ST. LOUIS — Craig Berube never viewed his promotion in November as a trial.
When Berube was named interim coach of the Blues on Nov. 19 after Mike Yeo was fired following a 2-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Berube was handed the keys to have a go at turning the Blues' season around, one that was stagnant at 7-9-3 at the time but one filled with so much promise following money spent on July 1 by general manager Doug Armstrong.
"I don't think I ever thought like that. I like coaching," Berube said Wednesday, his first comments after officially having the interim tag removed from his title with a three-year contract announced on Tuesday. "I had a good relationship with Doug going forward before this season when he brought me in as a scout to work for him and coach the Chicago Wolves minor league team. I just like coaching and when I got the job here, my first thought was to get this team back on track and get things in order. We had a lot of new players and it wasn't fitting together at the time and in my mind, it was to get that fit together. We had to get everybody on track and once that started going, the coaching staff and Doug too, we started feeling good about the way we were playing, but we needed more wins. [Jordan] Binnington obviously helped that coming in, he played really well and that's when the wins started piling up. I just enjoyed being here coaching and being a coach here every day for the St. Louis Blues. I wasn't really thinking about too much past that."
And with that mindset, it's how the Blues turned things around, culminated by the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup championship.
At the time, Armstrong wasn't going to endorse Berube as the permanent head coach. But after a couple months of maneuvering and aligning things in order and getting the team to play better, the list of candidates Armstrong was compiling withered away quickly.
"The search started out with talking to our staff, pro and amateur, get us a list of the top college coaches, the top junior coaches, top European coaches," Armstrong said. "So, we had a long list, but we never got past the point of compiling a list. Once we got into January, we were certainly going to allow Craig to guide the team for the rest of the year ... the wins started to accumulate, and quite honestly, I don't think I've looked at that list since January. I don't even know where it is. It just became evident that he got the pulse of our group. Our relationship was growing and becoming extremely comfortable, as he said, and the belief that we had. And then as the season progressed, it became evident to everybody that he was going to be the next head coach."
Berube, a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, went 38-19-6 in 63 games after taking over for Mike Yeo, who was fired Nov. 19. The Blues defeated the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks and Bruins to win the Cup.
The Blues went 30-10-5 and earned a playoff berth after they were in last place in the NHL standings Jan. 3.
The Blues won the Cup in Game 7 on June 12, winning 4-1 at TD Garden to win the series 4-3, and it was not too long after that Berube was offered the job on a permanent basis.
"I would say that I went to Craig with maybe a week left in the season and said things are going great, let’s just wait until the year’s over," Armstrong said. "Whenever it ends, we’ll get to it. He had done enough to insure my mind that we wanted him to be our head coach, but in any negotiation you walk in hoping it’s going to go quickly and this one did go relatively quickly, but you can get some bumps on the road, some differing opinions and I certainly didn’t want that walking into game two, or three or four of a playoff series.
"We wanted his mind focused on the task and when the season ended, we didn’t really quite honestly talk until last weekend because there was a lot going on here in St. Louis. Craig was up for coach of the year, we went to Vegas, then we went to the draft and when we put pen to paper, our minds together, I worked with his representative and we got to work with four or five days of back and forth, understanding each other’s positions, it went very quickly. I knew, and I said to Craig at the end of the regular season that he was going to be our head coach, but let’s just do it at an appropriate time."
And with that, Berube, the first coach to guide the Blues to a Stanley Cup, is already thinking ahead. Thinking ahead to defend the title, thinking ahead to winning multiple Cups, which in itself is hard to do (Pittsburgh did it in 2016 and 2017; Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998 before that).
"It takes everybody. The players did a tremendous job, the coaching staff, management, everybody that was involved, and you need everybody to be part of it," Berube said. "Everybody bought in and fortunately we came out on top, which was great, and I just want to thank Doug for giving me the opportunity moving forward on the new contract to guide the St. Louis Blues to hopefully more championships. It takes a lot of hard work and there are a lot of good teams, so we’ll have to be prepared."
When the Blues were 15-18-4, with the fewest points (34) in the league at the time in Jan. 3, they learned quickly how to park games, good or bad. Even in a franchise-record 11-game winning streak (Jan. 23-Feb. 21), players learned to not dwell on the past. Tunnel vision was key and Berube was the catalyst in that department.
"You just hold people accountable," Berube said. "Whether it's through ice time, where you fit in in the lineup on a nightly basis. It's really conversations with the players more than anything. It's just putting the team first mindset and drilling it into the team. That's really basically it. It takes a lot of work, it's every day, but it's getting that team first mindset. Once we started to get that and once I started to see guys fitting in certain areas, we were playing pretty good hockey. We just weren't getting the wins and that started to come. I think that's the simplest way I can put it. Conversations and holding players and people accountable, including myself. Putting the team first. When you do that and have good players, you have a chance to win."
The Blues finished 45-28-9 and finished one point behind the Nashville Predators for first in the Central Division, as amazing it that sounds considering they were in last place with 48 games remaining in the season. They carried that momentum into wins against the Jets (six games), Stars (seven games), Sharks (six games) and finally, the Bruins.
"What he stressed to everyone in our group is, 'Let's live in the moment. You're not going to change yesterday, and tomorrow is going to come soon enough, let's work on today,'" Armstrong said of Berube. "I really appreciated that approach. As a manager, you're always hoping for the best, but we got to January and I thought we were playing really good hockey. I go back to certain stretches and losses where I drove home feeling really good about how we played and disappointed on the result. The two that come to mind are the Islanders game (a 4-3 loss on Jan. 5) and the Rangers game here at home (a 2-1 loss on Dec. 31). I thought we played fantastic hockey. I thought that Craig had the team playing just point-on and we just couldn't score goals. But there was a feeling that if you continued to play that way, good things are going to happen, and they did. Really only the poor game we had probably since early December wasn't even a poor game. Pittsburgh came in and annihilated our PK with four power play goals (on Dec. 29, a 6-1 loss). But other than that, we were in every game, we were playing strong hockey on every given night: Vancouver, on that Western road swing; we beat Edmonton and I thought we played a helluva game against Vancouver. And it reaffirmed that you're not going to win every game, but if you're competitive and playing the correct way, you're going to win more than you're going to lose. And I thought Craig did a great job of making sure we played a correct style of hockey."
The buy-in started, and the wins accumulated.
"Well, it takes time. It always does," Berube said. "You've got to push it and prod and do all kinds of things to get everybody on the same page and to buy in, it takes a little time. They did a great job, our players. They wanted to be a good team and that obviously happened, and they became a good team. That's to their credit. That's not an easy thing to win a Stanley Cup, I'll tell you that. It's a tough road and again, you've got to have a real good team. You can have good players and you might not win. You've got to have a good team, and we had a good team this year."
Now that good team will have a short summer to try and get reorganized in a couple months and make another run at it again.
"I think it's a challenge every year coming into a new season," Berube said, "but it'll be a little bit of a tougher challenge (next) year (after) winning the Cup. Obviously, your season's a lot longer this year. Training is a little bit tougher. Coming into camp's going to be important, having that push and being ready to go October 2nd, it comes quick, but it will be a challenge for sure. I think that it's important that it's a day-to-day basis. That's how we have to look at the season. We're going to have to do the same thing this year right from training camp and throughout the season. You win a game, lose a game, you've got to fix whatever you've got to fix, but you've got to move on from it and focus on the next game. That's really important to do. That's got to be our mindset going forward too. I know it was this year, but it's got to be next year again."