Stéphane Robidas has never been in a hurry. That’s good, because his new employer is not either.
Posted at 8:13 a.m.
Updated at 2:44 p.m.
The Canadiens announced Thursday that they have hired the Sherbrooke resident as assistant to head coach Martin St-Louis. He will be in charge of defenders, succeeding Luke Richardson, who left for Chicago.
Robidas is reunited with the team that drafted him in 1995 and with which he played the first 122 games of an NHL career that spanned more than 15 years.
This will be his first experience as coach of a professional team. His CV, as such, is quite thin. Two seasons as an assistant with the Harfangs bantams AAA of the Triolet school, a team for which his son Justin played from 2016 to 2018. Then head coach of the Cantonniers de Magog, of the midget AAA league, last season.
He has certainly seen the backstage of an NHL team up close, as director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2017 to 2021. It is nevertheless clear that it is not his long roadmap that earned him his new position.
What is obvious is the consistency of his hiring with the changes that have taken place at the Canadiens for six months. Kent Hughes had never been general manager before. Martin St-Louis, we read everywhere, worked with bantam-age players before becoming the head coach of the CH. On the ice, the workforce is getting younger. The one behind the bench too – no coach is over 50. The canvas is blank, or almost.
After the club finished bottom in the overall standings last season, it is expected to miss the playoffs again in 2022-23.
The common thread is now the development of young players. And the key word, patience.
It is also a term that Robidas repeated five times, Thursday morning, during a videoconference following his appointment.
“Every individual, every person, every player is different,” he said. Guys arrive at 18, 19, 20 and are ready to play big roles. You still have to surround them well, place them in a situation where they will be successful. For others, it takes longer. But each player has his strengths, they must be maximized. There’s a reason they got drafted. »
He himself played more than 230 games in the American League before moving up to the next level. In all honesty, he admits that he did not feel “comfortable”, “at [sa] place”, only in their early thirties. Verification made, it was at this time that he had his best seasons. From 2007 to 2013, he was the undeniable leader of the Stars’ defense. In 2009, he represented his team at the All-Star Game, played in Montreal.
Although he will be responsible for the entire group of defenders, Robidas does not hide that his mandate will be specifically to supervise the young full-backs of the organization who are knocking on the door of the professional ranks.
It is indeed the equivalent of a complete brigade which will land, in Montreal and Laval, within a few weeks. Justin Barron and Jordan Harris barely tasted the NHL. Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj have just finished their junior careers. Mattias Norlinder didn’t really settle in North America until last spring. Even if he is no longer “young” at almost 27 years old, Corey Schueneman has only played 24 games with CH.
After taking care of the Maple Leafs defensemen in the secondary and university ranks, Robidas will now oversee the transition of those from the CH.
He will obviously work with the veterans already in place – David Savard, Joel Edmundson, Michael Matheson, Chris Wideman. These will somehow become his allies.
The sponsorship of young people, in defense, is “extremely important”, testifies the newcomer. He himself remembers how Eric Weinrich, who took him under his wing when he made his NHL debut in 2000, had a “reassuring” and “beneficial” effect on his career. He later sought to replicate that mentorship relationship in Dallas, this time as the big brother. “As a coach, it will be my job to combine all that,” he said. Our goal is to improve together. »
In interview with The Presslast April, Weinrich and Patrice Brisebois praised the merits of such a dynamic.
The two also remembered how serious Robidas was, from his first outings in the NHL. Weinrich had described him as a “student”.
Here again, the parallel with the profile of Martin St-Louis is unavoidable. In fact, even though he and Robidas only knew each other remotely until recently, their philosophies already seem aligned. “A perfect match”, he summarizes.
Like his new boss, Robidas insists on the importance of communication with his players while respecting their individuality.
“Not everyone reacts in the same way to the same teachings,” he explains. I have to assess guys first, and then build a relationship with them, earn their respect. »
A few weeks ago he was working with teenagers. The age group on his bench is changing, but his approach will remain essentially the same, he promises.
“A human being, whether he is 15, 32, 42 or 62 years old, is a human being. »
Like St-Louis, it seeks a balance between team structure and the freedom granted to the best players to let their talent express itself. Especially in defense, “you can’t just read the game”. Because, he warns, “if the guy next to you does another reading, it will be hard”.
