Bob Gainey may or may not be a great general manager, it remains to be seen. I wonder sometimes why Guy Carbonneau was let go as coach, although to be fair to Gainey, the team was going nowhere with Carbo behind the bench. I’d also like to know the true story of what happened with Alex Kovalev. But even in these cases I cut Gainey some slack because who knows what really went on behind closed doors? Who knows if Carbonneau had lost the room, so to speak, or if Kovalev’s agent screwed the deal up. And was there something we’re missing regarding Saku Koivu and his departure to sunny California?
If the team that you’ll need a program to recognize this year falls flat on its face, then maybe Gainey’s not so good and he’ll be replaced and we’re back to square one. But if they play like gangbusters, then Gainey would be allowed to say I told you so. Of course he wouldn’t, it’s not his style, but he’d be allowed to.
If we’re not sure about Gainey as a GM, we can be sure about something else. He was a great hockey player. One of the most valuable on a team loaded with stars. Gainey as a player can never be questioned or second-guessed.
He was picked eight over-all in the 1973 draft, and Montreal chose him because he was big – 6’2, 190 lbs, fast, and specialized as a checker. And that’s just what he became as a proven NHL’er – fast and a defensive specialist. He was also dangerous around the opposing team’s net, but mostly, the big goals were left to Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire. They were the glamour guys.
Scotty Bowman, coach extraordinaire, said of him: “He just drives himself…past what you expect from any player. And he plays every game of the season like that, but people only notice in the playoffs. He has been given all the tough assignments…always. And still he has really improved his offence.” Bowman also added, “He’s just in great shape…great shape.”
At a luncheon in New York, bombastic Leafs’ owner Harold Ballard remarked, “That fellow can skate. He’s some hockey player. A big bastard too, isn’t he?” And of course, eyebrows were raised when legendary Russian coach and hockey innovator Anatoli Tarosov called Gainey “the best all-around player in the world.”
After the Habs had won their fourth cup in a row in 1979, Gainey was named the Conn Smythe winner as most valuable player to his team in the playoffs. He was given $1,500, and a new sports car from Sport magazine. Afterward, the shy forward said, “It’s hard to believe that my name will be on that trophy with some of the names on there…like Bobby Orr, and Guy Lafleur…Jean Beliveau. I just don’t know what to say.”
When the Habs won that 1979 cup, Gainey was one of the quiet ones, along with Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard, who didn’t yell and pour champagne over people’s heads, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s. It was never Gainey’s style to be boisterous like that, as you can see today as a GM. He’s a thoughtful man who chooses his words carefully. When you listen to him speak now about changes and trades and the problems of the team, he’s not shellshocked when he’s choosing his words. It’s just his style.
And it was that last of four cups in 1979 when just the slightest hint of cracks in the Habs’ dynasty began to show. When the team lost the final game of the season to Detroit, Larry Robinson felt the loss indicated they failed to to do it under pressure; failed to win a game they needed to finish first in the league, and he was apprehensive. Robinson also felt that the team played only mediocre hockey against Boston, and admitted that the Bruins could have won that series.
Serge Savard was getting older in 1979, so was Lemaire, and Ken Dryden’s future was up in the air. And Yvan Cournoyer, out with a back ailment most of the season, wanted to try again the next year but the Canadiens thought differently, thinking that maybe Yvon’s time had come. In the end, both Dryden and Cournoyer called it quits after this 1979 season
Looking back now, it was the end of an era, four cups in a row, and the team would never be the same again. And now we have what we have with the Habs of the 21st century. Bob Gainey was through those wars in the 1970’s, played on those great teams, and he knows better than most what it takes to be a great team. So one can question and find fault with all he’s done in this off-season, tearing it down and building from almost scratch again. But he’s a winner, knows what a winner looks like, and he’s trying to fix the many problems on the Habs that were out there for all the hockey world to see.
Gainey wants a great team as much as the rest of us.