Alain Vigneault learned early how to face a tough challenge.
When Vigneault was 11 years old, his father, a pathologist, moved the family from French-speaking Hull, Quebec, to London, Ontario. There, Vigneault, the oldest of three children, promptly enrolled in fifth grade at an elite private school. The one catch: Classes were taught in English, and Vigneault spoke only French.
Pas de problème. Vigneault made it through fifth grade, excelled in sports and mastered English to the point that the Rangers' coach now seamlessly flips between the two in postgame news conferences.
Fifth grade in Canada -- the challenge of walking in cold to a place where he didn't know the principals or the language -- would prove to be perfect training for Vigneault's incredible first season with the Rangers. Less than a year after replacing John Tortorella, Vigneault has the team playing for its first Stanley Cup in 20 years.
There is no doubt he has won over the dressing room. Vigneault has the Rangers playing his style of offensive-minded hockey with a scrappy fourth line that has been a big part of their postseason success.
Vigneault doesn't yell. He doesn't burst into the dressing room and make demands. He doesn't go on profanity-laced tirades in which he demeans players to the media. Instead, he sticks with what he knows and works hard.
"He's even-keeled,'' said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. "But you can hear the intensity and his passion in the way he prepares and talks to us in meetings. He doesn't necessarily have to raise his voice. He's very good in using his words and getting a message across to guys.
"For us, everyone doesn't see maybe the high yelling or emotion you may have seen from other coaches. But we understand that he is intense and this means a lot to him.''
It hasn't been easy.
This is a team that seemed to be headed nowhere until late December. This is a team that in early May was one loss from playoff elimination before Martin St. Louis' Mother Day heroics jump-started them to a five-game winning streak.
But in the end, this is a team that seems to have found itself under Vigneault's steady stewardship, adopting the kind of hyper-resiliency that has been the hallmark of their coach's career.
Vigneault didn't have much of a playing career. He has joked that the 42 games he played with the St. Louis Blues were "42 of the most intense games you'll ever see -- sitting on the left bench. Sitting on the right.''
Vigneault then made a name for himself coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators. In 1997, at age 36, he became the second-youngest head coach in the history of the Montreal Canadiens. It was a dream job, but it lasted only three full seasons; he was fired after the team got off to a 5-13-2 start in 2000-01. This time, no NHL team rushed to hire him.
"It was six years in between NHL jobs,'' Vigneault recalled during the Rangers' Eastern Conference finals series against Montreal. "Got fired for the Habs and my next coaching job was in Montreal coaching the junior team. Instead of being in front of 21,000 people, I was in front of 1,000 people coaching my team. But at that time, I had bills to pay. I had a family to make sure I was providing for, and that was the only place I could work. I always felt that working was honorable and I went to work there.''
Vigneault got a second chance with the Vancouver Canucks in 2006. This time he brought a new vision with him, a vision that fit well with the post-lockout NHL, which was trying to emphasize goal-scoring. He built Vancouver into a powerful offensive machine that fell one win short of winning the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Vigneault brought the same offense-oriented philosophy to the Rangers, and there's no doubt that it took a while for the team to sign on. Henrik Lundqvist, in particular, had to adjust to the fact that he wasn't getting the same type of defensive support he had gotten in the past.
"Through the ups and downs and the tough start, there are times with a new coach where you wonder, is this working?'' center Brian Boyle said. "He didn't waver. He stayed the course and kept stressing things that we needed to do.''
McDonagh said Vigneault did a great job of leading by example both when the team was down in December and when it was down 3-1 to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"He has a great feeling for the room and when to say something and when not to,'' McDonagh said. "For us, he just went and prepared the same way with his meetings. Didn't try to change his approach to any game regardless of what was going on.''
Vigneault, for his part, never doubted that he was doing the right thing with the team.
"If at one point you're shown the door, at least you did it your way,'' he said. "I've got to think I was seven years in a Canadian market, and in other Canadian markets at that time, 20 coaches went through.
"I did it my way, and I've come to New York in another great hockey market, and I'm doing it my way.''