January 08, 2016

Claude Julien

Everyone knows Claude Julien became a very successful NHL coach.

But did you know he played defense in the National Hockey League, too?

It was brief. He played 14 games with the Quebec Nordiques in the 1980s - one game in 1984-85 and thirteen games in 1985-86. He picked up an assist in that second stint. A tenacious type, Julien also picked up 25 minutes in penalties.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Julien patrolled the blue line of the OHL's Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires. But no NHL team took a chance on him at the NHL draft.

The St. Louis Blues signed him as a depth player in their organization, and assigned him to the low minor leagues. He may not have known it at the time, but it was the best thing for him. It was a chance to play. The Quebec Nordiques noticed and traded for him, eventually paving his way to his cup of coffee as a NHL player.

Like so many coaches, Julien was once a forgettable defenseman, clinging to minor league paychecks and a childhood dream.
In these low minor leagues he also saw any and every situation in such leagues, which would one day prepare him for his true calling as a coach.

After his days with the Nordiques were over Julien obtained a fair degree of stability with several seasons in Fredricton and Halifax.

It was in those days that Julien essentially started coaching. As a veteran player, he was counted on to help the younger players in the minor leagues.

“I was at the tail end of my career in my late 20s and [playing] in the American League. Often times I was paired off with a young player and [coach Doug Carpenter] asked me one day, ‘Have you thought about coaching?’ It got me thinking about it, and as my career was nearing an end I started thinking more about it.”

Not that Julien jumped into it immediately.

“I think when I retired, I was about 32 years old, and I retired because I was still in the minors and at one point you have to say, ‘Well, you’ve got to look at the future,'” said Julien. “Being in the minors longer than that, to me, wasn’t the right route, so whether it’s in hockey or in the real world, I still felt I was young enough to go in a different direction.

“At one point I thought about being a fireman or maybe a policeman or something in the working world,” continued Julien. “I didn’t want to get to the stage where I was too old and there wouldn’t be any opportunities anywhere else.”

Ultimately, it was the familiar hockey routine that brought him behind the bench.

“The toughest thing, to be honest, was that I had left home at the age of 16 and had been in the same routine for more or less 16 years, and one day to just break that routine was probably the toughest thing,” said Julien. “You’re used to getting up every morning and going to the rink, and for about a year it was totally, totally different. It took me a while to adjust. That’s the biggest adjustment for people when they retire. They change their routine. And for the one year I didn’t coach, I went from playing to not doing anything before I started coaching juniors. When I started coaching after that year, that routine kind of came back and I started feeling comfortable again.”

The rest, as they say, is history. A successful coaching debut in junior led to NHL jobs in Montreal, New Jersey and Boston. A Stanley Cup in 2011. And status as one of the best coaches in the game.

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