Claude Julien laced up his skates as a player for the last time April 26, 1992, when he and the Moncton Hawks lost 6-5 to the St John's Maple Leafs in Game 2 of their American Hockey League playoff series. The Maple Leafs, led by veteran defenseman Joel Quenneville, went on to sweep the series on the way to the Calder Cup Final.
Julien and Quenneville both retired that summer, but they've opposed each other numerous times since then. They're now on opposing benches as each tries to lead his team to a second Stanley Cup. Quenneville's Chicago Blackhawks have a 1-0 series lead on Julien's Boston Bruins entering Game 2 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
But the two men haven't always been rivals. They share a connection made more than three decades ago with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
Quenneville, a 16-year-old Windsor native, was a local hero on an expansion team in what was then known as the Ontario Hockey Association. As he helped turn his hometown team into a competitive club, Quenneville honed the on-ice skills that helped him earn a 12-season career in the NHL.
"I was fortunate to play at home," Quenneville said. "First year we took our lumps being an expansion team, then the next couple of years we were pretty good."
It wasn't long before Spitfires coach Wayne Maxner identified the leadership qualities in Quenneville that later would make him a strong role player and an even better coach. After just one year on the club, Maxner gave Quenneville the captain's "C."
"He was a solid leader. He was good on the ice, off the ice, in the dressing room. Right away you could tell he had leadership qualities, even at 18, 19 years of age," Maxner told NHL.com. "When I made him captain, I knew he would be the one that the players looked up to. They rallied around him.
"It's harder on a player from the city. Joel was from Windsor, so it was harder on him to be the leader. But he handled it quite well, like a real pro."
The Toronto Maple Leafs selected Quenneville in the second round of the 1978 NHL Draft, and he turned pro that fall. His departure, along with that of defenseman John Barrett, left some big holes on the Windsor blue line. After the Spitfires stumbled badly at the start of the 1978-79 season, Maxner decided to make a trade with the Oshawa Generals for a smart, solid defenseman named Claude Julien.
A little more than a year later, Maxner named Julien his new captain.
"With Joel gone, we were pretty thin back there. We had lost five of the first 10 games or so and we were struggling around fourth or fifth place in our division," Maxner said. "I went to Oshawa I think three weeks in a row to pick out a couple of players who I thought could help us. Claude was one of those players. He looked like he could play the game and he had some feistiness in him. You could tell he was a leader when he was on the ice."
While becoming the Spitfires' captain would link him directly to Quenneville, no one would mistake Julien for the man he would be coaching against in the Cup Final almost 35 years later. Quenneville had far more polish as a player, while Julien relied more on intuition, smarts and toughness on the ice. But both were respected by their teammates in Windsor.
"Claude would lead by example, Joel could really communicate well. Claude maybe wasn't as outgoing as Joel at the time, but very effective," said Dave Hannan, who suited up with both players in Windsor and even lived with Julien when he first joined the Spitfires. "He was French -- he could speak broken English. We got to know each other. A really nice guy, a very quiet personality."
In his last full season in Windsor, Julien led the Spitfires to the 1980 league final, where they were swept by a Peterborough Petes team that featured future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy and was coached by future Stanley Cup-winner Mike Keenan. From there, Julien would embark on a pro playing career that barely resembled Quenneville's.
While Quenneville played in more than 800 NHL games with five teams, Julien spent much of his career in the minor leagues -- he played in 14 NHL games, all with the Quebec Nordiques. Their paths would cross briefly in the AHL, but it would be as coaches that they truly established themselves as winners.
Even today, Julien still recalls the tall shadow Quenneville cast when he arrived in Windsor.
"I came in afterwards, but I heard a lot about him," Julien said this week. "He was viewed as a hero in that town. I got to know him a little bit throughout the years, but that is quite a few years ago. I think we were much younger then."
Going head-to-head for hockey's biggest prize is something neither Quenneville nor Julien could have imagined as teenagers. They're here now because of the coaching skills they cultivated over the years, along with some of the leadership qualities they honed with the Spitfires.
"Both guys loved the game. Both guys played as long as they could. Both guys had a passion to understand the defensive zone and how important it is," said Hannan, who played 15 seasons in the NHL, including a short stint with the Colorado Avalanche while Quenneville was an assistant coach. "You could tell by the way they handled themselves and treated people. They're very humble and I think always very appreciative. You could see that when you played junior with them."
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