Stéphane Robidas’ experience as head coach of an U18 AAA team was limited to a single season. “A great year,” he said, at the end of which the Cantonniers de Magog reached the grand final of the Canadian championship.
However, if there is one aspect of his work that he does not miss, it is the parents. “A minority” of parents, he insists. But who “makes the job less fun, let’s say”.
The former NHL defender and current head of defenders at the Montreal Canadiens followed the story of Jean-Philippe Sansfaçon, who bowed out last week after a single campaign at the helm of the Saint-Hyacinthe Gauls , in the Quebec M18 AAA Development League.
The 31-year-old coach walked out the door, exhausted from having to deal with the pressure imposed by the players’ parents. His testimony was first reported in the newspaper Le Courrier.
The Gauls of 2023, like the Cantonniers of 2022, were however coming out of an exceptional season. “I’d be curious to know how it goes when things aren’t going well,” Robidas said on the phone during a 30-minute interview with La Presse.
After officially hanging up his skates in 2017, Robidas spent four years in the player development department of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He had therefore had no direct contact with this reality, except in his own role as a parent.
Throughout the career of his son Justin, a former Cantonniers who has just won the Memorial Cup with the Quebec Remparts, Robidas claims to have kept his thoughts on the work of those who led his son to himself. Whether or not he agrees with the decisions that were made.
“You can’t understand, as a parent, when you’re sitting in the stands,” he said. You haven’t seen the week of practice, you have no idea how your child behaved, his attitude… The coach, he has difficult decisions to make. »
He is the first to assume the mistakes he may have made behind the bench. “Everyone actually, you can’t be perfect.” It’s part of coaching. It’s easy, in the stands, to watch this and cry. Extremely easy…”
Before taking the reins of the Cantonniers, Robidas had been warned of the growing presence of parents in the work of the coaches. Parents, yes… and others.
“You have 20 players, so 20 parents, if not double, but also the grandfather, the uncle, the aunt, the agent, he lists. Everyone has an opinion on how you should do things. »
During a discussion held before the start of the season, things had been laid out clearly. Communications between parents and the team would go through the club president. “I coach young people. I will take care of them, I am here to help them, recalls Robidas. If the young person is not happy or needs help, my door is always open. We will discuss. »
However, as early as October, he himself “changed [his] tune” and opened the channel of communication with parents. And that’s when he discovered how “impossible to please everyone”.
At the start of the calendar, all players are employed in all situations – “you roll your bench” with a view to “development”, explains the 46-year-old Sherbrooke resident. Parents then complain that you should “play to win”.
Towards the end of the campaign, as the stakes increase, especially in the playoffs and the Telus Cup, the coach changes his approach. “Are we playing to win or are we making everyone play?” I try to send the ball into the players’ court. They are competitive, they want to win. »
The best elements therefore see their responsibilities increase. New wave of discontent. Radio-Canada columnist Martin Leclerc earlier this week referred to the creation of a discussion group in which “a handful of parents [ranted] as they pleased against the coach’s decisions.” However, Robidas did not have access to this content. Still, the “ripple effect” he was fully aware of.
Eventually, he stopped counting emails and calls from disgruntled people. He reiterates that “the majority” of parents supported him. Some even clubbed together to give him a small gift once the season was over.
If he did not return to Magog, it was because he was offered a chance he could “not so much refuse” as assistant coach of the Sherbrooke Phœnix, in the QMJHL, a team of which he is also a shareholder. Even before starting the season there, he was hired by the Canadiens, also in an assistant role.
He “loved” his year with the Cantonniers, spent with “a good group of players”. With hindsight, however, he can say that “managing that [parents] is not something [he] likes very much”.
“All the time I spend doing this, I’m not playing hockey. Whereas as an assistant, at the moment, I’m just playing hockey. No problem management. I’m doing something that I really love. »
After the story of Jean-Philippe Sansfaçon was made public, all sorts of solutions were suggested here and there to clean the air in arenas.
Several observers have suggested cutting the link between parents and coaches, for example, by going exclusively through another person in the organization.
Stéphane Robidas sends a simple message: “Encourage your young people. That’s it. »
“My job as a parent is to support my child in his sport. Whatever his goals, they are not my goals. We can validate with him: he may be very comfortable with a situation, that there is no problem. Sometimes, it is the parent who has the most difficulty in managing this situation. »
At the same time, he reminds us that “everything in life will not be easy”. A center player may be frustrated by being moved to the wing, but he can learn new skills in this position.
“Hockey is a great school of life where you can learn a lot of things that will be useful later, in a professional career or in any other profession. Teamwork, discipline, rigor, these are values that we learn in sport. I believe in that. »
Several times during the conversation, Robidas repeats that he does not believe he “knows everything.” Let him “speak from [his] heart. »
However, he does not budge: “If the parents just encourage their child, take care of it; that coaches are well-meaning and do their job well; that everyone pushes in the same direction… I think it will be easier. »