He had one eye, but few hockey men could see as far, or as clearly, when it came to unearthing new talent.
The Montreal Canadiens lost a rare bird, an unsung hero, Monday when Claude Ruel died at the age of 76.
Ruel, who went blind in one eye when he was hit by a puck playing junior hockey in 1958, wore many hats in the Canadiens organization. He was a scout, a coach, a scout again, and a coach again. But most importantly, Ruel played a significant role in developing the best young players in the Canadiens organization in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a teacher of the highest order, the likes of which rarely has been seen.
Claude Ruel convinced Canadiens GM Sam Pollock to draft Larry Robinson with the No. 20 pick in 1971. (Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI)
How many times did we see him do extra work after practice with Guy Lafleur, Mario Tremblay, Rejean Houle, Yvon Lambert, Larry Robinson, Doug Risebrough and so many others? I can still hear him yelling, "Skate! Skate! Skate!" in the old Montreal Forum, while hitting the players with passes on the tape.
He made them kids sweat. But he made them learn as well.
Ruel had the Canadiens logo tattooed on his heart.
When the team won, you couldn't find anyone who was happier than Ruel. It hurt him just as much when they lost.
At one time he was a regular neighbor of mine on the Forum press gallery, and his intensity for the game was evident every time the Canadiens played. When they played poorly, which was pretty rare at the time, you could see it in his face. He would wipe the sweat from his brow, he mumbled, he got angry. He suffered.
Every loss was torture. So just imagine what it must have been like when he was the coach.
"After the morning skate, we would be four or five journalists who would go see Ruel in a little room," said my colleague Bernard Brisset, who covered the team at the time. "At the time there weren't any formal press conferences with the coach like you see now. Most of the time he would answer our questions while taking a whirlpool. And sometimes when what we wrote the day before got him angry, he would smack the water in his bath with the newspaper when we got there so we would get sprayed."
No, you wouldn't dare say anything bad about Ruel's Canadiens.
Before Ruel replaced the legendary Toe Blake as coach of the Canadiens in 1968, he made a name for himself as a scout.
He always was discreet in the junior arenas he would visit. He had no interest in talking to the other scouts; he was too focused on meticulously noting everything that was happening on the ice. He had a flair for it, so it comes as no surprise how often Ruel was able to unearth some hidden gems in the draft.
Ruel was the one in 1971 who convinced Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock to draft Robinson with the No 20 pick. Pollock went with Ruel's recommendation and the rest is history. Robinson went on to become a component of Montreal's famed Big Three on defense, with Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe.
Two years later Ruel was responsible for convincing the Canadiens to draft Bob Gainey.
Ruel had a knack for finding talent that fell under the radar of other NHL teams, and also for helping those raw talents become great players after they were drafted.
After his death Monday, there surely are a number of them who are thanking Claude Ruel for his help.