It was a sweet, not sour, Alain Vigneault who emerged yesterday to comment on his firing as coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
Summarily sacked on Monday morning after the team's most humiliating loss of the season (a 6-1 thrashing by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada) the mild-mannered skipper apparently spent the time since then compiling an exhaustive list of all the people he wanted to thank, and studying the thesaurus for a list of saccharine superlatives to describe his ex-employers.
"I'm here today to share my experience as the Canadiens coach, and to tell you about all the extraordinary people I've had the privilege of working with in recent years," Vigneault said at the opening of his news conference.
He went on to list dozens of people including management, coaches, trainers, players and ex-players, barely stopping short of naming each fan individually.
The ex-coach saved his most fawning statements for Réjean Houle, the Canadiens' general manager who was also fired. "I would still do anything for Réjean Houle and for the Canadiens organization," he said.
In stark contrast to Houle's tearful and apologetic goodbye, however, Vigneault was matter-of-fact and not self-critical at all.
"There's an unwritten rule in pro sports that you have to win," he said, almost with a shrug.
Vigneault told reporters that, despite the team's dismal record, "I would be lying if I said I saw this coming."
While he said repeatedly that he took the firing badly, in fact, the coach was remarkably stoic. Told of his firing, Vigneault did not say a word; he just got up, changed out of his Canadiens sweat suit one last time and headed home.
"Did I take it well? I don't know. I haven't read any books lately on how you're supposed to take being fired," he said. The only bitterness he expressed was at the fact he'd been axed on his wife's birthday, which put a damper on celebrations. Never a big hit with Montreal's ultra-critical sports media, Vigneault said he understood that journalists have a job to do. But in inviting reporters to "take one last kick at the can" in the question period, he made it obvious that he will not miss the fish-bowl atmosphere and the constant second guessing.
Over his three years with the Habs, Vigneault compiled an unremarkable 109-122-35 regular-season record and a 4-6 playoff record. The team slide from 12th to 30th spot in that period. This year, the team was 5-13-2 under his helm, bad enough for dead last in the league.
As he did when at the helm of the team, however, Vigneault insisted the team is a good one and its dismal record is due principally to a rash of injuries, particularly to star players such as Saku Koivu and Jeff Hackett.
"It just takes one win and the ball will start rolling," he said, saying that the team had good players and is bound to turn it around.
Vigneault said that he watched the previous game on TV with his two young daughters right after his firing. When Florida scored, the girls, both fanatical Habs fans, cheered. "And I said 'No, no, no. They're still Daddy's team. They're still our Canadiens.' "
Vigneault, 39, said he did not have any immediate plans, but it seemed obvious that he was keen to return to coaching.
Subtly shoring up his credentials, Vigneault stressed that, despite the tough situation, he "never lost control of the room" and had the respect of the players.
Pierre Bouchard, a former Canadiens player and popular TV broadcaster said Vigneault's performance yesterday virtually ensured that he will find work with another team.
"He conducted himself with a lot of class," Bouchard said.
Just days before cleaning house, Canadiens president Pierre Boivin had reiterated his support for the general manager and coach, but all that changed after the dismal showing on Hockey Night in Canada.
"I felt humiliated seeing us lose 6-1 to the Maple Leafs before a full house, in a game that was televised coast-to-coast, and ending up in 30th and last spot in the standings," he said.
With the team's sale set to be completed by year's end, the new coaching and management team is likely only temporary.