Bouchard finding success in first season coaching Syracuse Crunch

But the former Rocket coach says he’s not looking too far into the future.

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Joël Bouchard said he’s not the same AHL head coach he was in Laval. Or San Diego. Or for that matter, the same one he was a month ago, with the Syracuse Crunch.

“As a coach, your worst enemy is the mirror every morning,” Bouchard told the Montreal Gazette Wednesday morning, hours before the Crunch met the Rocket at Place Bell. “We’re all going to make mistakes. There’s nobody that makes more mistakes than a hockey coach during a game. We’ve got so many decisions to make. You just learn and grow. You’ve got to be humble enough to know when you messed up. Humble enough to know when maybe you could have done things different. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Move on and be a better version of ourselves.

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“My main job is to make sure the players are the best version of themselves they can be. Same thing for coaches. If we don’t think that way, we’re not going to evolve and be better. From my standpoint, every day, what could I have done better? How can we push ourselves? Trying and failing is not a mistake.”

Bouchard, a 50-year-old from Montreal, is in his first season coaching Syracuse, having replaced Benoît Groulx after the Crunch was upset by Rochester in the North Division semifinal. The Crunch, Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, finished second last season in the division, and the team (31-17-5) was in a similar position before meeting Laval. Despite having one of the league’s youngest teams, Syracuse was on a three-game winning streak and was 7-3 in its last 10 contests.

The Crunch almost certainly will exceed last season’s 35-win total under Bouchard, signed to a three-year contract in late June after spending a season as a studio analyst for TVA Sports’ NHL package. A former junior coach with Blainville-Boisbriand, Bouchard coached the Rocket for three seasons before spending a year with San Diego, Anaheim’s AHL affiliate.

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Bouchard said he was content working in the media, but jumped at the offer presented by Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, the two sharing a strong and distinctive ethos.

“Everything about this organization — they’re not perfect — but the mindset is right,” Bouchard said. “The attitude is right, the philosophy is right for me. Everybody is pushing together. When Julien called, we have a relationship from the past. I always liked his vision, the way he sees things, managing things. It was the fit I felt comfortable with.

“I missed coaching, but I wasn’t depressed about it,” he added. “I was fine taking a year (off) and doing other things. I didn’t have to return to coaching. I love being with the guys in the trenches. I love coaching and love being in hockey. But I wouldn’t have just gone anywhere. I wouldn’t do it just to be behind a bench or to value myself. Or boost my ego.”

While every coach has a shelf life and expiration date, Bouchard and his players still appear to be in the honeymoon phase. Bouchard can be intense, but having played defence for eight different NHL organizations while spending considerable time in the minors, the symbiosis between coach and player remains discernible.

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“He has been great,” said Crunch captain Gabriel Dumont, 33, a former fifth-round 2009 Canadiens draft choice who played 18 games over four seasons with Montreal. “Joël adapted really quick to our group and our group adapted really well to Joël. He’s an intense guy but he’s a fair guy. Everybody here can appreciate and respect that.

“We have a really young team. We needed to have communication between him and me right off the start. We talked a few times this summer and at camp. Right away we agreed. I can see where he’s coming from when he brings a point and what he wants to do with the team. He can see my side of things, too, as a player. He has a good pulse of the team. When you have a coach that’s fair, he’s easy to play for. With Joël, you’re going to earn what you get. It has been working great for us.”

Bouchard, who had numerous concussions as a player, has always lived life in the moment. He has never been concerned about his future, knowing nothing is guaranteed. If coaching in the AHL is as high as he ascends, Bouchard won’t have any regrets.

“Every day I wake up and feel we’re lucky to be here,” he said. “Especially when you look at everything going on in life. I take things one day at a time. We don’t know where life’s going to take us. I stay in the moment.”

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