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J.J. Daigneault’s long and winding hockey journey

2019-07-11

Call it another chapter in what has been an incredible hockey story in the life of Jean-Jacques Daigneault.

The QMJHL connection has now come full circle for the new Mooseheads Head Coach after he officially accepted the new role on Tuesday, 38 years after he first became a player in the league.

“The first ignition for wanting to come to the QMJHL was during my induction into the Hall of Fame and then of course the job in Halifax came available last month and I thought it would be a good opportunity,” Daigneault said.

He was quick to make a phone call to Bobby Smith and send a resume to General Manager Cam Russell when the opening was made public on June 26th. Daigneault noted that coaching the Mooseheads is one of the most sought after positions in the Canadian Hockey League.

“It’s a franchise that’s had success and it’s a franchise that wants to compete every year which makes it exciting for me.”

The bench boss was talking on the phone as he prepared to fly from Montreal to San Antonio with his family to clean out their apartment that was used during his one season with the AHL’s Rampage.

“Our family is excited to move to Nova Scotia and establish ourselves out there. Obviously, it’s not an easy move because we just moved from Montreal to San Antonio last year, but we’ll get through it and we are looking forward to it.”

Joining Daigneault in Halifax will be his wife Janie and their 12-year-old daughter Julliette. He also has two older daughters, Gabrielle and Valerie who have since moved out and gone to university. All three girls are extremely accomplished swimmers. Gabrielle recently graduated from Villanova where she was named to the All Big East Team in four consecutive years. Valerie is going into her Senior year at Pittsburgh where she holds the Pitt school records in the 100-meter free and 200-meter back.

The new coach is eager to meet with Jon Greenwood and Sylvain Favreau to begin learning more about the Mooseheads players and discuss the systems he plans to use.

“I like a team that plays a fast-paced game both with and without the puck. It’s a matter of taking time and space away from the opponent and I like to have a team that’s very reliable defensively that’s going to generate some offence.”

Daigneault carved out a long NHL career while suiting up for 10 different teams along the way and is now heading into his 15th season behind the bench after jobs in the ECHL, AHL and NHL.

He grew up in Ville-Emard, a blue-collar South-West borough of Montreal, and it was with his minor hockey program where he started to make a name for himself thanks to his skillful play and his talented teammates. Daigneault came up through the ranks of the Ville-Emard Hurricanes alongside teammates Marc Bergevin and Mario Lemieux. The trio were stars at the 1978 Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament which was the second year in a row at the event for Lemieux and Daigneault.

It was with the Hurricanes that Daigneault first became a defenceman when his coach Ron Stevenson decided to change his position after realizing that the young player could skate backwards better than most other kids on his team and seeing what great balance he had on his skates.

Trio
Left to Right: Ville-Emard players J.J. Daigneault, Mario Lemieux and Marc Bergevin

The three teammates continued to rise up through the ranks of minor hockey over the course of the next few years before moving onto the QMJHL. Bergevin headed to Chicoutimi while Laval drafted both Daigneault and Lemieux in 1981 but Daigneault scored four goals and added 25 assists in his one season with the Voisins. His time with his long-time friend and teammate Lemieux was cut short after he was left unprotected and scooped up by the Longueuil Chevaliers (now the Victoriaville Tigres) in the expansion draft.

Daigneault immediately made his old team pay for their mistake of leaving him unprotected. He had an unbelievable season in 1982-83 with 84 points on 26 goals and 58 assists. He was the third leading scorer on the Chevaliers and helped the team reach the President Cup Finals in their first year of existence. He was named the QMJHL’s Defenceman of the Year. He credits his rookie Head Coach in Longueuil with helping his development process. That coach was none other than Jacques Lemaire.

“Jacques was an excellent coach. Obviously I wasn’t very happy about not being protected by Laval, but it was a great opportunity to play for such a great coach, who probably had the biggest impact on me developing my basic fundamental skills and teaching me to how to manage a hockey game,” Daigneault said in an interview with the San Antonio Rampage.

His exceptional season with Longueuil led to a spot on the Canadian National Team in 1983-84. Not only did he play for Canada at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, but he was a member of Canada’s 1984 Olympic team in Sarajevo. Canada placed fourth in both events.

After the Olympics were finished, Daigneault headed back to Longueuil to wrap up the QMJHL season, scoring 13 points in 10 regular season games and then adding another 16 points in 14 playoffs games and helped the Chevaliers reach the President Cup Finals for the season consecutive season. The team fell short once again however as they lost in six games to his old friend Mario Lemieux and the Laval Voisins.

Daigneault NHL Entry Draft 2It wouldn’t be long until the three friends from Ville-Emard would find themselves in the NHL. Marc Bergevin was the first to be drafted out of the three of them, going to the Chicago Blackhawks in the third round of the 1983 NHL Entry Draft while Lemieux and Daigneault had to wait an extra year because of their October birthdates. By that time the name Mario Lemieux was well known, and the Penguins took him with the first pick of the 1984 Draft. Daigneault wasn’t far behind, going to the Vancouver Canucks with the 10th overall pick. He hobbled to the stage on crutches after suffering a lower body injury in the playoffs.

Daigneault quickly made the jump to the NHL as a teenager with the Canucks and scored 27 points in 67 games as a rookie. That was the start of a well travelled career for the defenceman. He played two seasons with Vancouver and scored 55 points in 131 games before heading to the Philadelphia Flyers in a five-player deal that involved Rich Sutter heading to the Canucks on June 6th, 1986.

Daigneault played 77 games with the Flyers in 1886-87 and scored 22 points but it was his one playoff goal that solidified his place in Philadelphia sports history. The Flyers were heavy underdogs during the Stanley Cup Finals against the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers and fell behind in the series three-games-to-one. Philly started a comeback with a 4-3 win in Game 5 and then rallied back from a two-goal deficit in Game 6 with Daigneault netting the winning goal late in the third period in a 3-2 win. His goal in the third period provided what has been called the loudest moment in the history of the Philadelphia Spectrum.

