10 things Maple Leafs fans should know about Craig Berube


What should Maple Leafs fans expect from new head coach Craig Berube?

After covering Berube for his six seasons with the St. Louis Blues, I should be able to give you a pretty good preview. I was there when he reached the pinnacle with the team’s first Stanley Cup in 2019. And I was there when he was fired by the club in December.

Those high- and low-water marks are important when explaining Berube’s tenure in St. Louis, but it’s the days in between that tell the whole story.

I was there to witness the daily grind. This past season, I even shadowed him for a day, from the moment he emerged from his hotel room in Arizona at 7:30 a.m. until he jumped into his truck in St. Louis after the flight home at 3 a.m.

So, Leafs Nation, what makes him tick? Why do players want to play for him? And, of course, why did his time eventually come to an end with the Blues?

Here are 10 things you should know about Berube.


1. He’ll instill confidence

Berube was never in general manager Doug Armstrong’s plans to coach the Blues. In 2015, when the Philadelphia Flyers fired Berube, Armstrong was in charge of Canada’s 2016 World Cup roster and asked if he’d help scout. That led to an offer for Berube to coach the Blues’ AHL affiliate.

Ken Hitchcock was the Blues’ coach at the time, and Mike Yeo was the coach-in-waiting. In 2016, Hitchcock was fired, Yeo was promoted, and a year later Berube joined Yeo’s staff. When the Blues began the 2018-19 season with a record of 7-9-3 under Yeo, he was fired and Berube was named interim coach.

It was a club with Stanley Cup potential that lacked confidence. In Berube’s first news conference, he mentioned reinstilling it dozens of times.

After the Blues’ miraculous worst-to-first climb to the Cup that year, players shared behind-the-scenes stories about Berube’s motivational tactics.

“We had a meeting way back when we were five games below .500, and he took the standings down off the wall and said, ‘I believe in you guys, and we’re going to make the playoffs!” former Blues winger Pat Maroon said. “He’d say, ‘You just have to keep finding ways to battle through these things because I believe in you, and if I still believe in you, then you guys should believe.’”

2. He’ll be a good communicator

One of Berube’s daily routines comes post-practice, when players make a circle at center ice to stretch. He taps each on the backside with his stick, often stopping to have individual conversations.

“He would talk to everyone, just walk by and say, ‘Hey, good morning. How are you?’” ex-Blues forward Ivan Barbashev said. “After a game, he’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re doing a really good job. Just keep going.’ He’s a good talker.”

In 2018, two days after rookie Robert Thomas scored his first NHL goal, Berube skated up to him during practice, and afterward, I asked Thomas what Berube said.

“He said, ‘Good game. Good step in the right direction, but I think you’ve got to be a little more physical on the forecheck,’” Thomas recalled. “He always gives you a couple of things to focus on.”

I wanted to know how Berube’s communication skills compared to other coaches, so I solicited the thoughts of Hall of Famer Larry Robinson, an adviser with the Blues at the end of his career.

“He’s a great communicator,” Robinson said. “To me, that’s Craig’s biggest asset. He knows his players, and if he sees something happening, he doesn’t let it fester. If he sees something he doesn’t like, or he knows that there’s some rumblings going on with players, he addresses it right away.”

3. He’s a blue-collar guy

I’ll never forget one particular day in Winnipeg. The Blues had a morning practice before their game against the Jets, and I was walking in a hallway outside the locker room. I walked past an open door, and there was Berube — doing dumbbell curls.

He still looks like he could drop the gloves and go a round or two.

A left winger, Berube played 17 seasons in the NHL and finished with 3,149 penalty minutes, which ranks No. 7 in league history. That includes 241 fighting majors, according to HockeyFights.

I believe Berube’s career gives him instant respect with the players he coaches, and also gives him an appreciation for them.

“He knows exactly how these guys are feeling,” Craig MacTavish, who served on Berube’s staff in St. Louis, once told me. “I’m sure that helps him immensely because his players love to play for him.”

Blues defenseman Torey Krug confirmed that.

“Everyone in that room loves to play for him because we know if he was sitting next to us on the bench, he’d be going to battle with us,” he said.

4. He knows the game

Some of you might be saying, “OK, Berube played in the NHL and he can relate to players, but what does he know about X’s and O’s and making adjustments?”

Well, late in his playing career, he began paying more attention to it.

“There was a lot of nights I had a lot of time on the bench to watch it,” Berube once said, poking fun at himself because he wasn’t getting much ice time. “I just started watching a little more closely how the game was played.”

When Berube became coach of the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL affiliate, Hitchcock was in charge of the parent club.

“We spent an awful lot of time together,” Hitchcock said. “We were both early risers, so we spent every morning together just going over tactics. He was exceptional as far as understanding changes that needed to be made to get better.”

