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With a Passion

Dec 13, 2023
Written By: Mark Newman

Griffins assistant coach Steph Julien harnesses his love of the game to bring out the best in those around him.

Photo by Mark Newman

When the Red Wings hired Steph Julien to be an assistant coach for the Griffins, the organization was getting an experienced mind who had been around hockey for a long time.

Although it is his first job at the AHL level, Julien has been active in hockey for more than four decades.

His first year of junior hockey was spent in his native Quebec with Trois-Rivieres, two years after Steve Larouche and Michel Picard combined for 293 points (110 goals and 183 assists). A dozen years later, all three would be playing in Germany: Julien and Larouche as teammates in Berlin while Picard was in Mannheim before he returned to the Griffins, who would eventually retire his number 7.

Julien's mentor during his first year at the junior level was Yanic Perreault, who would later play 859 NHL games with six different teams, including three separate stints with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Perrault was a scoring machine (87-98––185) that season, but Julien remembers Perrault for the part he played in guiding a 16-year-old defenseman from Shawnigan, Quebec.

"We lived together in the same building for a year before he turned pro," said Julien, who later trained with Perreault during summers when the Trois-Rivieres franchise moved to the latter's Sherbrooke hometown in Quebec. "He was a very good father figure for me. He was very serious about his game because he wanted to be an NHL player. He gave me a lot of advice both on and off the ice. He was really great with me."

Julien played two seasons in Sherbrooke with Mathieu Dandenault, the versatile forward-defenseman who would play nine seasons with the Red Wings before finishing his NHL career in Montreal, where he would spend four seasons.

Like the fleet-footed Dandenault, who led his team in scoring during the 1994-95 season, Julien could move the puck and exhibit a deft scoring touch. And yet, even though he was one of the highest-scoring defensemen in Canada, Julien went undrafted.

"In those days, you had to be more of a big-size defensemen to get drafted and I was 5-foot-10," he said. "If I was starting my career in junior right now, maybe it would be a different situation because more small defensemen are getting drafted, but that's the way it was at the time."

Julien got looks from the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques in separate seasons, but the 1994-95 NHL lockout might have cost him a chance to prove himself and he ended up playing a fifth year of junior hockey. "The only regret I probably have is that maybe I became a little frustrated and I left to go to Europe," he said.

He went to France for the 1995-96 season before returning for his only season of professional hockey in North America, in the ECHL with the Pensacola Ice Pilots. One of his teammates was Glen Metropolit, who would come to the Griffins for the next two seasons. Metropolit would eventually play for seven NHL teams in addition to playing in Finland, Switzerland, Germany and Italy during a 22-year pro career.

"When we played together in the East Coast League, I thought he was playing in the wrong league – big time," Julien said. "He was so talented, very detailed. He was a fun guy to be around. He loves the game and I'm not surprised that he's coaching in Switzerland right now."

While Metropolit was heading to Michigan, Julien was packing his bags for Europe.

"When the only thing you hear is you're too small, it's a little tough," he said. "I thought it was time to give myself a shot in Europe, see whether I liked it or not. I ended up playing there for almost 17 years, so it worked out pretty well.

"For me, there's no regret. Everywhere I've been – Italy, Germany or Switzerland – they all were great experiences. I was treated very well by teams and I made some good money over there because, year after year, I took the best contract I could."

Julien crossed paths with numerous ex-Griffins over the years. In Cologne, he played four seasons with Ivan Ciernik (1999-2002).

"We had a lot of success together on the power play," Julien said. "I'd just throw the pucks at the net and he'd tip them in. I'm still in contact with him because I almost drafted his son [Alex] for our team in Canada. His son is very good."

Julien also played four years with Bryan Adams, the former Michigan State Spartan who played the 2002-03 season with the Griffins before spending the next 10 years in Germany. Sean Tallaire, who played 77 games over two seasons (1997-98, 1998-99), was a member of the Cologne Sharks with Julien, Ciernik, and Adams from 2006-08.

During his time in Europe, Julien started getting into property management.

"I was playing in Germany with a guy from Quebec, and we started to become very good friends," he recalled. "He said his brother is buying some apartments, it's a good deal, and you're going to make money out of it. I wasn't sure, so I went back and talked to my father-in-law who worked for a bank and he said, 'Well, it's a tough business,' because the market was not that good at the time.

"I started to look around and I decided to start with nine units. This guy was going bankrupt, so I bought them from the bank. I didn't have much cash because I was just starting my career, but my father-in-law said, 'We'll loan you some cash to start,' and then the market started to get better.

"Every year, I was coming back to Quebec for the summer and I would buy another 10-15 units. So I was growing the company because, every year, I was buying some apartments. Pretty soon, I was up to 350 units. My brother-in-law started working for me and we had an office and everything.

"When I retired from playing in 2012, I became an assistant coach for the junior team in Sherbrooke. At the same time, another management company called me because they wanted to get out. I ended up buying their business, so we went from 350 units to 2,000 apartments to manage."

It didn't take long for Julien to realize it was all too much.

"Everything happened so fast," he said. "I was not expecting to buy that other company but I thought it was the perfect deal because my company was doing pretty well, and I was supposed to be an assistant coach in junior to start, just to see how I liked it.

"After my first year of coaching, I told the team, 'I cannot do coaching and run my business at the same time.' But they said, 'We'd like you to stay, work with the young guys, help with their skills twice a week, and come to the games.' I said, 'Good deal,' because I could stay in the game a little."

Julien did that for two more years, but then things were not going very well with the team the third year so they fired the head coach. "They asked me to coach for three games after Christmas and we won all three games, so the owner asked if I would keep coaching until the end of the season."

