Jocelyn Thibault's intuition pays off
Jocelyn Thibault and Stéphane Julien played together in the junior ranks, in Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke. And the first decision that DG Thibault took, when he took up his post, was to appoint Julien head coach of the Phoenix.
Share May 11, 2020 6:14 p.m. Updated at 11:53 p.m. Share Jocelyn Thibault's intuition paying off
Sébastien Lajoie La Tribune SHERBROOKE – The bet was daring. Very daring, even. No sooner had he taken on the role of general manager of the Phœnix de Sherbrooke, without having any experience in the matter, now Jocelyn Thibault entrusted the reins of his team to a former player with no experience as head coach in the QMJHL. Stéphane Julien took up the challenge, brilliantly, taking advantage of Thibault's intuition. Four years later, Julien was named head coach of the year in the QMJHL.
On December 9, 2015, Jocelyn Thibault, shareholder of Le Phœnix and vice-president of the team's hockey, decided to fire GM Patrick Charbonneau and head coach Judes Vallée.
A change of direction necessary, sorry Thibault, who thus showed the door to two friends, and two craftsmen of the first hour of the young organization.
“I'll be honest, it wasn't the best day of my life. These are the kinds of things I don't like to do. Firing people is difficult. I made the announcement to members of the organization, in the team offices, explaining the reasons for making these changes. Once the meeting was over, when everyone was getting up to leave, I said to Stéphane, so stay two minutes, I need to talk to you. I said to him: I would like you to take the interim as head coach for two weeks, and then we'll see. He said OK. And we started from there, ”Jocelyn Thibault recalled on Monday after the announcement made by the QMJHL.
The bet was risky. Julien had been Judes Vallée's assistant for the first two years of the Phoenix's existence, before taking a step back.
On his CV, no experience as a head coach, no participation in elite programs, no history.
Besides what Jocelyn Thibault knew about him.
Thibault and Julien were teammates with the Draveurs de Trois-Rivières in 1991-92, before heading to Sherbrooke, where they rubbed shoulders for two seasons, in 1992-93 and 1994-95.
Jocelyn Thibault later left for the NHL and the Quebec Nordiques, while Julien headed to Europe, where he played for 15 years, mainly in Germany.
“Stéphane and I have been teammates in the junior for several seasons, and he's a guy for whom I've always had great respect. In terms of hockey, he's a real one. He wants to win. He's been a captain in just about every league and team he's made during his career. I knew him like that. With the Phoenix, initially he was one of Judes' assistants and then he took a hiatus, for a year or two. He was helping Pat (Charbonneau, the CEO at the time), he was doing development, a bit of recruitment, ”Jocelyn Thibault recalled.
“I always felt that this guy would make a great head coach. I had even already said it to Gilles Courteau (commissioner of the QMJHL), in the past; I saw in him all that it took for this role. He has a leadership character and he has always been like that.
“He did the first two weeks that I asked him, without me and him, we really know what we were getting into and for how long we would both be there. Little by little, he progressed as a trainer and he developed a taste for it. I have never regretted my decision, ”said Thibault.
A calculated risk
The former NHL goalie admits it; it was a risky bet. He could have taken an old truck driver, an experienced trainer who would have stabilized the ship. In the meantime, maybe.
Also, appointing a very good friend to such an important position can sometimes cloud the real assessment of the work accomplished, when it comes time to take stock.
At all, retorts Thibault.
“It was a calculated risk, rather, under the circumstances. Stéphane was close to the organization, and he knew what we needed. He knew what was going on, probably even more than I did. After our first meeting, we looked at each other, we didn't need to talk that much. We didn't need to write a four-page letter. We were on the same wavelength, on what changes we had to make. “
Despite all his goodwill, Stéphane Julien could not completely straighten the ship, in his first season.
The team is excluded from the playoffs, having accumulated a record of 26 wins and 38 losses.
“I saw him go, it was not easy for the environment, there were a lot of things that were not right. He's the kind of coach I wish I had when I was young. He is still very demanding with the guys, but he strikes a good balance between rigor and being close to his players. When the coach is demanding, but is fair and consistent in his actions, he will seek the respect of his players. My feeling has been confirmed, I'm happy for him, all the credit goes to him, ”said Thibault.
“We didn't have easy years at the start, but we've been progressing for three years. We saw it last year, we had a dozen guys aged 16 and 17 and we had a very good season, with more than 10 games above the 0.500 mark.
We could see that things were coming, and it's a shame that this year, Stéphane was not able to reap all the success he deserves. “
“He's a hard worker. He arrives early in the morning at the arena, everything is ready, his game plans. It's very rare to see the Phoenix start a match without being fully prepared. The plan is important, but the most important is to sell it to young people. You can come up with the best strategy, you can paint for 8 hours, if the guys don't get on, you're not going anywhere. “
The McDonald file, a pivotal point
Jocelyn Thibault had confirmation of his intuition in the Anderson Macdonald case.
The former first-round pick of the team from the Maritimes was nailed to the bench by Stéphane Julien for a match played at the Palais des Sports, against Val d'Or.
Macdonald had to respect a certain weight limit, agreed with his trainer. With half a pound too many on the scales, Macdonald was reprimanded.
This story made a lot of noise in 2017.
“This file was really boring. We would have liked it to be regulated differently. But it was an important issue for Stéphane, but also for me and the organization. But we had principles and we never gave in to resolve short-term situations. Never. We have always been rigorous. Sometimes it hurts, there are fights that we lose, in the short term, but that we win, in the long term. Stéphane has always been true to his convictions on what it takes to play for Sherbrooke, and play for him, ”said Jocelyn Thibault.
The contract between Stéphane Julien and the Phœnix de Sherbrooke is still valid for the next season.
A situation that the CEO wants to resolve quickly.
“Our goal as an organization is to have Stéphane with us for a long time and we are working on that right now. We are already having discussions. We hope to settle everything before the summer, I am very, very optimistic, ”confirmed Jocelyn Thibault.