In Berube’s time with the Blues, it was uncanny how his gut decisions often turned to gold. If he changed lines, one of those changes would account for the game-winning goal. If he inserted a defenseman into the lineup, that player would be the star of the game. It didn’t always work out — but did more often than not.

Berube is one of seven people who have played at least 1,000 NHL games and won 200-plus games behind the bench.

Coaches Wins behind the bench Games played in the NHL

Randy Carlyle

475

1,055

Bob Pulford

360

1,079

Craig MacTavish

301

1,093

Craig Berube

281

1,054

Red Kelly

278

1,316

Brent Sutter

215

1,111

Larry Robinson

209

1,384

5. He actually has a calm demeanor

Berube was an enforcer, so he must have a quick trigger, right? If so, I’ve never seen it.

He’s got a calm demeanor, and there can be no greater example than after Game 3 of the 2019 Western Conference final against the San Jose Sharks. The Blues fell 5-4 in overtime when Timo Meier made an illegal hand pass that went uncalled and resulted in a game-winning goal by Erik Karlsson.

I remember walking into the locker room afterward and being floored by the fact that none of the Blues were complaining. Then I realized Berube had gotten to them first.

“He mentioned, ‘Don’t say too much (to the media),’” former Blue David Perron said. “We’re going to have to move on, that’s the reality of it.”

The Blues were down 2-1 in the series but went on to win Games 4, 5 and 6 by a combined 12-2 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

“After reading their comments in the media, I felt that they moved on already,” Berube said. “The next day, I could tell just by how they came in, they were ready for Game 4.”

6. He has a dry humor that can be hysterical

Berube’s voice is fairly monotone, and he’s pretty matter of fact. His postgame news conferences aren’t always must-see TV, but occasionally, he’ll drop a dry one-liner that will have you howling.

I remember after a game on Feb. 13, 2023, Berube was asked if he had gotten his wife, Dominique, anything for Valentine’s Day.

“Nope, nothing,” Berube said. “I don’t like (Valentine’s Day). Another made-up thing.”

7. He’ll protect his players, but …

I don’t recall Berube throwing any Blues players under the bus, but that doesn’t mean he won’t call it as he sees it.

In December 2022, the Blues were playing in Pittsburgh. Goalie Jordan Binnington has a reputation for taking matters into his own hands, and after allowing three goals in one period, he was back at it. When the Penguins’ Jason Zucker skated around the back of the net, Binnington gave him a shot with his glove hand.

“It’s got to stop,” Berube said. “It doesn’t help anything. Just play goal. Stop the puck.”

Berube isn’t the only NHL coach who’d follow up a comment like that by meeting with the player. However, I’ve always known him to have those talks.

“We had a good conversation,” Berube said. “He’s a competitive guy, and sometimes when things aren’t going well, frustration sets in. (But) he’s in a good spot now.”

Since then, Binnington’s antics have been nearly nonexistent.

8. He can deliver a helluva Game 7 speech

On June 9, 2019, the Blues had a chance to win the franchise’s first Cup on home ice. They lost 5-1 to the Boston Bruins, and the streets that were ready to erupt in St. Louis were suddenly silent. If this dream were to still happen, the team was going to have to win at TD Garden in Game 7.

The Blues were 4-1 winners, and afterward, we learned why they were so motivated. I remember watching the video of Berube’s pregame speech for the first time, and five years later, it still gives people goosebumps.

“Just his confidence going into the game, how he handled that situation, he wasn’t nervous,” former Blues defenseman Vince Dunn said. “When Game 7 came, it was like, ‘This is our time — let’s do this!’”

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9. He can coach skilled players

I thought it was important to include this because of the skill in Toronto’s lineup.

The Blues won the Stanley Cup with a big, physical lineup, and because Berube was that type of player, too, that was branded his style.

So when the Blues’ roster evolved with more skilled, rush-oriented players, the belief was that Berube wouldn’t mesh well. Yes, he does prefer a good-sized, gritty club, but that should be welcome news to Leafs fans.

But if there’s anyone in Toronto worried about offensively talented players being caged up by a forechecking-first game plan, don’t be. In St. Louis, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou were two of the most productive players in the lineup and a lot of their numbers came off the rush. I’ve had numerous conversations with Berube about this, and all he wants is for those players to be responsible defensively and have a good work ethic in their own zone.

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10. His message wasn’t the problem

So why was Berube available? Why did the Blues fire him?

I’m not going to say everything was perfect. There were players who tuned him out, and management had concerns about his attention to detail in practice.

But Berube’s dismissal wasn’t about whether he could coach. The Blues’ roster has been handcuffed by long-term contracts and no-trade clauses, and the talent was no longer what it once was. Yes, interim coach Drew Bannister had some success with the same group (30-19-11), but Bannister will have his own challenges until changes are made.

Berube may be a retread by definition, but he’s a quality coach with a lot of tread left.

(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)



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