New Lightning GM Julien BriseBois guided by his three keys to happiness

Julien BriseBois takes over for Steve Yzerman who hired him as assistant GM in 2010. BriseBois came to the Lightning from the Canadiens. “I got lucky Steve was looking for someone here,” he says. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Julien BriseBois takes over for Steve Yzerman who hired him as assistant GM in 2010. BriseBois came to the Lightning from the Canadiens. “I got lucky Steve was looking for someone here,” he says. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published October 5

If Julien BriseBois had to give up sports law, so be it. He wanted out. He had had enough.

Every Monday through Thursday, two decades before he would become the seventh general manager of the Lightning, BriseBois arrived at the Heenan Blaikie law firm by 7:15 a.m. He worked until he returned to his apartment by about 1 a.m.

There was little time for sports or fitness. BriseBois had joined a men's hockey league to play with his buddies and his dad, but he had to work while his dad played with his buddies.

There was little time for family. BriseBois had taken the job in Quebec City with the expectation that his girlfriend would attend pharmacy school there. She ended up two hours away in Montreal. He had time to see her only on weekends. Even then, he was still working.

It all hit him during one of his rare workouts in the firm's gym.

"I remember coming to the conclusion that there are only three things I need," BriseBois said. "Three things that make me happy."

Work he enjoys, fitness and family.

Everything else, he could do without.

He maybe checked off one of those boxes at the law firm. Maybe. So he requested a transfer to the Montreal office. The partners said no. He could have anything he wanted but a transfer. BriseBois needed a week to think about what he would do.

At the end of the week, he quit.

He shocked the partners.

"Maybe we made a mistake," one told him.

BriseBois had not. Not in his mind. He didn't have all three things he needed to be happy. It was an easy decision.

This was not the first time BriseBois made a decision based on these three needs. It would not be the last. In almost every defining moment in his life, all three have played a role.

The priority BriseBois placed on all three made his ascension to general manager of the Lightning possible.

The need to see improvement

Sports and fitness now fill major roles in the life of BriseBois, 41, but not to the extent they did when he was growing up in Montreal.

If a sport was accessible to him, BriseBois played it. Soccer, football, basketball, volleyball, even badminton. On the rare occasion BriseBois picked up a video game controller, even the games he played were sports related.

And similar to most in Montreal, he followed the Canadiens. He tried to watch Wayne Gretzky whenever he could, too.

But BriseBois never played competitive hockey. He skated and played for fun, but never at a high level. Instead, he played baseball.

In ninth grade he switched to a school that had a specific program for athletes to play baseball against high-level competition. He and his teammates went to classes from 8 a.m. until noon, then trained for the rest of the day. He traveled to Florida to play multiple times.

"That was great," BriseBois said. "I loved to compete, and I loved sports. That was a great environment for me."

He started mandatory weightlifting at 14 and has not left the gym since. When he is busy as a hockey executive, he works out four to five times a week. During a less busy time, he works out seven to nine times per week.

"I like the challenge of it," he said. "I like the getting-better aspect. You can see yourself getting better over time."

Tennis has served that purpose for him, too. BriseBois started playing three years ago and continues to work on his game with a coach.

"I am nowhere near where I wanted to be or thought I would be by now," BriseBois said. "Probably not spending as much time on it as I would need to to really improve, but I see improvement."

Yes, the baseball-loving, hockey-working Montreal native deeply cares about his tennis game. Such is the life of a life-long sports nut.

Lawyer or shortstop?

Without television shows such as L.A. Law and Night Court, BriseBois might not have become a hockey executive.

Watching them growing up, he knew at age 10 that he wanted to be a lawyer.

"If I didn't make it, I was going to be a shortstop," he said.

The backup plan, however, fell through. Realizing he was not fast enough, BriseBois gave up baseball when he was 17. He thinks he maybe could have played in college but nothing past that.

His focus switched completely. He graduated from the University of Montreal Faculty of Law, then went to work shortly after for Heenan Blaikie.

The firm's partners did realize their mistake when BriseBois quit after being refused a transfer to Montreal. Instead of losing him, they granted his wish.

They ended up losing BriseBois anyway.

He worked about 60 arbitration cases on behalf of 12 NHL teams and a couple of MLB teams. Through these cases, he knew the NHL's collective bargaining agreement and became familiar with the lawyers involved at the league office.

This background made BriseBois a commodity that the Canadiens wanted. He accepted an offer to join the organization as director of legal affairs in 2001 at age 24.

"That was actually a pretty easy decision," BriseBois said. "It's the Montreal Canadiens."

BriseBois attended most meetings. He not only listened but got to ask questions. He spent time chatting with scouts. He traveled with the team, sitting with coaches on planes and buses, and in restaurants. He took mental notes of what they valued and how they approached and scouted games.

He didn't have experience on NHL ice, so he learned from theirs.

After BriseBois learned hockey via osmosis for five years, then-Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey handed BriseBois invisible keys to the Hamilton Bulldogs, the team's AHL affiliate.

"Go compete against the others and show us what you can do," Gainey told him.

This was the moment BriseBois transformed from a lawyer in hockey into a hockey executive.

And he became a good one. His first year, the Bulldogs won the Calder Cup. This was the first year of 12 in which BriseBois would run an AHL team between the Canadiens and Lightning, developing players, hiring coaches and handling all roster moves.

Among the AHL coaches he hired: current Senators and former Lightning coach Guy Boucher and current Lightning coach Jon Cooper. With Cooper as his coach in Norfolk, BriseBois won the Calder Cup again in 2012.

"Julien is a sponge, and he's learning from the best, and now he's getting his chance to shine," Cooper said.

BriseBois knew he would have to go to a different market to experience different challenges. Plus, the Gillett family, with whom BriseBois was close, was in the process of selling the Canadiens. So, when his contract was up in 2009, he agreed to only a one-year deal. He didn't want to leave the Canadiens in a tough spot with 10 unrestricted free agents on the NHL roster.

In May 2010, Steve Yzerman was hired as the Lightning's GM. He then hired BriseBois as his assistant.

"I got lucky Steve was looking for someone here," BriseBois said. "And here I am today."

Yzerman and BriseBois have spent their entire time in Tampa working alongside each other. In addition to running AHL Norfolk and Syracuse, BriseBois has been in on just about every major franchise decision. He has done most of the GM work alongside Yzerman.

When Yzerman decided in the offseason to step aside, promoting BriseBois was an easy choice.

"We are so fortunate that another team in the league hasn't taken him before this point that we have this opportunity to have Julien as our GM," owner Jeff Vinik said.

In 2010, BriseBois didn't make the move to Tampa thinking only of himself and his career. Like always, checking off the family box in his life-needs criteria took priority.

Fitting the bill

BriseBois broke the news to extended family at a barbecue in his yard.
He quit his job with the Canadiens, he told his mother- and father-in-law, sister-in-law and her spouse. He, his wife and two young sons were moving.

The first question his mother- and father-in-law had: Where are you taking my grandkids?

"When I told them Tampa," BriseBois said, "everyone was so happy."

Lifelong Montreal residents, his extended family looked forward to visiting Tampa and its "great weather."

That helped to have their support, BriseBois said. He also felt better because his sister was moving back to Montreal from New Zealand. That way, his parents would have at least one child close.

His sons Jacob and Justin, 1 and 3 at the time, were not leaving behind lifelong friends, either.

Most important, he had the support of his wife, Marie. She has always been one for adventure as an avid traveler. Her fondness for adventure is part of attracted BriseBois to her in the first place.

Plus, he had moved for her before. Twice, actually.

Remember that girlfriend he drove to see in Montreal every weekend? Yep. That was Marie.

He met her in 1998 after he had applied for a grant and scholarship to study tax law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Despite his new love interest, he decided to go anyway. He went for only a semester, though.

It wasn't close enough to Marie.

He went back to Quebec City, trusting he would find a job. That was not certain, but that didn't matter. A relationship — and family — mattered more.

There was a firm that was starting a sports law program, though. It needed someone who was bilingual and knew sports.

BriseBois fit the bill.

Sports, in a job he had wanted since he was 10, much closer to family.

It was all he wanted, all he needed and all that drove him.

Contact Nick Kelly at [email protected] Follow @_NickKelly

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