Canucks at 50: Vigneault proved to be a perfect pick by Nonis

“I know Alain at points was frustrated that it took so long. I wanted to make sure we were thorough." — former Canucks' GM Dave Nonis on the process that lead to hiring Alain Vigneault as head coach

Vancouver Canucks' GM Dave Nonis, right, announced Alain Vigneault as the new head coach on June 20, 2006. Jason Payne / PROVINCE

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Alain Vigneault was always Dave Nonis’ front-runner to be the Vancouver Canucks’ head coach in 2006-07, although you can excuse Vigneault if he didn’t believe that at times.

Nonis was about to start his third season as Vancouver’s general manager. He had inherited Marc Crawford as bench boss, and opted to fire him in April, 2006, after the team missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. 

Nonis had brought Vigneault, a former Montreal Canadiens bench boss, into the organization the previous summer, hiring him to guide Vancouver’s AHL Manitoba Moose affiliate. 

It was logical that Nonis would replace Crawford with Vigneault. It was expected by many. Nonis also knew that it was going to be one of the defining decisions of his tenure, so he was adamant about doing his due diligence. He was going to speak with other coaches as well.  

Vigneault became the Canucks bench boss in June, some two months after Crawford was fired. In between, names linked to the Vancouver coaching job included Brent Sutter, Dave Lewis, Kevin Dineen, Brent Peterson, Mike Johnston and Marc Habscheid. 

Vigneault went on to prove Nonis right. He won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year that first season, a campaign where the Canucks set then team records in wins (49) and points (105). That would be the first of five 100-point seasons for the Canucks in Vigneault’s seven seasons at the helm and he’s the franchise leader in regular season games coached (540), regular season wins (313) and playoff games coached (68).

“I know Alain at points was frustrated that it took so long,” Nonis, who is the assistant general manager of the Anaheim Ducks these days, explained about that initial process in replacing Crawford. “I wanted to make sure we were thorough.

“If we had to do it again, would I do it the same way? I think so. Before I started the process, I had a good feeling that Alain was going to be the guy. At the stage where we were, with the players we had and the players we had coming, I thought he was the best fit. But it was still important for you to make sure.”

Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault gets ready for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins on June 14, 2011. Mark van Manen / PNG

Nonis said at the time he wanted a coach with pro experience and a coach who was also comfortable working with younger players, and Vigneault had done two seasons with the QMJHL’s Prince Edward Island Rocket before that campaign with the Moose. He had guided an injury-riddled Moose team to a 44-24-7-5 season. 

He was the last candidate that the Canucks interviewed in that process, and Nonis says he was reassured at that meeting “it was clear that he was the right guy.”

“You could just hand him the job and that would probably make him feel good, but you hope that he looks at the fact you went through the process and you picked him and he appreciates that,” Nonis explained.

Hindsight obviously helps now, but it seems that the other candidates had a feel for what was happening at the time.

Habscheid, 56, led the Prince Albert Raiders to the WHL championship last season. Back in the summer before that 2006-07 campaign, he was coming off two seasons guiding various Hockey Canada entries, including two runs at the world championships.

Among the people he worked with at Hockey Canada was Steve Tambellini, who was an assistant general manager to Nonis with the Canucks. 

“He had a good idea of what I did,’ Habscheid explains, “but, at the time, it felt like no matter what AV was their guy.”

Vancouver Canucks’ head coach Alain Vigneault puts his team through their paces prior to the start of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final series against Boston. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG

Johnston tells a similar tale. He’s coaching now in the WHL, with the Portland Winterhawks. He had been one of Crawford’s top lieutenants with the Canucks, holding the position of associate coach.

“When they let Marc go, they indicated to me that I was a candidate, but, in the end, I believe it was a courtesy interview. Alain was the guy that they had targeted,” said Johnston, 62.

Sutter was one of the first names attached to the job when Crawford was let go. He seemed to be on just about every team’s list. He’s from one of hockey’s most celebrated families, had great success as a player and was coming off coaching Team Canada to back-to-back world junior titles.

Stories broke about a month before Vigneault was officially hired that Sutter had told the Canucks that he was not interested in being part of their interview process. Sutter said that he was committed to the Red Deer Rebels, the WHL club that he owns. He’s also the coach and GM.

Oddly enough, Sutter jumped to the NHL the following season, signing on to guide the New Jersey Devils in 2007-08. He had two strong regular seasons with the Devils before jumping to the Calgary Flames in 2009-10. He spent three seasons there before returning to Red Deer for the 2012-13 campaign. 

“I have no regrets about the decisions I’ve made a long the way,” Sutter, 57, said of that discussion with Vancouver all those years ago. “It’s just the way things fall. I had made a commitment. I didn’t want to change that course, you can say.

“There’s a lot of circumstances along the way … shoulda, coulda, woulda. At the end of the day, you have to go with your gut feeling.” 

Nonis was fired at the close of 2007-08 and replaced by Mike Gillis, who kept Vigneault on. Vigneault would be fired after the 2012-13 season, the second straight season that Vancouver lost in the first round of the playoffs following the 2011 Stanley Cup Final run.

Vigneault was hired a month later by the New York Rangers and spent five seasons there. Now 58, he’s in first season coaching the Philadelphia Flyers.