NEW YORK — In 2018-19, Kevin Hayes didn’t know his future. After his first four NHL seasons with the Rangers under Alain Vigneault, Hayes had a new head coach and just a one-year contract.
He played 51 games for New York before being dealt to Winnipeg at the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Following 20 games with the Jets, free agency was on the horizon.
For Vigneault, the year was also a period of change and uncertainty. For the first time in 13 years, he didn’t have an NHL gig. He had been fired by the Rangers in April 2018 and spent the season away from coaching.
In the same season, Hayes and Vigneault experienced the fickle nature of the NHL, how long-term job security is never guaranteed and feeling at home is a luxury.
Through a twisted and ironic way, the ruthlessness of the business has made both of them better. Uniquely, it brought them back together.
“For me, the year off was great as far as reenergizing and falling back in love with the game,” Vigneault said Saturday. “Twelve straight years as a head coach in two pretty good markets can be a little bit demanding.
“But as you can tell, I’m reenergized, I’m a pain in everybody’s butt and I’m trying to get ready for a game."
That game was Sunday, his first regular-season trip to Madison Square Garden since he was axed by New York. The same went for Hayes since he was traded.
This was just a trip to MSG. The Flyers won, 5-3, improving to 3-0-0 against the Rangers in 2019-20.
Hired last April, Vigneault is rejuvenated in his new endeavor as head coach of the Flyers. Hayes could not be happier and more comfortable in Philadelphia after the Flyers traded for his contractual rights in June and signed him later that month.
With time (and winning), the city has embraced them both in Year 1. Fans have loved the mixture of Vigneault's toughness and lightheartedness. They're grateful for New York's decision and Vigneault's one-year break.
“I think he’s a little bit more calm off the ice," Hayes said with a smile Friday. "Not that he wasn’t calm in New York, but I think he enjoyed his year down in Florida playing some golf and hanging out. I think it did him wonders, honestly. He has a great relationship with his players, he knows who he can call out and how to call him out. I also think that’s what makes a coach really successful, as well — he knows what buttons to push, when to do it and where to do it.”
This summer, he was wanted by the Flyers. They wanted to have him for seven years. He has become a favorite among the fans and one of the leaders in the Flyers' dressing room.
He is all Philly and so is Vigneault.
During the first period Sunday, the Rangers thanked their former coach and center with a video tribute on the Jumbotron.
When asked how cool the salute was from New York, Vigneault wasn't ready to walk down memory lane.
"I obviously had some good moments here," Vigneault said. "At the end of the day, they decided to go in another direction. I’ve found another place in Philly that I really enjoy. We’ve both moved on.”
Vigneault smiled in the visiting dressing room and said he had a martini coming his way. Hayes smiled as he chatted with family and friends in the bowels of the arena.
Both were leaving and coming home.
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