The 1987 Stanley Cup Playoffs were also memorable for Mooseheads owner Bobby Smith because the Flyers knocked off his Montreal Canadiens in the Prince of Wales Conference Finals that season. The Habs were coming off a Stanley Cup Championship from the year before and had made their way to the Conference Finals with a sweep of Boston and a memorable seven-game series with the Quebec Nordiques. Smith had enjoyed an excellent playoff season with 18 points while his nine goals led Montreal’s juggernaut squad.

Smith and Daigneault would be reacquainted a couple of years later when Montreal traded Scott Sandelin to the Flyers for Daigneault in a one-for-one swap in November of 1988. Since the Canadiens’ blueline was already stacked with players like Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios, Craig Ludwig, Rick Green and others, there simply wasn’t much room for Daigneault so the defenceman spent the remainder of ‘88-‘89 in the AHL with Sherbrooke while the big club advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three seasons. Daigneault worked his way into the lineup for 36 games in the 1989-90 regular season and scored 12 points. That marked the start of some special times with the Canadiens as he became a mainstay on defense for the next five-plus seasons.

“Bobby was a great teammate. He was a veteran and I was still a young kid at that time and he was type of leader that would come up to the young guys and tell you if you need to battle harder in a game or even just say let’s have a good practice here.”

He played 316 games from 1990-91 to 1995-96 in the red, white and blue and scored a total of 78 points while posting a +/- rating of +57. Of course, the highlight came in 1993 when he hoisted the Stanley Cup as the Canadiens defeated the L.A. Kings in five games to give the franchise its 24th cup title.

 

The 1995-96 season was one of great change for the Montreal franchise with the famous exit of Patrick Roy to Colorado in December while Daigneault was also moved just one month prior to the Roy trade. Daigneault joined his fourth NHL club in November 1995 when the Canadiens traded him to the St. Louis Blues for goalie Pat Jablonski. The defenceman had barely unpacked his suitcase when the Blues turned around and dealt him a few months later at the deadline to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a sixth round draft pick. Daigneault played in 37 games for the Blues before being shipped off to the Pens where he would stay for just 66 games as the well-traveled defenceman was once again traded in 1997 when Anaheim picked him up in a February deal for Gary Valk.

One year later he was dealt to the New York Islanders in a six-player trade that involved Travis Green going to the Ducks. In June of 1998 he was claimed in the expansion draft by Nashville in an event that brought back memories of Longueuil. He was part of another trade in January, 1999 when Bobby Smith, then the General Manager of the Phoenix Coyotes, sent future considerations to the Predators for the veteran defenceman. He stayed in Arizona for 88 games and wrapped up his NHL career with one game in a Minnesota Wild uniform in 2000-01.

“I got to know Bobby Smith even better in Arizona because he had settled in Scottsdale and I also retired in that city following my career and I went back to university for three years so we played in the same “hacker” hockey league twice a week.”

In total, Daigneault played 899 career NHL games with 250 points while suiting up in 99 playoff games and adding 31 points. He is tied with Michel Petit and Jim Dowd for second in NHL history by playing for 10 different teams. Mike Sillinger holds the record by playing for 12 teams.

“I’ve moved quite a bit as everyone knows but I’m very grateful to have a wife that’s always willing to pack up quickly and continue living our dream somewhere else.”

After the playing career came to an end at age 35 it was clear to J.J. that he wanted to return to the game in some capacity. He took a few years to spend time with his young family before stepping behind the bench as an Assistant Coach with the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners in 2005-06. He used that as a stepping stone to the next level and was given the job as an Assistant Coach for the Hartford Wolfpack/Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League for the next six seasons where he helped develop some of the New York Rangers’ best young prospects along the way. It was in the AHL that he coached players like Mats Zuccarello, Jonathan Marchessault, Ryan McDonagh, Artem Anisimov and more.

Prior to the start of the 2012-13 season he was fortunate to return to his hometown and his former team as he was hired by the Montreal Canadiens as an Assistant Coach under old friend Michel Therrien. The two had been teammates in 1982-83 with Longueuil. Daigneault spent six seasons on the Montreal bench before heading to San Antonio last year. He said he doesn’t need to change his coaching philosophy for the QMJHL after coming from the professional ranks.

“I don’t think so. Obviously I was under the guidance of very good coaches at the AHL level and for five years with Mike Therrien in Montreal. I think coaching younger kids you need to foster them and for me it’s imperative that I show the knowledge that I have and also make them understand the process of becoming a professional hockey player.”

As a former defenceman, Daigneault is excited about the thought of working with the strong group of blueliners in Halifax including likes of Jared McIsaac and Justin Barron.

“I’ve heard a lot about Barron with his draft eligible year coming up. His skill, mobility and hockey IQ. For me whether I’m working with Barron or Ryan McDonagh it’s about identifying their strengths and playing within that and then enhance some of their weaker areas.”

This is his first time as a Head Coach after many years of being an Assistant but he’s feeling comfortable with the transition in roles.

“I don’t think the approach changes, it’s just that for the past number of years I’ve been giving suggestions and now I’ll be making decisions.”

Those decisions will start in about one month when players arrive for training camp in Dartmouth and the 2019-20 Halifax Mooseheads begin to take shape.

Camp opens on Wednesday, August 14th and the preseason schedule begins on Sunday, August 18th against Cape Breton at the Dartmouth Sportsplex.

Season Tickets are on sale now at TicketAtlantic.com, the Official Mooseheads Shop in Scotia Square Mall or call 902-429-FANS.

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