It will not be perfect, on the contrary.
He quotes the head coach: “We don’t focus on the results, but on the intentions and the way of playing. »
“We will grow as a coaching staff and as a team,” he promises.
Patience, he repeats, will be required.
With this one exception: “I’m happy, I’m thrilled. I can’t wait for it to start. »
20 years ago, a strange departure
Stéphane Robidas may say that he still has to “pinch himself” to ensure that reconnecting with the organization of the Canadian is not a dream, the fact remains that the end of his association with the club , two decades ago, was done in a funny way.
On October 4, it will indeed be 20 years since the CH lost its services to the Atlanta Thrashers during the intraleague draft. Not to be confused with an expansion draft, this curious mechanic required teams to protect a certain number of players just before the start of the season. Those left unprotected became available to all other teams on the circuit.
Taking advantage of the very first pick, the young Thrashers franchise selected Robidas and immediately traded him to the Dallas Stars. Fearing losing the Quebecer without getting anything in return, general manager André Savard had tried, without success, to trade him in the previous days. The DG, furious, had also seen the Nashville Predators seize Francis Bouillon.
The intraleague draft was abolished in the mid-2000s.
Robidas took advantage of Thursday’s press briefing to recall the context at the time. Stuck behind three right-handers in defense – Craig Rivet, Patrice Brisebois and Stéphane Quintal – he had been transferred to the left, where he experienced all kinds of difficulties. At training camp in 2002, “I knew there was no place for me,” he says.
Although he was disappointed to leave the team he had admired all his childhood, he seized the chance to establish himself in the NHL for good. “You have to think of me. It’s important that I play, ”he said on the eve of the draft, according to an article still online on the RDS site.
It was the presence of Guy Carbonneau in Dallas that earned him the call. The ex-captain was assistant coach in Montreal in 2001-2002 and had landed a position as assistant general manager of the Stars during the summer. “It’s thanks to him that I had my second chance”, acknowledges today Robidas.
This chance, he did not miss it. He went on to play 815 games in the NHL. That’s more than the sum of those played by Brisebois (249), Rivet (298) and Quintal (140) with the Canadiens over the following years.
In defense of the Habs, the star of the young man had faded in Montreal. After an excellent rookie season in 2000-2001, he struggled in his second campaign. Evidenced by his differential of -25 in 2001-2002, by far the worst of the team.
Again, patience, his own like that of the Stars, will have paid off. Afterwards, Robidas looks at his journey wisely.
“As in life, for a hockey player, there are ups and downs. I had a setback after my freshman year, and it took me a while to get back on top. But I was able to do it. »
An unexpected call
“I didn’t know that I had that effect on my coaches so that they graduated so quickly! »
At the end of the line, Stéphane Julien laughs heartily. The general manager and head coach of the Sherbrooke Phœnix, in the QMJHL, is obviously happy for Stéphane Robidas, co-owner of the franchise. He nevertheless loses the services of the one he hired as an assistant a month and a half ago.
Robidas, in fact, had just started a new job. After he led the Cantonniers de Magog to the Telus Cup final at the end of May, Julien offered him to join the Phoenix.
Robidas, we learn, was a little “embarrassed” to go down behind the bench while remaining the owner of the club. However, as the two men have known each other since their own junior internship in the early 90s, the discomfort was quickly evacuated.
When he returned from his vacation in mid-June, Robidas therefore accepted this mandate… before calling Julien a few days ago to tell him that his plans had changed.
It was Martin St-Louis who personally approached him, he revealed Thursday. He was indeed preparing to start the season in Sherbrooke.
Stéphane Julien salutes the “beautiful acquisition” that the Canadian has just made. “He is a very good teacher, passionate about technique, skating, positioning”, lists the man who currently leads the Canadian U18 team which is about to play the Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournament in Red Deer, in Alberta.
“He’s a guy who’s not shy about asking other people’s opinions. He is not stubborn. His way of evaluating defenders has changed a lot. »
Julien has seen the ascendancy of Robidas over young players in recent years. Behind the Cantonniers bench, of course, but also on the ice, in Sherbrooke. It was not uncommon for the owner to come and have a look at his team’s training sessions, without imposing himself. He has also participated for several years in summer hockey schools in the region.
“Young people have always appreciated it”, testifies Stéphane Julien.