Gallant reflects back

While Gerard Gallant is thrilled with his new position as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, he’ll always remember his three years as bench boss of the Saint John Sea Dogs.

“It’s been three good years of my life – successful years with our hockey club and our organization,’’ Gallant said.

That’s an understatement. The Sea Dogs reached the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League final in all three of Gallant’s years at the helm, winning the last two. He guided Saint John to the 2011 Memorial Cup championship and to last year’s semifinal.

Gallant’s group averaged 54 wins per season and won three straight regular-season titles. After all that success, his return to the NHL was a matter of when – not if.

“The happiest moment was the Memorial Cup win, but we had so many good kids and so many good moments,’’ Gallant said. “There was something special in every season, all the kids getting drafted and signing NHL contracts. It’s been three years of pretty close to perfect hockey.

“It’s always tough when you’re leaving something that’s good. Sometimes you’re happy when you’re leaving when things aren’t as good as they are here. For a major-junior franchise, it couldn’t be any better than this.’’

Hired by the Sea Dogs in April of 2009, Gallant came armed with NHL experience as both a player and coach. Former associate coach Mike Kelly, hired at the same time, also had an NHL tenure on his resume, having worked as an assistant with the Vancouver Canucks.

Kelly is Saint John’s new head coach and retained his duties as general manager after Gallant accepted the Montreal job. Aside from winning championships, the two coaches from Prince Edward Island have collected their share of individual honours.

All of the accolades seem like a blur at this point, especially considering the coaches were just trying to set a strong foundation three short years ago.

Gallant, who parlayed his own QMJHL playing career into an NHL opportunity with the Detroit Red Wings, recalls his return to the ‘Q’ as “nerve-wracking.’’

“I knew we were going to have a decent team, but I hadn’t seen the calibre of hockey in a while,’’ the coach said. “It was a really exciting time, but it was a nervous time, too. Things turned out real well.’’

That sums up Gallant’s coaching career in the junior ranks. He was behind the bench when his hometown Summerside Western Capitals captured the national junior A championship in 1997. Former Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean hired Gallant as an assistant in 2001, eventually leading to the job as head coach. And while Gallant was later relieved of his duties, he was hired by the New York Islanders as an assistant shortly after.

All that set the stage for one of the most successful eras in QMJHL and Canadian Hockey League history.

“He was a great coach for me,’’ said Florida Panthers prospect Jonathan Huberdeau, who played three years under Gallant in Saint John. “He gave me a chance at 16 (years of age) as a rookie and put me in a lot of different situations. Not a lot of coaches use their younger players.’’

Huberdeau said he gained confidence as a rookie under Gallant, especially when the coach put him on a line with overage sensations Mike Hoffman and Nick Petersen. Huberdeau’s second season saw him become playoff MVP, Memorial Cup MVP and the third overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft.

“He knows what it takes to be in the NHL,’’ Huberdeau said of Gallant. “He deserves to be in the NHL.’’

In many ways, Gallant benefited from being around young players like Huberdeau.

“I guess I became a lot more patient,’’ Gallant said. “I worked with young kids and had a lot of fun with it. Organizations start from the top and everyone has to buy in. It can’t just be your coaching staff; it has to be the whole organization buying in and I think that’s why we’re successful.

“It starts with the ownership group and moves right down to your office staff and your trainers to everybody else. There’s been a lot of people involved in the last three years.

“You can’t just say we had great players. We had great coaches, we had a great staff. It was everybody.’’

The Sea Dogs were an entertaining team during Gallant’s reign, employing an offensive game that allowed players to be creative and use their skill. The flair wasn’t just appreciated in Saint John, however.

Fans in rinks throughout Quebec, despite their fervor in cheering against the Sea Dogs, were captivated by the Port City squad. The media marveled at how much talent had been assembled on one roster, with several reporters calling the club the best they’d ever seen.

“It was fun going to the different rinks and knowing you were probably going to get the other team’s best game, and knowing that they were going to be pumped up for that game,’’ Gallant said. “We were the top dogs and teams were trying to knock us off. We enjoyed that as a team. People talked about us being the top team in Canada for the last three years.’’

Gallant enters a different situation in Montreal, where new general manager Marc Bergevin has engineered an overhaul in an effort to bring the Canadiens back to prominence.

“It’s no different for me,’’ Gallant said. “My job will be to continue to communicate with players, but the head coach is Michel Therrien. I approach it the same way as I approached working here. I’m going to have fun with them and work hard and try to help make players better. They’re trying to get better, they’re trying to win hockey games and hopefully I’m a part of that.’’

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