Claude Julien an enduring success

BOSTON -- His friends and colleagues marveled at his dogged resilience amid a halting career littered with crushing disappointments.

Defenseman Claude Julien was a career bubble player, perpetually teetering on the cusp, and while coaches admired him for his loyalty, discipline and hockey acumen, they did not choose him in the end.

The 1986 preseason camp of the Quebec Nordiques had a different feel to it. Julien survived each cut down to the final day, and when coach Michel Bergeron summoned him to his office, Julien was poised to finally be rewarded for his perseverance.

Instead, Bergeron lowered his voice and began, "Claude, I don't know what to tell you ..."

Julien's dream -- to play in the NHL -- was inches from his grasp, yet once again snatched from him.

"Basically, all the other D's [defensemen] were on one-way contracts and I was on a two-way deal," Julien explained. "Back then, that meant a lot. So I paid the price. I had to go down to the minors.

"Those are the situations that make you think the world is turning against you.

"But it turns out to be the reason why I'm here today."

Claude Julien played another six seasons, but he never made it back to the NHL, his sum total of games played on hockey's highest level halted at 14. Through stops in Fredericton, Paris (France), Baltimore, Halifax, Kansas City and Moncton, he endured an array of demoralizing setbacks: his rights dealt as compensation for a coach; not being re-signed because the money was needed to pay the Soviets in a hockey exhibition; assurances of a promotion to the Big Show, only to learn the GM who made that promise switched clubs.

Julien absorbed each misfortune with the same stoic resolve. Learn from it, he told himself. Grow from it.

"It became a big part of my coaching," Julien said. "When, as a player, you feel you could have been right there and it goes the other way and you're stuck with it, you learn a lot."

His coaching philosophy evolved into a defensive, team-oriented style with emphasis on less glamorous skills such as backchecking and shot blocking.

It was validated in 2011 when the Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in 29 years.

Since then, Julien's team has suffered some heartbreaking disappointments of its own, most recently the shocking second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens last season.

The Bruins open the 2014-15 season Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers determined to put the implosion against Montreal firmly behind them.

If anyone knows how to do that, it is Claude Julien.

"When people face adversity early in their careers, they tend to respond very well to challenges going forward," defenseman Zdeno Chara said. "You can tell when we are down or in a slump, Claude knows how to respond."

That doesn't suggest the losses roll off his back. The defeat to the Canadiens, an organization that fired Julien as its coach in 2006, gnawed at him all summer.

Asked to pinpoint the most disheartening aspect of it, Julien replied, "I really believe if we had gotten past Game 7 against them, our team was about to take off.

"We had played such good hockey in March. You're always afraid of peaking too soon. I feel a team reaches its max once a year. I was hoping that wasn't our peak."

Julien said his team missed the grit of center Chris Kelly, and when defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid were lost to injury, Julien conceded, "We were young on defense and got exposed a little bit."

Boston's star players were rightfully taken to task for not stepping up to meet the challenge of Game 7.

"No doubt, that was disappointing," Julien said, "but those guys have given so much, you can't turn around at the end of the year and start pointing fingers.

"You ask yourself, 'Why?' because my whole goal before that [Game 7] was to make sure they wouldn't be too tight. My message was, 'Guys, don't overthink. Let's just go out and play.'

"Somehow that didn't happen. I think they still felt tight. As a coach, you take that upon yourself and say, 'What could I have done differently to make them a little looser?' Because I don't feel what I did worked."

The hallmark of a Claude Julien hockey team is a keen (some would say nearly obsessive) attention to detail. That approach, said former Bruins assistant Geoff Ward, is what sets the Bruins apart.

"The details make the difference between an average team and a very good team," Ward said. "Claude stresses those details so it's in the players' nature to do it. That allows them to react instinctively in big games instead of stopping and thinking about what's going on."

It is not uncommon for Julien to stop practice and require even the most decorated players to repeat a drill until it is exactly the way he wants it.

"He keeps hammering his message to his players until we finally get it," Seidenberg said with a hint of a smile. "We're not always the smartest guys, but it eventually sticks."

