasons with the Penguins, Therrien, at times, has drawn comparisons between parenting and coaching. Both require patience and guidance and the ability to learn as you lead. But, while his family is bonded with love, there is an opposite emotion that drives him as a coach.
"I hate to lose," Therrien said. "That's not going to change. I've never been a good loser. But I know my players, and they hate to lose, too. That forces them to be at their best. It forces you as a coach to be prepared.
"It forces the players to give the maximum effort shift after shift and game after game. This is a group that hates to lose as much as I hate to lose. That's why we've had some success."
Reaching the conference final is not Therrien's first taste of success.
He played on the 1985 Calder Cup (American Hockey League) championship team with Sherbrooke, and coached Laval/Granby to three Quebec Major Junior Hockey League finals and Granby to the 1996 Memorial Cup as Canada's junior national champion.
With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he led the Penguins' top farm team to the Calder Cup final in 2003-04 before being elevated to his current post in December 2005.
Now that Therrien and the Penguins are within sight of the Stanley Cup final, he is more experienced and wiser than in his early days as a coach -- and those stretch to when he was 23, after knee surgery ended his playing career -- but he carries the same approach.
"Everybody to some degree changes a little bit, but he keeps the same drive, the same enthusiasm," said Penguins assistant Andre Savard, who, as the Montreal Canadiens' general manager, had the displeasure of firing Therrien from his first NHL head-coaching job during the 2002-03 season.
"He wants to win. He wants to be prepared. He works hard to be prepared for the opposition. His drive to win, that hasn't changed."
As a pro scout with Montreal after he was fired -- the only time he has been fired -- Therrien concentrated on studying systems, players, philosophies.
Going back further, Therrien's penchant for thorough preparation was evident to Penguins winger Georges Laraque when he was a 19-year-old on Therrien's junior champion Granby team.
"The confidence we have now coming into every series is the same that I saw we had back in the day," Laraque said. "We were so prepared and so confident that we knew we could win.
"Back in junior, when we went all the way, it was the same thing. Never at any moment psychologically did we think we would be defeated before we started. It pumps you up and makes it so much easier."
Therrien's drive has gotten the best of him at times, no more so than when he got an unsportsmanlike penalty for arguing a penalty call during Game 3 of Montreal's second-round 2002 series against Carolina.
The Hurricanes scored on the ensuing 5-on-3 power play, came back from a 3-0 deficit in the game to win and rebounded from being down in the series, 2-0, to advance.
"There's no doubt there's more emotion [in the playoffs], but I have to control my emotion and show some leadership regarding the players," Therrien said. "There's a line, and you can't cross that line. I've made some mistakes in this, and you learn from your mistakes."
Like any coach, Therrien still gets upset at times. His players always know when their coach reaches that point. Their ears tell them.
"When it gets intense, he swears in French," said Laraque, who, like Therrien, is French-Canadian.
Therrien, who grew up in the Italian neighborhoods of Montreal, didn't learn English until his first season as a pro in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
He feels strongly enough about his French heritage that that's all he speaks at home with Elizabeth and Charles, 14, even though his children can't read French and have spoken English outside the home most of their lives.
Therrien's accent is still thick, and there are the occasional malaprops, but he always gets his point across.
"The communication is good," Laraque said. "He's straightforward and a straight shooter and honest, and, with honesty, it doesn't matter what language."
The only times Therrien tries to hide his thoughts are after losses in front of Elizabeth, who watches games at Mellon Arena from the stands, and Charles, who works in the home locker room as a water boy.
"When I get home, I try to get away from the game as much as I can," Therrien said. "You can't get away 100 percent. People always say that. I think they're lying. It just looks good to say it.
"When you lose, I don't want my kids to feel my pain or see that I'm disappointed, but the older they get, they feel it. But I do want them to be a part of the success."
And, as long as he's learning the finer points of fatherhood and coaching and dance recitals and winning, he might as well stop and smell the roses now and then, even the ones he had to be told to present to his daughter the dancer.
"I'm enjoying my life," Therrien said. "I enjoy this. I'm fortunate to be able to coach this team. There are only 30 of these jobs."
First Published May 11, 2008 12:04 am