Rick Nash described him as a hockey teacher. Vincent Lecavalier said he’s been preparing to become a head coach in the NHL since the day he retired in 2015. Dan Boyle predicted he was the perfect guy for the job in Montreal.
Nash, Lecavalier and Boyle knew Martin St-Louis, the star player in the NHL. But they had never seen the coach in him, the one who was spending his final weeks with a peewee AAA team in Connecticut.
In his first training in his new role with the Canadiens, St-Louis looked like an NHL coach on all levels. He took to the rink with the same confidence he had in his glory years with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Despite his inexperience in the trade, it was he who had the whistle in his hands. It was he who brought together his players to draw game diagrams on the board. And it was he who dictated the rhythm of the exercises.
In his first steps, St-Louis could have served as a simple observer and entrusted the responsibilities of training to his assistants, Luke Richardson, Alex Burrows or Trevor Letowski. He did not do it. He quickly sent the message that he was the new master on board.
« It’s fun getting on the ice with the players, » said St-Louis. For the past six or seven years, I’ve been on the ice almost every day. The players were younger and smaller. I quickly noticed that there is less space now with NHL guys. The shots are stronger, they bounce further, you have to be more careful where you walk on the ice. I was comfortable leading this practice. I had a lot of fun. »
There is always a charm operation when a new coach arrives in a locker room. The first few days usually see a honeymoon between the players and the new sheriff. It was the same phenomenon on the second day of the St-Louis era.
One could easily perceive a renewed energy. The players had smiles on their faces and they practiced in a good mood, but also with intensity.
St-Louis said so from the start. His goal was to bring fun back to this team. In the very short term, he achieved his goal.
« There were new drills, we had fun, » center Nick Suzuki said. The energy was high. We lost in the last game, but we deserved better.
« It was good practice, » added winger Brendan Gallagher. Everything we did, we did with a purpose. It’s to make the brain work, to play the games in a confined space. The pleasure comes with the victory, but we think more about the process than the result.
At the end of the practice, St-Louis invited its players to a three-on-three exercise by moving the nets in the neutral zone, in an east-west direction, rather than north-south. The other players also remained active by standing on the red line or the blue line where they could receive passes or take shots to help the six skaters involved in the action.
« I always liked to limit the ice when I played, because it forces you to think faster and it’s harder to execute, » explained the interim head coach. They like it and you create excitement instantly. You schedule them and when they get back on the big ice, they’ll think they’ll have more time. I like to suffocate them to allow them to breathe afterwards.
Asked if he had copied this exercise from a former NHL coach, he said no. He was inspired by the training he did with his players at the pee-wee level.
A good communicator
Paul Byron felt a positive energy with St. Louis from the first meeting with the team.
“First time that a former player without experience enters a locker room. Normally they are coaches and we know what to expect. He has an aura. I liked his presentation, he spoke well, he was articulate. I could listen to it for 30 or 45 minutes without getting bored. There are many smart people, but it’s another story to always communicate your thoughts well. He didn’t know the players in the room. We felt the fire in his voice and in his eyes. He wants to win. He fought his whole career. It means a lot. He is ready to fight in the trenches with us.”
Martin St-Louis leads the CH training –