Defenseman Dougie Hamilton recalls his first day with the Bruins, when the team ran a drill requiring players to skate backward, touch the line, then sprint forward and touch the line down the ice.

"Sometimes in junior hockey, you could kind of cheat in a way, not quite touch the line, and nobody cared," Hamilton said. "It's different here. Coach notices that stuff. He called me out on it right away -- still does."

Julien acknowledges his approach is not for everyone. He was hired by the New Jersey Devils in 2006 and inherited a decorated veteran team. Some players who were set in their ways were put off by Julien's conservative bent on the game.

On April 2, 2007, Devils president Lou Lamoriello took the extraordinary step of firing Julien with just three games left in the regular season, even though the Devils were on course to set a record for franchise wins and were second overall in the Eastern Conference.

The move sent shock waves through hockey. Lamoriello explained it at the time by saying, "I don't think we're at a point of being ready both mentally and [physically] to play the way that's necessary going into the playoffs."

Within days, the rumor mill was churning. Claude was too rigid. Claude had lost his players, a notion that still rankles Andre Savard, Julien's former coach in the minors.

"Lou is one of the best GMs in the game and I'm sure he had his reasons, but I didn't agree with it," Savard said. "You hear that stuff about 'losing players' a lot. I think it's exaggerated.

"You have a 23-man roster and you may have a battle with one player, and that player can be a big negative. What are you going to do? Just because one player out of 23 doesn't accept the way you coach your team, that doesn't mean you lost it."

The firing was stunning to Julien, who knew it could be a devastating blow to his career.

"It was hard," Julien admitted. "It was one I didn't see coming. But in this game you have to respect people for what they do. If I ask my players to respect a decision they might not like, then I have to do the same of my general manager, whether I agree or not. You look back and say it wasn't quite the right fit."

Although seven years have passed since Julien's ouster, curiosity over what happened in New Jersey lingers. Julien confirmed what two former Devils players told ESPN: One day in practice, a prominent veteran wound up and fired a slap shot at Julien's shin.

"Was it on purpose? I don't know," Julien said, "but I guess one of my assistants thought so. He went after him for it."

Lamoriello, who is still president of the Devils, said the incident had nothing to do with why he let Julien go.

"Absolutely not," Lamoriello said recently. "No bearing on it. I didn't even know about it.

"When Claude came here, the team was used to winning. Nothing else was accepted here. I won't talk specifically about it, but overall it was a very difficult decision that needed to be made.

"It was never about the person. In the long run, I think it helped Claude."

When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli hired Julien in Boston in 2007, they talked extensively about his experience in New Jersey. Chiarelli came away convinced his coach had turned a negative into a positive.

"He's a tough nut," Chiarelli offered. "He can bounce back. He can grind with the best of them and he's got a great hockey mind. His principles are strong and enduring."

Those qualities have served Julien well in a market where critics can be unyielding. In spite of notching his name on the Cup, he is still second-guessed regularly.

He has drawn support from other professional coaches in town, striking up a friendship with former Celtics coach Doc Rivers when he picked his brain about how to approach a post-lockout season. Rivers often wandered down to Julien's office to discuss the pressure of coaching in a city that expects excellence every year.

Last fall, Julien sought out Celtics coach Brad Stevens to let him know his door was always open.

"All of the coaches, we talk," Julien said. "Even with Bill Belichick, there's texts going back and forth all the time, offering support."

The conversations vary, from strategy to simple words of encouragement. Turns out the football coach and the hockey coach share the idea that all players -- superstars or otherwise -- must be treated equally.

"Just because you have awards or records or medals," confirmed Chara, "that won't get you extra favor with Claude."

When Julien was a boy, he was either skating on the ponds of Ontario or was up to his elbows in tar assisting his father, Marcel, with his roofing company. His family was humble, hard working and accountable.

Julien signed with the Oshawa Generals as a 17-year-old, wearing the same uniform that Bobby Orr, Alex Delvecchio and Eric Lindros did.

But the NHL remained an elusive goal. In 1983, Julien was transferred to Quebec by St. Louis as compensation for Jacques Demers becoming the Blues coach.

