BOSTON — Alain Vigneault has not been available for comment because the Rangers have not officially announced him as the 35th head coach in franchise history.
It is a process so guarded at the moment that Rick Bowness — Vigneault’s assistant for seven seasons in Vancouver who recently took a job as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top assistant — was reluctant to address his friend’s agreement to coach the Rangers, as first reported by the Daily News, when reached by phone Sunday night.
But Bowness did talk about why he gave Vigneault his first NHL coaching job in 1992, as an assistant on Bowness’ staff for the expansion Ottawa Senators through 1996.
“Ten minutes into the interview, I knew I was going to hire him, (because of) his honesty, straightforwardness, strength of character,” Bowness said. “You knew he was going to be very loyal, very committed and very hardworking. You could just tell.”
Bowness said Vigneault’s primary strength as an assistant was “breaking down the opposition’s strengths and weakness” through film study and that he “very quickly learned how to deal with the National Hockey League players as opposed to Juniors.”
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is where Vigneault – a rugged defenseman nicknamed “Bam-Bam” who retired early after 42 games in two seasons with the St. Louis Blues – began his coaching career at the age of 25 with Trois Rivieres Draveurs in 1986-87. He then spent five seasons with the Hull Olympiques, capturing the 1988 Canadian Hockey League coach of the year award.
After his assistant stint in Ottawa, Vigneault returned to “The Q” to coach the Beauport Harfangs for parts of two seasons, beginning with a 1995-96 run to the QMJHL finals with an 18-year-old Martin Biron between the pipes. He then coached the Montreal Canadiens for three-plus seasons, from 1997 to 2001, in his first NHL head coaching job, going 109-118-35-4 and reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals in his first season and receiving a Jack Adams nomination for the league’s best coach in 1999-2000.
Montreal fired Vigneault after a 5-13-2-0 start the next year, but he rebounded, spending two seasons coaching P.E.I. Rocket back in the “Q” before coaching Vancouver’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, for one season and then taking the Canucks job for the 2006-07 season.
“It’s just his overall knowledge and his ability to present things to the team in different ways,” Bowness said of Vigneault’s growth. “He just improved in all areas of coaching.”
In Vancouver, with Bowness as his top assistant, Vigneault installed a defense-first foundation to a team that had lacked discipline, won the 2007 Jack Adams Award and, as the Canucks added more offensive talent, simultaneously afforded twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin and the growing stable of talent significant freedom to operate.
Striking that balance led to six Northwest Division titles and two Presidents’ trophies, and though he was fired following this season after two consecutive first-round playoff exits, Vigneault’s offensive success surely must resonate with Blueshirts forwards.
“You’ve got to let your players play, you’ve got to let them run, and at the same time you can command commitment to team defense, which we were able to do and then went to the Finals,” Bowness said.
“We never lost our focus on team ‘D’, but we certainly loosened the reins up and let them run a little bit as time went on.”