Montreal Gazette columnist Red Fisher is in his 54th season on the Canadiens beat. Let's agree he is supremely qualified to name the 10 greatest Montreal Canadiens all-stars of all-time, which are all forwards and defensemen. Today's column considers No. 8 on Red's list, the great Habs forward Bob Gainey, now the team's general manager.
The applause from the 1,000 guests at this sports celebrity dinner had been warm for Bob Gainey and other stars of his time.
Then: "Our next guest is a man who this past September joined the honored ranks of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Those of us in Montreal thought it was long overdue. The record of the Canadiens is a tribute to the work he did as the team's general manager. Here is ..."
The light played on the round face, catching the high colour in his cheeks and the thin line of wetness above his upper lip. Sam Pollock dabbed at his forehead even as a few people rose to their feet, and soon there was no longer applause sweeping through the grand ballroom of the hotel, but a noise engulfing it.
When people ask about Canadiens dynasties, such as the one in the 1950s and another during the 1970s, it's not necessary to look beyond the people who put them together -- General Manager Frank Selke Sr., with the team that won a record five Stanley Cups starting in 1955-56, and Pollock in the '60s and '70s, whose teams won nine during his 14-season career.
These GMs made it happen with the talent they acquired -- at times to the dismay of others.
"Who did the Canadiens take in the draft?" I asked a colleague on a June afternoon in 1973.
"A kid named Gainey ... Bob Gainey."
"They say he was a pretty good defensive player with the Peterborough juniors."
"Never heard of him," I said.
"I guess Pollock did," was the reply.
Pollock's strength as a GM was that he always put his personal stamp on draft choices. Pick the right player and he could be a franchise leader. Choose the wrong one and it could set back a team for several years. Pollock would listen to his scouts, but the buck and the puck always stopped with him.
Reaching out for Gainey based largely on his defensive credentials might have been the best decision Pollock made in his years with a team that always has relied heavily on offense. His selection was a surprise to everyone -- but Sam knew.
Pollock was in Halifax to watch his first-round choice in the exhibition season's first game. The Boston Bruins
were the opposition. The Canadiens were the reigning Stanley Cup champions; the Bruins had won in 1971-72, but were still very much the Big Bad Bruins. Bobby Orr
was on the ice to start the game. So was Peterborough alumnus Gainey. Orr jumped on a loose puck in his zone and then, in the classic Orr skating style, slipped beyond one man and then another.
On the opposite side of the ice, rookie Gainey gathered his legs beneath him, gathering speed with each stride and crashed into hockey's best player. Orr went down in a heap, blinking into the lights at Gainey's back.
In his seat, no more than 20 feet away from the collision of the rookie and the legend, Pollock smiled thinly. Sam knew.
Nobody ever has been more right about a player. Gainey's first NHL bodycheck was an omen of things to come in his 16-season career, eight as team captain. He made defense and punishing bodychecks fashionable among NHL forwards. He controlled games. He was as much of a winner and a game-breaker as any of his contemporaries who enjoyed 50-goal seasons.
No player brought more to the game, few as much, even though the most goals he scored was 23 during the 1980-81 season. No defensive forward in the League came within a rink-length of him when he was a runaway winner of the first four Selke trophies as the NHL's top defensive forward. He was simply the very best at what he did.
"You watched the way Gainey worked," Larry Robinson
once said, "and you had to go out there and try to work the way he did. There was no other way."
"You watched the way Gainey worked ... and you had to go out there and try to work the way he did. There was no other way."
-- Larry Robinson
Gainey was the poster boy for players who played with and through injuries. One game that comes to mind was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final in 1983-84, a series the four-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders
led 3-2 after losing the first two games. Both of Gainey's shoulders were damaged to the point where at noon on game day, coach Jacques Lemaire
made it clear he didn't expect his man to dress that night. As it developed, the Canadiens lost that night, but Gainey played ... the Gainey way. It's the only way he could play.
His confrontations with the Islanders' Bryan Trottier
and Vancouver's Stan Smyl have become part of hockey lore. He rarely gave an inch, but if he had to, he made certain it was only an inch. It's what made him a member of five Stanley Cup teams and a Conn Smythe winner in 1979.
He is a private person who picks his friends carefully and always has made it a point to do the same with words when he's not completely comfortable with people he doesn't know well - starting with the media. Nobody I know is more in command of what he is doing and what he has wanted to do as a player and later as an executive with the Minnesota North Stars, Dallas Stars
and now the Canadiens.
He knew it even while he was playing. Gainey was on the telephone during a Canadiens visit to Boston.
"Got a minute?" he asked. "I've got something I'd like to talk to you about."
"Come on up," he was told.
A few minutes later: "I'm thinking about going after the general manager's job in Minnesota. I was wondering what's the best way to go about it."
Gainey was in his 15th season with the Canadiens. He was 35. In his mind, he had done everything he wanted to do as a player. Time to move on.
"The first thing you do is you don't do a thing until you tell Serge (Canadiens GM Savard) what you've got in mind. You don't approach the North Stars directly. You can't. Get someone to talk to them quietly just to let them know you're interested."
"I guess you know this isn't the right time to write about this," Gainey said. "I mean ... I don't have to tell you why."
"I know why," I said. "I can sit on this for a little while, but if I hear a word about it from someone else, I'm going with it."
People in my business get burned now and then holding back on a story. It hurts for the short term, but it's a small price to pay for the long term. Gainey had provided me with a flood of stories during his career. He was always there - win or lose. He had earned many times over the small favour he was asking. Some weeks later, Gainey brought up the matter.
"A reporter called me about it yesterday. Go ahead with it," he said.
The story appeared in The Gazette the next day and, as you'd expect, the media mob descended on Savard. Was it true? What did he think of his team captain applying for the GM's job in Minnesota?
"It's news to me," said Savard, who had known about it for many weeks. "I hope Fisher is right. I'll get compensation for Gainey," he said with a laugh.
As it developed, Gainey didn't get the job. He played a 16th season with the Canadiens, then left for France, where he took on a playing-coach's job. The following year, he was behind the North Stars bench and led Minnesota into the Stanley Cup Final. Eight seasons later, Dallas GM Gainey watched his Stars win the Stanley Cup.
The rest you know.