LEWISTON — The hop in his stride as he skated onto the ice at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee for the first time was borne of nervousness, but with each passing minute, confidence returned to the young man’s stride.

J.F. Houle had been to hundreds of hockey practices. He’d partaken in drills as a player, and he’d drawn them up as an assistant coach.

But this day was different. Two dozen pairs of eyes stared back as he drew his first diagram on a white board stuck to the glass near the blue line. The silence was hair-raised-on-the-neck eerie in the cavernous structure, and the occasional thump of a puck along the boards sounded more like distant cannon fire.

In the southeast corner of the building, a tall, slender man in a dark coat watched. He said nothing, and for the most part remained motionless, his gaze following not the puck nor the players, but the coach.

“(Monday) was a special time because practices are more for the coach,” the man said. “Practices are a lot more important than the game itself. You need to win the games, but practices bring you to be a better team on the ice. The young guys are moving a lot more if you do the right things during practice. For me, seeing the drills and all that, and seeing him command the practice, was something special.”

Special, like a father watching his son spreading his wings for the first time. The man in the corner watching Houle’s every move was his father, legendary Montreal Canadiens forward Rejean Houle. In 11 seasons with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge, Houle was a part of five Stanley Cup-winning teams, and was the first overall pick by the Canadiens in 1969.

On this day, he was an observer, a proud father.

“Seeing him win his first game (the night before) was special, of course, but practice is where a person really learns to be a coach,” Rejean said.

The morning after watching the Lewiston Maineiacs earn a win in their first game after the holiday break — his first win as a head coach in any league — J.F. took the ice for his first full practice with the squad. It was up-tempo. The ice was his classroom.

“The biggest thing, I don’t care if you’re a pro, a pee-wee player, midget, juniors, college, the mental aspect of the game is the most important,” J.F. said. “I try to create an environment where it’s fun, and the guys are always mentally ready for the challenge ahead.”

Journey to the bench

J.F. Houle didn’t start his career in hockey wanting to be a coach, of course. Like any young French-Canadian player, Houle’s dream was to skate in the National Hockey League. Even now, the path most-traveled for Quebecois youth is the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But not for Houle.

“I had a really good year in Midget AAA with Lac St-Louis, but I just decided to go to college,” J.F. said. “They didn’t have the education packages (in the QMJHL) like they do now, and that was a concern of mine. I played prep school for a year to see how it was, got recruited by Michigan State, Clarkson, Maine, and decided to go to Clarkson.”

There, he played four seasons. He had 49 goals and 81 assists in 143 games after being drafted in the fourth round of the NHL draft in 1993. He bounced around in the minor leagues for a while, skating in 72 games in the AHL and another 216 contests in the ECHL. During his second stint with the New Orleans Brass of the ECHL, Houle first stepped behind the bench.

“My coach asked me if, since I was injured, if I wanted to go behind the bench,” J.F. said. “I was behind the bench with him, and I liked the experience, so I thought I’d give it a shot at coaching. A job opened up at Clarkson and I had a great relationship with my old coach. I kept in contact with him, and being French-Canadian and being able to recruit in Quebec was a big advantage.”

Six years later, after speaking with his father at length, J.F. applied for and earned the title of head coach with the Maineiacs.

“There are so many kinds of job in hockey,” Rejean said. “And this kind of job is fitting very, very well for him. He’ll do a good job. He likes the game a lot, and he likes to learn about the game. I can see him communicate very well with the players. He’s perfectly bilingual, he’s lived in the United States for a number of years and he’s been around the game of hockey since he was 5-years-old, so for him, it’s a natural position. I’m very happy that he accepted this job.”

No easy task

Houle walked onto a struggling team. When he interviewed, Lewiston hadn’t won a game in its previous 15 contests. When he first stepped behind the bench after the holiday break, the Maineiacs had won just once in 18 tries.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but all of the people I am talking to tell me this is a talented group, and I am starting to see that as well,” J.F. said. “Hard work will go a long way. That’s what we’ve done so far. It was a tough decision, because it’s never easy to come in the middle of a season, but I was ready for the task.”

Before he accepted the position, the young coach (he turns 35 on Jan. 14) turned to his father for advice.

“I talked with him about how he would need to be comfortable dealing with the agents, with the parents, with the players,” Rejean said. “I asked him if he felt comfortable with that and if he would be able to go through that, and he told me he was very comfortable with that.

“I told him, ‘Look, you played hockey, you lived through hockey, you were an assistant coach, you were a scout on the road, now you have a chance to be a head coach. If you feel this is what you want to do, you go ahead and do it.”

As the team’s fourth head coach in less than a calendar year, J.F. isn’t going to try and reinvent the franchise in one fell swoop, but he does intend on bringing some of his own philosophies to the table.

“I believe in video,” J.F. said. “You watch the other team, it’s a great teaching tool. They didn’t have that in the 70s or the 80s. Now, you can sit down with a player and show them they need to do this or that. You can show them, they can see it. It’s a great teaching tool. We’ll be doing a lot of that here.”

Growing up with a famous father has helped give J.F. some perspective, Rejean said, though he was quick to point out there were others more famous than he around, too.

“I felt like he was very proud to be able to be surrounded by, not just myself, but all the players I was playing with,” Rejean said. “Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Mario Tremblay, all those guys we won cups with. I think he felt always very comfortable with those guys.

“But he made it in his own way. He was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens also, and he played pretty good hockey. He went to the American Hockey League and the (ECHL), and he did pretty well, not only as a player but in growing as a person.”

Now it’s up to J.F. to help two dozen younger hockey players find their own way, on their own journeys, wherever those may lead.

“At that age, they look up to the coach,” J.F. said. “It’s not only on the ice, it’s off the ice. Those kids are young and they’re away from their families. You need to lend an ear to them, try to help them grow as a player and as a person, and that’s very important. We’ll make that a priority here, to be open and listen to create a positive environment for the players.”

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