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‘Second place’ not in Groulx’s vocabulary as Team Canada looks to end medal drought

Benoît Groulx, head coach of Canada’s world junior squad, says his team will play ‘the Canadian way.’

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Deep in the bowels of the in-your-face junior hockey rink known as Centre Robert-Guertin, in what used to be known as Hull but is now called Gatineau, Benoît Groulx sits Buddha-like and smiling under a most coincidental sign.

"Do we control the event," reads the large message by the door, "or does the event control us?"

Good question.

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Over the next couple of weeks, Groulx will edge out Prime Minister Stephen Harper and new Toronto Mayor John Tory for the toughest job in Canada. As the head coach of Team Canada, which played an exhibition game against Russia in Toronto on Friday night and will begin the 2015 world junior championship against Slovakia at Montreal's Bell Centre on Boxing Day, the 46-year-old is fully aware of the expectations.

Aware, as well, of the history – and the small role he played in the turning of that history.

A former junior star himself and an 11-year veteran of playing in France and Belgium, Groulx retired and took up coaching, where he was quickly identified as gifted. He led his Gatineau Olympiques three times to junior hockey's Memorial Cup. Not surprisingly, he was named head coach of the Canadian entry that would seek to make it five gold medals in a row at the 2009 world junior championship that was to be held in Ottawa.

Only he never made it. His dream had always been to coach in the NHL and along came an offer from the Florida Panthers to take over their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. He leaped at the chance, but first had to bail from his commitment to the junior tournament.

Hockey Canada filled in with Pat Quinn, then an out-of-work NHL coach, and Quinn (who died in Vancouver in late November) was behind the bench when a powerful team composed of the likes of the New York Islanders' John Tavares and the Montreal Canadiens' P.K. Subban led Canada to that fifth-straight gold.

But since then, it's been downhill for Canada. In Saskatoon the following year, the home team won silver, and silver again in Buffalo in 2011, then a bronze medal in Calgary in 2012. In Ufa, Russia, in 2013 and again in Malmo, Sweden, just last year, Canada – horror beyond all horrors – was shut out of the medals.

The sign by the door talks about controlling events, but this particular event – largely known by its initials, WJC – has for some time now been well beyond control, an over-the-top teenage hockey tournament that TSN has somehow managed to lift into the realm of the Stanley Cup and Grey Cup. In no small part this is because the tournament begins at a time when interest in the national game is highest and, when the preliminary rounds get under way, there is really nothing going on in the NHL and fans have holiday time off to flick on their televisions.

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If Canada cockily celebrated its record five wins in a row, with enormous pressure to make it six, it only stands to reason that five losses in a row have become such a concern that no one wants to see it reach six in a row – perhaps even three in a row away from the medal podium. Bad enough if this were to happen in Ufa or Malmo – but this will be prime time, centre stage in Montreal and Toronto, where the hockey spotlight shines with enough intensity to melt pucks.

There is this weighing down one of Groulx's wide shoulders. On the other sits his own sense of redemption for the decision he took six years ago to forego the chance to coach a Team Canada squad that won in order to head for the Rochester Americans and a coaching job that eventually did not work out.

Surely he must be feeling the pressure?

Suddenly the Buddha roars in laughter.

"You think you're the first one to ask me that?"

'An old-school type of coach'

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"There is no room for second place," reads a small plaque on another wall in Groulx's cramped office. "There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. I have finished second twice in my time … and I don't ever want to finish second again."

The words belong to Vince Lombardi, the late and legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. Different sport, of course – football rather than hockey – but the sentiments ring true enough to the head coach of Team Canada that he has them framed.

"Winning is a habit," Lombardi says. "Unfortunately, so is losing. Running a … team is no different than running any other kind of organization – an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win – to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don't think it is."

Groulx can be hard. When his Olympiques lost a match earlier this fall, he called a practice for 6 a.m. the following morning, skating the sleep-deprived players hard, then spending hours going over video of the previous night's dismal effort before heading back out onto the ice for another full practice.

