Sudden change in plans lands Bouchard in San Diego

Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

by Patrick Williams

Plans can and do change quickly in pro hockey.

Joël Bouchard, a veteran of 14 pro seasons on the ice and three more campaigns behind the bench with the Laval Rocket, received such a reminder to start his summer.

After Bouchard’s contract with the parent Montreal Canadiens expired June 30, the Anaheim Ducks made their move. By July 9, they had a deal done to install Bouchard as head coach of the San Diego Gulls.

“Yeah, it was not in the plan for me,” Bouchard said of the rapid process. “Obviously, I’ve been in Quebec for years, was very lucky to be with the Montreal Canadiens, and want to thank [Canadiens owner] Geoff Molson and [executive vice president of hockey operations and general manager Marc Bergevin] for giving me a chance in pro after being in junior for a few years with my own hockey club. It was a great experience [with] Laval.”

“I didn’t see [coming to the Anaheim organization] as an option. To be honest, I was ready to listen to what was available in Montreal to try to move up in some way with getting more experience and keep going with development. But I really, really liked my talk with Bob (Murray), Martin Madden, and everybody with the staff with the Ducks.”

“We really connected right away. I knew that was going to make my decision difficult in the end, because you always have to look at all the angles, but it was it was a good fit. I like challenges. I like to re-invent myself. And I’m not the kind of guy to back out from a challenge. And I felt that was a hell of a challenge.”

The 47-year-old Bouchard will be bringing a lengthy resume with him to Southern California. He took Laval to the Canadian Division title in 2020-21 with a 23-9-3-1 mark. He compiled a 83-67-14-10 record with the Laval after arriving at Place Bell from the nearby Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In his seven seasons as general manager and head coach with the Armada, he went 160-80-32 and registered back-to-back QMJHL President Cup Finals appearances in 2017 and 2018 to close out his tenure. He also added two stints as general manager with Hockey Canada, winning a gold medal at the 2018 World Junior Championship to go with a silver-medal finish in 2017.

Mix that coaching experience with a playing career that featured 364 regular-season NHL games, and Anaheim general manager Bob Murray wanted Bouchard badly.

“[Bouchard] fits the bill perfectly of what we’ve been kind of searching for here in the last little while,” Murray said. “We’re all about development right now, obviously, and Joël has done that. We were very excited to jump out of it as quickly as we could when he became available July 1.”

“I think he developed his junior players very well to take the next step to the American League, Murray added. “You look at his players, [they] are all over the leagues. And all you’ve got to do is just look at the Montreal Canadiens. The younger players when they come up, how they played, and they contributed. That says it all. They came from Laval over the last few years to Montreal, and they contributed immediately. And that’s what development is, is getting them ready for that next step.”

Bouchard will have an extensive to-do list when he heads west. Anaheim has been rebuilding and relying heavily on player development in San Diego to support that process.

Said Bouchard, “It’s that partnership [with players], one-on-one, with a structure obviously in the style of play, but how can we push our player to be the best version of themselves, day-in, day-out, shift-in and shift-out so when that call comes, their boxes are checked, and they’re ready to go. And that’s my responsibility. And it’s our players responsibility to make sure that they’re ready to play an NHL-level game when they are playing in the AHL.”

Bouchard is also walking into a good situation as the Gulls prepare to return to Pechanga Arena this fall. Anaheim announced contract extensions for captain Sam Carrick, defenseman Trevor Carrick, and forward Vinni Lettieri earlier this month, giving Bouchard three key pieces for his line-up.

With Bouchard replacing Kevin Dineen, plus assistant coaches Sylvain Lefebvre (Columbus Blue Jackets) and David Urquhart (McGill University) departing for roles elsewhere, the San Diego coaching staff is receiving a full makeover this summer. Daniel Jacob, an assistant to Bouchard with Laval and Blainville-Boisbriand, will make the move to San Diego.

“I look for a great person first,” Bouchard replied when asked what he will be looking for to round out his coaching staff. “A passionate, great person with energy, positive energy, and obviously knowledge. That’s part of what we do.

“It has to be the right guy, and I think sometimes the right guy is not always the same for different coaching staffs. [In] my discussion with the Ducks, you have to have a crew that checks all the boxes so the players have all that they need. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about me, it’s about the players. It’s always about the players, and always will be. They’re the ones that are playing, and I never forget how hard it is to be a pro hockey player.”