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Alain Vigneault made steep climb to 1,000-game coaching plateau

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault instructs his team during their practice session at their training facility in Greenburgh on Sept. 20, 2015. Photo Credit: Ray Stubblebine

VANCOUVER — There was a time, Alain Vigneault remembers, after he was fired from his first NHL head coaching post in Montreal in 2001, when he considered “recycling myself into something else,” possibly on the other side of the microphones and tape recorders.

“I was dabbling a little bit in the media, the TV stuff, but I don’t think that would’ve been for me,” Vigneault said. “Even though I had sent my resume to tons of people and I had just been up for coach of the year with the Habs, I couldn’t find a job. I was six months out of work. I was going through a challenging [marriage] separation, with two young daughters and a lot of bills. Anybody’s that’s out of work, you ask yourself a lot of questions.”

But he never went to the studio or the broadcast booth.

Eventually, he was offered a job as coach of the Prince Edward Island Rocket of the Quebec Major Junior League, where his hockey career had begun as a defenseman with the Hull Olympique, and began the long climb back to the NHL. It took six years. “To say that I was very confident that I would get back would not be the truth,” he said.

On Friday, Vigneault will stand on one peak in that climb: He will coach his 1,000th NHL game when the Rangers visit Edmonton. Only 22 other coaches have hit four digits in the profession.

“It’s very humbling,” said Vigneault, 54. “To make it in this business you have to be willing to put in the time. You sacrifice a lot of things; once hockey season starts, the balance that people have between their family lives and their work is really tested and put to the limit.”

Like all coaches, Vigneault appreciates the support from players and front offices, and recalled a story about former Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis. “One time, in Mike’s first year, we lost nine home games in a row and he never buckled. He didn’t know me from anything . . . and he supported me. I think we won 19 of the next 21 or something like that.”

Although Vigneault has never reached the NHL’s greatest summit, winning the Stanley Cup, he has hit several milestones. He won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2007, and was a finalist three other times. On his watch, his clubs have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times, and the Canucks and Rangers have reached the Cup Final. “Losing a Stanley Cup is the hardest thing you can probably go through in this business . . . when you’re that close,” he said.

Still, Vigneault has done far more winning (538-348-35-77) than losing. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, his 492 wins are the most of any coach. Before Wednesday’s game against the Canucks, 116 of them had come in two-plus seasons with the Blueshirts.

Rangers forward Tanner Glass, who played for him in Vancouver, has repeatedly said that the bench boss is the same person. Vigneault had a slightly different take. “Everybody evolves,” he said. “But as far as how I approach the game and what I expect from players, I don’t think that part has changed. I’m not about gimmicks. I really believe that players have a responsibility. There are certain things that they are expected to do, and I will be very demanding and I will hold them accountable.”

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