"He can be tough on the players," says Le Droit sports editor Marc Brassard, who covered the Olympiques for several years. "He's mostly an old-school type of coach. He's a good guy but he drives his players hard."

Charlie Henry, the former Olympiques owner and general manager who hired Groulx to coach the western Quebec junior team when it was known as the Hull Olympiques, agrees, but adds that those who know Groulx well know his soft side as well.

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Henry first tried to get Groulx to join the Olympiques as a player back in 1988 when he believed he had engineered a trade with the Granby Bisons. Henry had worked through Gilles Groulx, Benoit's father, a massive man well over 300 pounds who worked as a printer at Le Droit and also served as assistant general manager and scout for the Bisons. Others in the Granby organization, however, nixed the deal. Henry was furious – "I would have given up a first-round draft pick for the kid," he remembers – but he could not blame his long-time friend, Gilles, for trying.

"I had heart troubles," Henry recalls of those days. "And after my operation I was told to walk a lot, so I used to go over to the arena and walk the upper corridor at night. I was there all by myself, virtually in the dark, and I can hear footsteps. I thought maybe it was a break-in and I was about to get mugged. Then I hear this voice calling out 'Mr. Henry! Mr. Henry!' It was Benoît and he was running at me and shouting, 'My father just died.' We just grabbed each other and hugged and cried."

Once his junior career had come to an end, Groulx had a brief tryout with the New York Rangers and, rather than try his luck with the Rangers' minor-league affiliate in Indianapolis, elected to head for Europe.

More than a decade later, when he had retired as a player and returned to Canada, Henry helped him find work as an assistant coach with the Shawinigan Cataractes, a major junior team in the same league as the Olympiques.

It was not a good fit. The hockey was fine but the distance brought an end to his marriage. He wanted to be back in Gatineau where he could play a larger part in the life of his then very young son, Benoît-Olivier, who is today a promising bantam attracting attention from junior scouts.

When Henry had a chance to hire Groulx to coach the then-Hull Olympiques part way through the 2001-2002 season, he leaped at the opportunity. He watched him grow – championships in 2003, 2004 and 2008 – and came to admire the coach's intense organization and high demands of his players.

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"He's probably the best coach I've ever seen when it comes to running his bench. He's like [former New York Islanders' coach and Hall of Famer] Al Arbour that way. Benny's a future NHL coach. He's always, always working upstairs in his mind."

A couple of seasons back, Henry, no longer running the team, sat down for a long talk with the coach. He thought Groulx, like his father had been, was too "old school" when it came to the game: too unforgiving, too hard on his players.

"You've got to come more into today,' " Henry told him.

Groulx knows what Canada faces

Today's hockey is no longer the game played when Canada twice won the World Junior Championship five times running. Over the past six years, there have been five different champions: Canada (2009), the United States twice (2010, 2013), Russia (2011), Sweden (2012) and Finland (2014).

Craig Button, TSN's junior hockey expert, says the WJC "turned" in 2007, the year it was played in Leksand and Mora, Sweden. Canada won gold, but the tournament was different.

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"It used to be we could come with the bigger team, the stronger team, and we could push teams around," Button says. "That's no longer the case. The second thing is that the younger players are more capable of playing. I think that everything being equal you want an older guy over a younger guy – unfortunately, it's not always the case. Some of the young guys are better. We need to give them that opportunity; I really believe that."

Until recently, the world junior has always been called "a 19-year-olds' tournament," meaning the older the junior, the more likely the success. That has increasingly been called into question, however, possibly highlighted by the relegation of then-17-year-old Nathan MacKinnon to the meaningless fourth line in Ufa, only to see him move on from that disappointment to a Memorial Cup victory and last year's NHL rookie of the year.

