Vigneault's template for redemption

As fate would have it, before Dallas Eakins was fired, the last NHL head coach he faced was Alain Vigneault. Perhaps that can serve as an interesting tie-in for the former Edmonton Oilers bench boss.

Years ago, Vigneault was fired not once, but twice, and had to go back to the junior ranks to rebuild his coaching reputation. In fact, after being fired from his first NHL head-coaching job by the Montreal Canadiens in 2000, Vigneault went nearly six years between NHL coaching gigs.

And fair or not, Eakins' coaching rep has taken a major hit after his first NHL gig produced very few wins in nearly a season and a half. Whether Eakins resurfaces as an NHL assistant coach, an AHL head coach or even back in junior, it seems almost impossible that he'll be back as an NHL head coach without having to repay his dues with one of those other jobs beforehand.

Vigneault's early years in his coaching career can serve as a road map for Eakins.

"When I was fired as an assistant coach from Ottawa, we had a terrible record,'' Vigneault told ESPN.com on Monday evening from Calgary, where his New York Rangers play Tuesday night.

Indeed, Vigneault was part of a Rick Bowness coaching staff that got unfairly tainted by an expansion roster that was simply awful in Ottawa. Those early-years Senators redefined futility. And that was a young Vigneault's first NHL job.

"I remember back then all my friends and some of my family were saying, 'You can't go back to junior. You've taken a step forward and you can't go backward,'" said Vigneault.

"But I remember at the time, my father and one of my buddies' fathers both kept telling me that working was honorable and whatever job you could find was good. I knew deep inside me, because we didn't have a very good record with that expansion team, I needed to go somewhere and win.''

Vigneault was fired Nov. 20, 1995, by the Senators, and by late December was back as a head coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with Beauport.

"I took that team to the finals and lost to Michel [Therrien, currently the head coach in Montreal], who was coaching Granby at the time. They won the Memorial Cup, actually, the first one in a long time for the Q [Quebec League],'' recalls Vigneault. "But I went there and had success, the following year also did well. Then I ended up in Montreal. That's how I got the job with the Canadiens.''

Like Eakins in Edmonton, Vigneault's first head-coaching gig in the NHL was in a frying-pan, religious-hockey market. He had some success during his 3½ years in Montreal, including being nominated for the Jack Adams Award in 1999-2000. The following year, he was let go.

"I got fired again on Nov. 20," chuckled Vigneault. "I was shocked when we got fired. The year before I had been up for coach of the year. We had taken a group that was basically an American League team because of all the injuries that we had, we took it to the last game of the regular season, fell just short of a playoff spot with such a banged-up crew; what a hardworking team.

"So when I got fired the next year, I remember thinking: 'Geez, I was just up for coach of the year last year, our record was so-so but I got to think people saw that I did a pretty good job. I'm going to get some calls.' The phone didn't ring that first summer.''

Like Vigneault, Therrien was a rookie head coach when he was fired after his first stint with the Habs (2000-03), and got back into things by accepting an AHL job.

"Not every situation is the same," Therrien told ESPN.com in his native French on Tuesday. "But when I got a call from [former Penguins GM] Craig Patrick the summer after I left Montreal, and he offered me a job in Wilkes-Barre [AHL], I got on board. When you're younger in your career, you've got to make sacrifices; the road isn't always very easy. No question about it."

That AHL job eventually turned into coaching Sidney Crosby and a young Penguins team at the NHL level, and Therrien hasn't looked back.

Vigneault had 1½ years left on his deal when he got fired by Montreal, and he didn't really try hard to find a coaching job that first summer because he believed his work with the Habs would generate its own interest. He was wrong.

He did some pro scouting for the Blues during that year and a half, but then realized he had to go back to the lower ranks and rebuild his reputation yet again.

"September came around, I still didn't have a job,'' recalls Vigneault. "There was nothing open. I looked for work, I was proactive. But I couldn't find anything. As September came, I started going through a tough divorce.''

Finally, around Christmas time, the Montreal Rocket junior team came calling and hired Vigneault.

"They were playing at the time at the Bell Centre [in Montreal]. So instead of coaching in front of a sold-out 20,000 at the Bell Centre, I went to 1,000 in an empty building," chuckled Vigneault. "But at the end of the day, I can't take a lot of credit for doing it. I had to do it. I had to work, I had bills to pay.

"So I went back to junior and worked my butt off.''

He followed the team when it moved to Prince Edward Island and did two years there.

"Then the Canucks came knocking on my door to coach their [AHL] farm team in Winnipeg,'' said Vigneault. After one year in the AHL, the Canucks promoted Vigneault to replace Marc Crawford as head coach in 2006.

From there, Vigneault has never looked back. Things were different when he got fired in Vancouver in the summer of 2013. By then, Vigneault had established himself as one of the best coaches in the NHL, and the Dallas Stars and the Rangers were extremely interested in him. He could write his own ticket, and he did.

But in the context of Eakins' firing, Vigneault can easily think back to when he was in those same shoes after his first NHL opportunity.

"It's a tough business," said Vigneault. "All I can say when you talk about Dallas [Eakins], looking back -- if I had to do it again, when I got fired from Montreal, that summer when I said I had another year and a half on my deal, I would have been more proactive looking for a job.

"Back then, you always have to look at your record and what people think. Best thing I did was what I did after getting fired in Ottawa and going right back to junior and having winning seasons. Because when you're in an environment when there's not a lot of winning, people say, 'Is it the players, is it the coaches?' There's always that doubt. If you go back [to junior or AHL] and prove you can win, then you'll get other opportunities.

"That's the way this business is; they want guys who can win.''

For Eakins, who has 2½ years left on his Oilers contract, part of the road back is rather simple, too.

"Hey, at the end of the day, if you work your bag off and you're good at your job, usually stuff works out," said Vigneault. "That's what happened to me.''