When Dominique Ducharme parked his car at the Bell Centre on Feb. 20, he had no idea how much his life would change before the next time he sat in the driver’s seat eight days later.
Ducharme arrived at the Bell Centre on Feb. 20 as the Canadiens’ assistant coach for a game that night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, which the Canadiens lost 5-3. After the game, the Canadiens boarded two buses for Ottawa, arriving around 1:30 a.m.
The Canadiens lost 3-2 to the Senators in overtime the next night and lost again two nights later in Ottawa, 5-4 in a shootout. The next morning, Ducharme was named interim head coach, replacing Claude Julien.
Ducharme is still looking for his first win as an NHL head coach following a 6-3 loss in Winnipeg on Thursday and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Jets on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Canadiens flew back to Montreal.
“When I went to get into my car, I said: ‘Wow,'” Ducharme said after the Canadiens practised Monday at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. “It changes quick in hockey. I left and when I came back I got back into my car and I’m now the head coach of the Canadiens. It’s special. Things certainly change for me, but it also changes for members of my family, etc.”
When the Canadiens hired Ducharme three years ago as an assistant, he was basically their head-coach-in-waiting, so he knew the day might come when he would be named head coach. He was prepared for it but, as he said, “it happened so quick.”
The fact the coaching change was made while the Canadiens were on the road probably helped Ducharme because there were fewer distractions. But he added that also made it difficult to think about anything else besides his new responsibilities.
“When you get back to your (hotel) room, you don’t have anything else to think about … you stay on it,” he said. “You stay with that, so it was tough a little bit to get my mind out of it for just an hour or so. So going back home and spending a little bit of time with my girlfriend (on Sunday) and just finishing the work that I had to finish and then having that time and relaxing a little bit, it was a good thing. I needed that because everything was so intense for three days it was a little bit crazy.”
It isn’t really fair Ducharme was thrust into his position without even a single practice before his first game as head coach, but life — and pro hockey — often isn’t fair. You have to make the most of the opportunities you get, no matter how they come.
There is a ton of pressure on Ducharme now. If he does a good job and the Canadiens turn things around and perform in the playoffs, the interim tag will come off his job description. If they miss the playoffs, he most likely loses his job and then you wonder if he’ll ever get another shot in the NHL.
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The Canadiens are 2-5-3 in their last 10 games and have a 9-6-5 overall record.
Ducharme is trying to put in a new system with very little practice time because of the condensed schedule that has the Canadiens playing 16 games over 29 days in March.
“With the puck, especially when we get to the O-zone, we have more rules than systems,” Ducharme explained after getting the job. “I want guys to be expressing themselves when we’re on the rush. There are things that we want to be respecting, but they have that freedom to express themselves within those rules. Puck support is one big thing. So I want us to be active and I want the puck carrier to have options and I want the guys without the puck to be active in getting in position or in situations to receive the puck. That’s the way I see it and that’s the way we’re going to be working. I believe a lot in that.”
At practice Monday, the Canadiens worked on their offensive-zone forecheck and their defensive-zone coverage, which will now include more man-on-man instead of the zone defence Julien preferred. Ducharme liked what he saw Saturday night when the Canadiens outshot the Jets 41-21 in the 2-1 OT loss.
The 47-year-old Ducharme is from Joliette and grew up as a Canadiens fan, so he understands the pressure-packed position he’s in now with “about 8 million assistant coaches alongside me.”
“That’s passion,” Ducharme said. “It’s one of the reasons why it’s special to play in Montreal, that passion from the fans for the Canadiens.
“I feel good,” he added. “I haven’t changed since that first day (as head coach) when I said that I felt ready. I like the way the players are receptive. They want to work. I’m happy with our progress. I think we’re heading in the right direction. The results will come.”
His new parking spot at the Bell Centre depends on it.
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