"Nathan was a dynamic player," Button says, "and we can't just have him on a fourth line. I don't believe in bringing in high-end players and having them on the fourth line. It's not something they're accustomed to – especially at this age. We go to the Olympics, different story. Those players are older, they're more mature – but at this age, these kids have never played that role. Everyone says, 'Accept the role.' But it doesn't mean you're putting them in the best position to succeed."

Too often, Canada's entry has been assigned to a junior coach with little international hockey knowledge, in the belief that what works at home will work wherever. But junior hockey at the world level has profoundly changed over the past decade into something Button calls "an international blend." European teams have taken from North American teams and North American teams have taken from European, even if sometimes reluctantly.

"We are seeing younger players who are more capable, younger players who are more mature," Button adds. "It used to be that you didn't really understand the tournament, the younger kids, but now the European teams are playing against North American teams from the time they're 12 and 13. The kids are more aware of what the tournament is. I'm always reminded of P.K. Subban in Ottawa and he was asked about the pressure, 'Pressure? I was nine years old when I started dreaming about playing in this tournament. It's all I ever wanted to do.' I think that's what the kids from everywhere feel now."

To that end, Button approves of Groulx as the choice of Hockey Canada. He's proved himself in junior and, last year in Malmo, he served as an assistant coach to Brent Sutter. He knows firsthand what Canada is up against.

"He's got good credibility," Button says. "He's got a history as recent as last year. You understand some of the players that are returning. And I think there's been a real shift in terms of the competitive level of the tournament. The way the European teams play now. It's not any more that they play a skilled, light game. They play a hard game, a heavy game. Last year in Malmo was an eye-opener in many ways for the entire Hockey Canada organization, and I think they'll bring that with them."

Groulx also brings his years of experience in European hockey. He is as familiar with the larger European ice surface as he is with the smaller North American rinks that will be the venues in Montreal and Toronto, and he knows what is required to adapt.

"I played there for 11 years," Groulx says. "But now I'm back in North America for 14 years. When I came back here I knew more about European hockey because I'd played a little bit for Team France in a few tournaments, so I had the chance to play against Sweden and Norway and Finland and Russia."

The head coach says his team will play "the Canadian way – puck pursuit, speed, forcing the opposition into mistakes," but will have to adapt to circumstances. Still, he says, the European game has changed since those days, just as the North American game has changed since he was a junior. What has not changed – in fact, what has undoubtedly increased because of the current drought – is the pressure on Canada to win.

"Pressure can mean many different things," Groulx says. "You feel pressure when you've been winning four, five, six in a row. We haven't won a championship in six years, so we feel more underdogs than anything else. I think it's good if we have pressure – because it means we have a chance to win. If people think you got a chance to win, that's pressure."

Craig Button, however, says that the pressure this time is bound to be enormous.

"Playing on your home ice, and the fact that there's been a gold-medal drought and a two-year medal drought, there's no question there's a different pressure. But any coach that takes that job knows that you're going to have pressure. If you don't want the pressure, don't take the job."

Groulx is actually taking it for the second time, though this will be the first time he has actually stood behind the bench as head coach of Team Canada.

"I am privileged to have a second chance to be a part of this program," he says. "There's so few of us who have the opportunity to coach that team. Being named a second time as head coach is a privilege. I feel a lot of confidence from Hockey Canada. I'm thrilled to be coaching that team. Ask any junior coach in the country if they would pass on the chance to coach in the World Juniors in Montreal and Toronto and they would say it's a great privilege to be a part of it.

"Our goal is to win the gold medal. To have a chance to bring it back home … you've got to be thrilled about that."

"It's going to be a hell of a test," says Henry, who has his own doubts about the chances of reaching gold this year. Henry, who still consults for the junior league, was in Malmo last year when Canada came fourth and he was not much impressed by what he saw. Canada's chances, Henry believes, may well hinge on whether or not eligible players currently in the NHL – young players such as Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks, Jonathan Drouin of the Tampa Bay Lightning – are released by their teams to play for Groulx.

"But just think," Henry says. "If he does well – what are people going to think of him then?"

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