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Ex-Penguins coach Michel Therrien returns for charity game, cherishes memories

Jonathan Bombulie
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Michel Therrien coached the Penguins from 2005-09.

Wherever he has gone, whether he was coaching the Montreal Canadiens from 2012-17 or working in media and living in South Florida like he does now, Michel Therrien never went more than a few days without running into someone from Pittsburgh.

And there was one common thread running through all those meetings.

“The thing that I’m always impressed with is they’re all proud of coming from Pittsburgh, wherever you are,” Therrien said.

When he heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill last October, he was saddened by the blow the proud people suffered from the town he called home when he coached the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2005-09.

When he heard a charity hockey game to benefit the Hillel Jewish University Center in memory of the Tree of Life victims was being organized, he immediately accepted the invitation to coach the Israel Select national team against the Penguins alumni team.

The game was set for Sunday night at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

“When I heard about what happened, we were all shocked,” Therrien said. “When I had the opportunity, when they asked me to come support the charity game, it was a no-brainer for me. I have a lot of Jewish friends, and Pittsburgh has always been a special place for me and my family. It was natural for me to be here.”

Therrien was joined by a number of local sports celebrities at the game, from former Pirates second baseman Neil Walker to former Steelers defensive lineman Brett Keisel. Former Penguins wingers Tyler Kennedy and Colby Armstrong, former Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham and former Robert Morris and Buffalo Beauts standout Ashley Vesci were among those playing for the Penguins alumni team.

Luckily for the Israel Selects team, Therrien said he had no plans to bring his no-nonsense coaching style to their bench.

“I’m just going to go behind and try to support them as much as I can,” Therrien said with a laugh.

It’s been almost two years since Therrien last coached in the NHL for the Canadiens. While he’s enjoying his time in Florida, he admits he still gets the itch to get back behind the bench.

It’s not hard to imagine an up-and-coming team long on offensive talent but short on structure giving him a call.

“I wish to win the Stanley Cup,” Therrien said. “I was close one time. I was two games away. I was really fortunate to be a coach in the NHL for 12 years. I don’t know if I’m going to have an opportunity again.”

While Therrien didn’t get to enjoy any of the Stanley Cup celebrations that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were a part of over the years, there’s no question he laid part of the foundation their success was built upon.

“That was a special group,” Therrien said. “You could tell right from the start. Because I’m not competing with them, I’m wishing for them to win another Stanley Cup. When I was coaching in Montreal, I was not cheering for them, but now, those guys have always been special to me and they always will. They’re great hockey players, but even more, they’re great human beings.”

As the core players he once coached zoom past their 30th birthdays, Therrien still is struck by one trait they all have in common a decade later: Their unfailing love of the game.

“With that group, they were young and they were really passionate,” Therrien said. “The only thing they were talking about was winning. Winning, winning and winning. They were teenagers almost. I had to keep them out of the rink because they spend their days at the rink. This was all they knew, spending time together.

“Looking back 13, 14 years after, one thing you can tell about these guys is they still have the passion. Marc-Andre has the passion. Sid’s got the passion. Letang and Geno, they’re passionate guys, and they never lose that. That’s a reason why they’re so special.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.