To borrow from Mark Twain, who once wrote that you couldn't throw a brick in Montreal without breaking a church window, these days you can't have a bun fight in the media lounge at Montreal's Bell Centre without striking a former NHL coach.
Ninety minutes before most Canadiens home games, on Level 7 of the cavernous arena, there is a routine assembly of some of the most accomplished second-guessers in the hockey business.
Look left and you might see Bob Hartley, who coached a Stanley Cup-winner in Colorado. At the first table past the doorway, you will certainly see, chowing down, Michel Bergeron, who coached the Quebec Nordiques at a time when the ill-tempered Montreal-Quebec rivalry spoiled a lot of Sunday dinners in a province. Michel Therrien, who coached Pittsburgh to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, is there some nights. Jean Perron, coach of the 1986 Cup champion Canadiens, is a regular. Mario Tremblay, another ex-Canadiens head coach who later soaked up the coaching musings of Jacques Lemaire as his assistant in Minnesota and, briefly, New Jersey, might be there on the nights he is doing between-period work for RDS, a French-language all-sports network that carries all Montreal games.
The talking heads ebb and flow. Jacques Demers (1993 Cup with Montreal) is now Senator Jacques Demers, if you please, hanging around Parliament in Ottawa instead of dishing regularly on RDS. Guy Carbonneau, a Jack Adams Award finalist with Montreal who popped up on TV occasionally, last month went back to riding the buses as coach in Chicoutimi, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team for which he once played and now co-owns.
Tallied up, theirs is not shabby collective curriculum vitae.
Other than having actually accomplished something tangible behind NHL benches, another thing they have in common -- besides punditry in a hockey-obsessed market -- is an inability, at least at present, to get another head coaching job in the NHL.
Now if you want to play the language card, don't. There is a healthy representation of French-speaking coaches in the NHL. If the most deserving 2011 Jack Adams-winner is not Vancouver's Alain Vigneault, whose calm has helped weather a rash of injuries on the Canucks' defense, it is Guy Boucher, who has brought a 1-3-1 system, creative power play schemes, and a strong sense of trust during his impressive first season with Tampa Bay. There's also Boston's Claude Julien and Montreal's Jacques Martin, who coached a surprise conference finalist last spring and has the Canadiens a solid sixth in the east this season despite crippling injuries to key blueliners. Most famously, Lemaire unretired at New Jersey President Lou Lamoriello's behest and has performed CPR on the now-surging Devils.
Indeed, it's worth noting that on some level linguistic ability might have helped in the aforementioned coaches' careers -- at least initially. All but two were hired for their first NHL head-coaching job by a Quebec-based team (Bergeron, Demers, Perron,Carbonneau, Tremblay, Therrien, Julien, Lemaire, Vigneault) or, in Hartley's case, a francophone GM. (Martin began in Ottawa while Boucher coached in the minors for Montreal before being hired by the Lightning.) Former Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix gave Hartley his break with the Avalanche. Hartley, who later coached Atlanta, thought he was about to get a chance to lead a third NHL team, but Jay Feaster, who had worked with Hartley in the AHL, was fired in Tampa Bay in the Oren Koules-Len Barrie purge and ended up with the GM job in Calgary.
"I would never think of using language as an excuse," Hartley says.
So why would coaches with portfolios be out of work?
* Supply and demand. While the number of NHL teams is stable at 30, the number of would-be coaches is swelling. There is simply more competition for jobs and that presents a stiff challenge even for a credentialed coach like Therrien, who had helped turn Pittsburgh into a contender before he wore on his players.
* The success of ex-minor league coaches in the NHL. Boucher, a wunderkind, is only the latest example of a recent AHL graduate (Hamilton) who is making a difference.
In 2007, Randy Carlyle (Manitoba) won the Cup with Anaheim. Bruce Boudreau (Manchester, later Hershey) pushed Washington into a playoff berth the season of his Thanksgiving promotion. There's Bylsma, of course, who one-upped Therrien by winning the Cup after his predecessor was fired in February 2009. Once upon a time, Hartley (Hershey), in his third season following Marc Crawford in Colorado, also won the Cup.
Now Hartley jabbers on TV, having moved from Montreal's leading gabfest, L'antichambre on RDS, to Le Match on LCN/TVA. Like Carbonneau, he is only 50, which is still prime coaching age. He would weigh a return to the buses in junior -- he reached a Memorial Cup with Laval -- like Vigneault, the ex-Canadiens coach who, after two years coaching in the Q for a third time, advanced back up the hockey food chain to Manitoba and then Vancouver. Hartley would also consider an NHL assistant's job and maybe even one in a Europe if the situation is right.
"I wouldn't want my wife living in Atlanta or in the Laurentians (hills north of Montreal) because I took a job that wasn't in the right place," says Hartley, who says he receives a few calls annually from NHL and European teams. "If I went to Europe, it would also be for the life experience. I've been married for 30 years. My wife would have to be happy, too."
Hartley is still coaching. You can find him on the ice in Laval, just north of Montreal. He teaches three groups in his hockey school: beer leaguers who want to improve their skills, high-end teen prospects, and, finally, children under the age of six.
"Whether you get to work with a Joe Sakic and a Patrick Roy or three-year-olds learning how to skate for the first time by pushing a chair, it's still about the sport of hockey," Hartley says. "On the ice, with a whistle around my neck, I'm a coach."