At the end of the season, he was asked if he wanted to become the full-time head coach.

"It was a tough decision because my real estate business was doing well. I had three companies – managing condos, apartments, and buildings – and I was pretty proud of what I did with those companies, building them year after year. But I decided to sell two of my companies and go into full-time coaching. Nobody, including my whole family, could understand why I would do it."

Julien realized he was passionate about hockey. While he enjoyed making money, managing properties didn't have quite the same allure as the sport he had always loved.

"At one point, I had over 80 employees. It was one of the biggest property management companies in the east of Quebec. I was managing a lot of money and it takes a lot of money to manage 2,000 apartments, so there's a lot of stress in business. There's a lot of stress in hockey, too, but when I started coaching, there was something in my head that said this is where I belong."

Julien started the process of slowly selling off his remaining assets. He realized that he needed to be totally committed to coaching if he was going to build a winning program in Sherbrooke. He quickly realized that developing a winning culture doesn't happen overnight.

"Jocelyn Thibault, the former NHL goaltender, was one of the part-owners of the team in Sherbrooke and we had played together in junior hockey," he said. "I was the captain of a lot of my teams and I told him that culture is very important to me and that was missing in Sherbrooke.

"So I said, 'If I take over, for real, it's going to be hard for players and the organization. We're going to have some tough times, but I'm going to build something very strong.' And that's what we did. We built a structure and culture that is very strong. For the past four years, Sherbrooke has been one of the best junior teams in Canada."

Julien completely rebuilt the program, confident that he knew the formula after playing so many years in Europe. "You have to believe in yourself first, you know," he said. "So it was a little bit of everything, from our habits on and off the ice to our practices to the little details that are important in junior hockey.

"As a coach, you don't want to be fake and I was like that as a player. I worked hard as a player, always in good shape, and I always try to teach my young guys the same thing. And that's why we had success."

His Sherbrooke squad finished out of the playoffs his first full season behind the bench as head coach, but his teams then made the postseason every year except 2019-20 when the pandemic ended the year prematurely. Before COVID-19 struck, his team compiled an impressive 51-8-4 slate.

"It was probably not the best team on paper, but we were strong on chemistry and character inside the team," he said. "I don't think I raised my voice once in practice all year, that's how that team was working hard. We were first in all of Canada for a while, so it was very disappointing. Of course, because of COVID, many teams around the world probably thought they were winning the championship. We were one of them."

After an abbreviated 2020-21 campaign, his teams went 46-17-5 and 50-13-5 the past two seasons, going deep into the playoffs both years. During his tenure as head coach he led Sherbrooke to a 262–161–24–17 record, with three division titles and one league championship. He twice won the Ron Lapointe Trophy, as QMJHL Coach of the Year, in 2020 and 2023.

In addition, Julien guided Canada’s U18 squad to a gold medal at the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup as head coach and earned another gold medal as an assistant for Team Canada at the 2023 World Junior Championship.

Looking back, he admits that flipping the script in Sherbrooke was a bigger challenge than he anticipated.

"The hardest part as a head coach, after being a player and enjoying success, is figuring out how to translate that to your players," he said. "You have 22-23 players and they don't have the same personality or the same character. So, to adapt to these young guys, it takes time. But you learn a lot from those young guys, this new generation of hockey players."

The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

"When I see guys coming back every year, whether they are coming back to the team or after they start playing pro, and they're very grateful for what we did with them - for me, that's like a trophy. When you build your team with discipline, character, and good habits, it's nice to keep hearing from those guys."

Julien signed a new four-year deal with Sherbrooke but felt he needed a new challenge. He talked to four NHL organizations, but the Red Wings seemed most interested. "When I talked to Shawn [Horcoff], Steve [Yzerman], and [Kris] Draper, it seemed like a good fit."

In fact, Julien thought he might land the head coaching job in Grand Rapids before the decision came down to him and Dan Watson, but the latter's long service with the organization's ECHL affiliate in Toledo gave him the edge. The day after getting the job, Watson offered Julien the chance to be an assistant coach alongside longtime Griffins defenseman Brian Lashoff, who was going behind the bench after retiring.

"I had a good feeling that this is the way I should go," said Julien, who saw the job as a chance to grow with one of the NHL's Original Six organizations. "I was very grateful for the opportunity, that he called me back, for sure. I thought we had a lot of things in common as a coach and I'm here to help. I know what I have to do as an assistant coach to make this team grow. And so far, I have had a lot of fun."

Experience, Julien contends, is the biggest difference between coaching in junior hockey and the pros.

"Some guys have been in the league for seven or eight years, and you don't approach a guy with experience the same thing that you do in junior," he said. "To gain the trust of your players, it takes time. I've been on the other side. I've seen it. Building trust and confidence takes time, but I think we're on the right track."

For the first time in the organization's history, the Griffins have three former defensemen behind the bench. Julien has been tasked with working with the team's forwards and power play.

"I think we've progressed a lot from day one, which is very good, but we still have a lot of things to work on. It's a good group. They want to learn. They want to progress and as a coaching group, we want to see the team progress every day."

It's the first year coaching at the AHL level for all three coaches, so they're adapting, too.

"Everything takes time and the biggest part is to believe in what we want to do. It's a process, and some days are good and some days are not like you want, but you keep doing it because nothing happens overnight."

Although Julien is anxious to replicate the success he enjoyed in Sherbrooke, he is content to enjoy the process however long it takes. "Mentally, I feel way better behind a bench than behind a desk," he said. "Every morning I wake up is not hard. Walking to the rink every day is not hard. For me, it's a passion. I love what I do."