The story begins in the summer of 1996 when a guy from Lac-Saint-Jean calls another from Gaspésie. Don’t worry, this is not a tavern anecdote.
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The first is Mario Tremblay, head coach of the Habs. The second is Mario Leblanc, a physical education teacher whose daily life was far from vibrating to the rhythm of that of his interlocutor.
A former hockey player — he played two years in the QMJHL in the early 1980s — Leblanc was doing his little business in his native region. A little of coaching, if not the job at school. The two men were then linked by their respective spouses, two sisters.
It must be believed that Tremblay’s talents of persuasion were formidable. Because Mario Leblanc “dropped everything” and moved to Montreal with his family to become a video coach with the Canadiens. A profession which, he candidly says, “did not exist” at the time.
The story does not say if he was immediately a natural in his new role. However, it is clear that he had what it took to last. Because a year later, Mario Tremblay submitted his resignation. It will have taken 25 more years for Mario Leblanc to bow out himself.
The Canadian announced Monday that the Quebecer was retiring from the position he had held for a quarter of a century. Daniel Harvey, who played the same role with the Laval Rocket, will replace him with the big club.
At the end of the line, Leblanc explains that he has carefully considered his decision. At 59, “the passion is still there”, but his body is telling him “to slow down”.
The volume of work of a video coach, a profession unknown to the general public, resembles that of other assistant coaches of an NHL club. The weeks are long. The journeys, exhausting. Of all his career, he calculates to have missed only three games.
Health issues slowed him down — he had to have heart surgery. He lost loved ones, themselves swept away by illness. A four-time grandfather, he wants to spend more time with his daughters and their children. The time had come to hand over.
Before the last game of the season, in April, he informed his boss, Martin St-Louis, that it would be his last game. The head coach invited him to come down behind the bench rather than follow the game from the heights of the Bell Centre. Leblanc, however, declined.
“It was Pierre Gervais’s evening,” he recalls, of the legendary equipment manager who was also concluding a long career that day.
From start to finish, Mario Leblanc was a shadow worker. Never complaining about it.
The video trainer does a monk’s job. Simply summed up: “We provide all the details to the coaches. When they arrive, everything is ready, turnkey. »
“Everything” is pretty much literally anything that can contribute to game preparation or post-game feedback.
Before a meeting, the specialist dissects the opponent’s last matches. During the matches, he is in communication with the head coach and counts the chances of scoring, in addition to isolating sequences which can be consulted on a tablet at the players’ bench. After the game, he provides reports to the coaching staff and, if requested, to the players. The next day, we recut the match of the day before to feed the archives and provide material for meetings between players and coaches.
Unsurprisingly, the most tangible change in a 26-year career has been in technology. Cassettes and VCRs gave way to sophisticated computers and software.
What Leblanc has also seen evolve is hockey itself. “Before, I made videos for guys who were fighting! “, he says. Second-rate brawlers—”not a Georges Laraque, let’s say…”—wanted to know more about their potential adversaries.
More seriously, he stresses that everything today is “more specific”, more diversified. The coaches are more numerous, the requests too. Those for goalies, for defenders, for special teams… “When everyone was playing trap like the New Jersey Devils, there weren’t a lot of clips to watch…”
“It’s changing a lot, and with the arrival of Martin St-Louis, the game has changed again,” says Mario Leblanc.
As soon as he was hired last winter, St-Louis said he preferred the notion of “concepts” to that of traditional game systems.
Is it really more complex? “Honestly, yes! laughs Leblanc.
“It was new for me and for the players, but everyone adapted. Martin sees things differently, for example when leaving the zone… He gives the players more freedom, but they must learn to read the game better, to choose the best possible option. »
The Gaspésien loved working with Martin St-Louis on the 10e head coach he came across. A “new era” awaits the team, he believes, although fans will still have to be patient before real success is achieved.
He won’t be in the heart of the action anymore, but he won’t be far away. In a role yet to be defined, Mario Leblanc will now be assigned specifically to player development.
His video montages will therefore focus on the organization’s young hopefuls. A “new challenge” that excites him, especially since he will be able to take it up from the comfort of his home, and no longer in the four corners of America.
His tapes may be a thing of the past. But hockey, there will still be a lot in his life.
The Truth About Bench Tablet
Upon returning to the bench, a player instantly peers into a tablet to view the sequence of previous seconds. This practice, increasingly popular in the NHL, enrages some fans… and even some coaches. Mario Leblanc confirms that Luke Richardson, who until recently was responsible for CH defenders, was not fond of this technological improvement. “He once said to a player: ‘Put away the iPad, there’s a game ahead of you!’ “says the video coach. The latter believes that there is “good and less good” in this phenomenon, depending on the personality of the player. For some, the risk is real of “just seeing the mistakes and never the good moves”. On the other hand, “Sidney Crosby watches him constantly, and he’s one of the best,” he remarks.