The end, officially, came for Michel Therrien yesterday morning when Montreal Canadiens general manager Andre Savard told a Bell Centre press gathering that he'd made a coaching change.
Therrien, who'd presided over last year's stirring run to the playoffs and opening-round upset over the Boston Bruins, was out; Claude Julien, a highly regarded career coach, most recently with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, was in.
Unofficially, though, one could argue that the beginning of the end for Therrien came on May 9 of last season, on the fateful spring night when the Canadiens' magical playoff run began to unravel.
Remember how it unfolded? The Canadiens held a 2-1 series lead over the Carolina Hurricanes in the second playoff round and carried a 3-0 lead in the third period of Game 4.
The Hurricanes needed a miracle to climb back into the series and Therrien, unhappily, provided them with one. At 2:40 of the third, the Canadiens' Stephane Quintal received a cross-checking penalty from referee Kerry Fraser that Therrien didn't like. He argued and gestured and finally Fraser made him pay for his tantrum, assessing him a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
With a two-man advantage, the Hurricanes broke goaltender Jose Theodore's shutout bid and then scored twice more to tie the game before winning it in overtime.
Montreal fell apart from there, absorbing 5-1 and 8-2 losses to lose the series. All of the poise and passion that went into their play during the previous six weeks vanished.
Afterward, it was hard not to point the finger at Therrien. There's a fine line between motivating and losing your head. Therrien often let his temper get the best of him, and against the Hurricanes, his actions probably cost Montreal a chance to advance to the semi-finals.
Nothing changed this season. The highlight reels showed him constantly on the edge, always ready to let his temper fly. The last straw probably came this month when he went off on Fraser again, this time as a result of a couple of iffy calls in a loss to the New Jersey Devils.
The league fined both Savard ($50,000) and Therrien ($25,000) for their actions. Savard, one would think, still had a mulligan left and ownership forgave his outburst. Not Therrien, though.
Therrien might have been forgiven if the team had continued to win. The problem was that after Christmas, the Canadiens registered just two victories in 12 games to fall back into the Eastern Conference pack.
So the new man is Julien, a relative unknown but someone who is highly regarded within the coaching fraternity.
Dave King, a former Canadiens' assistant and himself a victim of the league-wide coaching purge having just lost his job in Columbus, described Julien as "a very sharp hockey guy. I met him for the first time back when he was coaching in Hull. You know how you meet a guy and come away impressed? I was -- with his evaluation ability, his teaching ability, his ability to speak English and French well. He looked like a guy who wasn't insulated in Quebec. As a player and coach, he'd been outside the province. I got a real good impression of him. I thought he was a real sharp guy.
"He comes across as polished, which is a good thing in Montreal, an important thing."
As the Habs' new coach, Julien also made a positive first impression, noting how it was an honour and a privilege for someone from Ottawa, who'd grown up wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey, to realize a dream.
"When Andre called and offered me the job, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it," Julien said. "My ultimate goal is very simple. To help the Montreal Canadiens make it to the playoffs."
Savard's explanation for hiring Julien was complex and even a touch confusing. On the one hand, Savard did it for many of the right reasons -- because he knew Julien personally from having coached him in Fredericton; because Julien had succeeded at every previous coaching level; because, after having worked in the Montreal system, Julien knew some of the Canadiens' players. Then Savard added an interesting clincher: He hired Julien, in part, because he was available.
The implication, of course, was that someone who Savard might otherwise have considered for the position was not available. That someone, logically, would have been Bob Hartley, who signed on as the Atlanta Thrashers' coach this week after being fired by the Colorado Avalanche just before Christmas.
Hartley would have been a good fit in Montreal and not just because of his French-Canadian background. He is primarily a defensive coach and a well-respected tactician who would have instilled some much-needed discipline in the Canadiens.
Presumably Savard first considered making his move right after Monday's 1-0 loss to the Thrashers, which came in Hartley's debut with Atlanta. No one should read much into the performance of a team the first night it plays for a new coach -- invariably they find ways to win -- but the fact that Hartley could get the unbelievably porous Thrashers to shut out the Canadiens was surely the last straw for Savard.
In the end, Julien's appointment may work out for the best. He seems to possess all the qualities needed to succeed in Montreal -- he is well schooled, calm, personable, the antithesis of Therrien.
Still, you wonder if Hartley now wishes he'd waited a few more weeks instead of pushing so hard to get the Thrashers' job. He might have ended up in Montreal instead. Eric Duhatschek writes a daily hockey column for globeandmail.com. Claude Julien Age: 42. Hometown: Blind River, Ont. Coaching career: Julien was in his third season as head coach of the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs, where he had a 98-88-19 record (.524). He also coached the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 1996 to 2000, earning a 141-109-16 record. Highlights: Julien was head coach of the Canadian team that won bronze at the 2000 world junior championships, and assistant coach a year earlier, when Canada won silver. Julien led the Olympiques to a Memorial Cup championship in 1997. He coached the under-18 Canadian team to a gold in the Three Nations tournament in 1997 in the Czech Republic. Did you know? Julien had been selected as head coach of the Planet/USA team at this season's AHL annual all-star game.