This isn’t a real reunion, not without Peter Laviolette. There’s no getting around that. The coach was at the epicenter of everything that happened to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06, from the way they played to the family they became. His absence will be felt, and deeply.
Laviolette’s absence Friday and Saturday, as many members of the 2005-06 team gather to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that championship, was more or less unavoidable, since he’s coaching the Nashville Predators. Five players from that team still are active in the NHL – three of them nevertheless will be in town this weekend, Eric Staal and Cam Ward with the Hurricanes and Matt Cullen with the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins – and the same is true of the coach and general manager.
Jim Rutherford, at least, is expected to be in the building with the Penguins, even if he’s unlikely to take part in any reunion activities. But when the 2005-06 alumni gather this weekend, Laviolette will be in Florida, where the Predators will play at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday and the Florida Panthers on Saturday.
“I miss them all deeply and they will forever hold a special place in my heart,” Laviolette wrote in a text message Thursday. “What a ride!”
Laviolette was the first to see it coming, even during training camp, when he anticipated how critical speed and possession would be with the post-lockout rule changes and implemented a system to exploit what the game would become while working with Rutherford to build a team that could play that way.
Just as important, he was heavily invested in team-building, no small concern with a team that essentially was starting from scratch after losing an entire season to the lockout, with 10 new players. He benefited from having one of the game’s great leaders in Rod Brind’Amour, but he also took pains to instill a family atmosphere by finding ways to include the players’ wives in team events and letting kids roam free in the dressing room.
And in the difficult moments of the playoffs, he showed a knack for making the difficult decisions, particularly with his goalies – not only subbing Ward for Martin Gerber, but swapping Gerber back in during the conference finals, a critical switch largely forgotten by history.
“He pushed every right button that a coach can push for that year,” Brind’Amour said. “Just the way he assembled the team, brought the team together. I never played on a team that was as tight.”
Laviolette has been back many times since as an opposing coach, and always to a rousing reception from fans who haven’t forgotten what he did for the Hurricanes. Other than scheduling this reunion when the Predators were in town, there was no way to avoid a conflict. And there’s no telling whether Laviolette even would have wanted to attend anyway, given how things fell apart with the Hurricanes.
A month after Laviolette was fired midway through the 2008-09 season, owner Peter Karmanos delivered an ex post facto critique of Laviolette that accused Laviolette of being both lucky and two-faced. Karmanos is entitled to his opinion of Laviolette’s personality, but when it comes to what Laviolette meant to the 2005-06 team, he’s just plain wrong.
If the relationship between Laviolette and the organization was brittle before that, there was nothing left to salvage once Karmanos made those comments. Laviolette’s fingerprints were all over that championship, no matter what Karmanos might believe.
“We built something special and unique in 2006 that led to a championship,” Laviolette wrote. “The trophy was the prize at the end but the true gift that year was the ride we all shared.”
They won the Cup together. They’ll celebrate that anniversary without Laviolette this weekend. It just doesn’t feel right.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock