MONTREAL - He may not be a household name in Montreal as of yet, but Don Lever is someone that Canadiens fans should definitely get to know a little better. As the head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, Lever does, after all, hold the future of the Canadiens in his hands.
Following in the footsteps of Doug Jarvis and Claude Julien, Lever is now the man behind the wheel in Hamilton thanks in part to a chance meeting with Bob Gainey during the lockout.
"I bumped into Bob at a Bulldogs game of all places," recalled Lever. "My neighbor, who also happens to be an NHL pro scout, was heading up to Hamilton and convinced me to go. Since we only live an hour away just outside of Buffalo, I decided to tag along.
"Bob and I started talking and I guess you could say that I ended up being in the right place at the right time."
Lever was coming off a two-year stint as an assistant coach with the Blues, but was not asked back following a tumultuous 2003-04 season in St. Louis that included the firing of head coach Joel Quenneville. Gainey, meanwhile, had already earmarked Bulldogs' benchboss Doug Jarvis as a future assistant coach with the Canadiens, effective once the lockout came to an end. That looming coaching vacancy opened the door for Lever.
"Our chat that night seemed harmless enough," said Lever, whose resume features 14 years of NHL assistant coaching experience, including 12 with the Sabres, as well as, three years as a head coach with Rochester of the American Hockey League. "Bob asked me what I was up to and whether or not I would ever consider coming back to the AHL someday.
"If it had been a chat with anyone else, it could have been dismissed as just small talk. But if there's one thing I know about Bob Gainey, it's that he never says anything he doesn't mean."
And Lever should know. He faced Gainey often enough during their playing days.
"Bob and I go way back," remembered the 53-year-old. "We had our share of battles in the OHL when Bob was playing in Peterborough and I was with Niagara Falls."
That proved to only be the beginning for Gainey and Lever, who then went on to go head-to-head in the NHL. Gainey, of course, enjoyed a 16-year career with the Canadiens, while Lever's 15-year career as an NHL left-winger included stints with the Canucks, Flames, Rockies/Devils and the Sabres.
The Canadiens' youth movement this season, which has seen an unprecedented number of rookies crack the Habs lineup, has not made Lever's first year behind the bench in Hamilton any easier. With the likes of Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Alexander Perezhogin all making the jump to the NHL this year, the Bulldogs have found themselves with a little less bite in 2005-06.
"That's the nature of our business," admits Lever. "The great work done by Doug Jarvis and his staff here with the Bulldogs is a big reason why those young players are now in the NHL. I'm obviously here to win hockey games but also to prepare these young players for what they can expect at the next level."
The Bulldogs coach was understandably licking his chops during the World Junior Hockey Championships in December, as he watched Canadiens prospect and Team Canada captain Kyle Chipchura lead Canada to their second straight gold medal.
"Seeing Kyle do all he did for Canada at the World Juniors just proves what kind of a player and leader he is," said Lever, a former captain himself, having worn the "C" in Vancouver for two seasons. "I actually got the chance to meet Kyle at the rookie tournament in Ottawa in the summer."
While Lever is likely seeing visions of future Bulldogs like Chipchura and Guillaume Latendresse dancing in his head, the wily coach is well aware that the feeling isn't necessarily mutual.
"I'd like nothing more than to coach those guys next year, but the Canadiens' next training camp is what they have on their minds, not Hamilton," smiled Lever. "Believe me I'm the last guy they want to see come October."
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com