"It was a bit of a shock because the GM in St. Louis at the time was Emile Francis," Julien said. "He told me he thought I was ready to make the jump [to the majors]."

Julien was cautiously optimistic until the news hit that Francis had taken a job with the Hartford Whalers.

"They talked about getting me in a trade to Hartford, but it never quite panned out," Julien said.

"I never complained about it, and I'll tell you why. I'd go back home in the summer and work at my father's roofing business and see how physically taxing it was.

"I felt lucky to be making a living playing hockey even if it wasn't the dream job of a regular in the NHL."

During the 1983-84 season in Fredericton of the AHL, Julien scored 7 goals with 22 assists in 57 games. He was called up for a single game the following year with the Nordiques.

He played 13 more games for Quebec in 1985-86, but then came that sitdown with Michel Bergeron and a trip back to Fredericton, where he played for Savard.

"He was very good for us," Savard said. "He was a guy who would come over to the bench and ask a lot of questions about position play and systems.

"It was unusual. He was looking forward more than some others."

When Julien's contract expired, Savard assured him a new deal was in order. But when Savard approached Nordiques management, he was told there was no money. They needed to bankroll the hockey exhibition Rendezvous '87, a series between the Soviets and NHL All-Stars in Quebec City.

"It was only going to cost us an extra $5,000 to keep Claude," Savard recalled. "I said to them, 'What are you doing? This is unacceptable.'

"I'm sure Claude didn't understand. I didn't understand. But he had to adjust, go somewhere else."

Julien played in France, then was summoned back to Fredericton once the club realized the error of its ways. From there, he moved to Halifax, and when coach Robbie Ftorek took a job in the NHL, he filled in as a player-coach for two weeks.

"At the end of the year, I was told not to worry, that the team would re-sign me with a substantial raise because of how loyal I was," Julien said.

Instead, the team imported a new GM who favored younger players.

Once again, Julien was on the move, this time to the Kansas City Blades, which later became famous for holding a Toothless Night promotion allowing free admission for anyone who was missing a tooth and half price for anyone with a chipped tooth.

Kansas City teammate Hank Lammens dubbed Julien, his 30-year old teammate, "Crash Davis."

"At that point, Claude had lost a lot of his mobility, so he wasn't the fleetest on the blue line," Lammens said. "But they still used him on the power play because he was such a good quarterback out there.

"I wasn't surprised to see him win with the Bruins. Why is Boston the way it is? It's consistency. Claude came in every day with the same message for us young guys. There was never any drama. That Bruins team is a reflection of his personality."

After a year in Moncton, his hockey options dwindled, and Julien considered a career as a fireman or policeman. The players association in the minor leagues offered him a job, but Julien opted for a coaching stint with the Hull Olympiques. He led them to the Memorial Cup in 1997 and his career behind the bench took flight from there.

Although he led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 2011, it was a taxing season. There was a sense throughout the run that any misstep would cost him his job.

"That's why [2011] was so gratifying," Ward said. "There was a lot of pressure on the team that year, a lot of rumors about Claude's job being in jeopardy.

"Through all that, he stuck to his guns. It really drove home to me the importance of [being true to yourself]."

Julien has accrued lifelong hockey friends in his travels. The owners of the French team that he played with for just one season are now annual guests in Boston. When the team is on the road, it's not uncommon for Julien to dine with teammates from his junior hockey days.

Even the two men who fired him, Bob Gainey (in Montreal) and Lou Lamoriello, value his loyalty.

"I called him and told him how happy I was when he won [the Cup]," Lamoriello said. "He's such a quality individual, he deserves success. You root for him.

"I consider Claude a friend."

The pressure is squarely on Julien again this season to produce a winner. He recognizes it and has even learned to embrace it.

"He views disappointments as an opportunity to make the core of your team stronger," Ward said. "Claude believes adversity is a good teacher."

The winning has defined him, but the disappointments have shaped him. Claude Julien, the roofer's son, is still up to his elbows in hockey, and that's all he's ever wanted.