The Montreal Canadiens fired GM Marc Bergevin yesterday, two dismal days after the team made some unhappy history: Friday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres meant that Montreal’s 12 meagre points in 22 games are the fewest the team has gathered to open a season in all of the 104 years it’s played in the NHL.
Bergevin, who lasted nine years in the job, ended his tenure with a gracious statement. “The last years have been high in both emotions and learnings,” it read, in part. “You have witnessed my journey leading the organization. You won’t be surprised to hear me say it has not been a long, quiet river, and at times, it felt like we were living in a TV show. Despite the challenges, the organization I led with passion always fought back. For me, each experience, good or bad, made me a better leader.”
Seventeen men have now managed the Canadiens since the club was founded in 1909. For those keeping count, 12 of Montreal’s historical GMs were born in Quebec, four in Ontario, while one (Léo Dandurand) originated in Illinois. Five of them played for the team before they moved into the team’s executive suite, Bob Gainey being the most recent of those.
Before owner Geoff Molson names an 18th GM, here’s a quick journey back down the river with Bergevin’s predecessors in the job, going back to Montreal’s NHA start:
• Joseph Cattarinich was a goaltender, the Canadiens’ very first, in 1910, though he didn’t last long between the Montreal posts: he was soon supplanted by Teddy Groulx and, the following season, Cattarinich and Jack Laviolette signed up Georges Vézina, a stripling goaltender from Chicoutimi, to take care of future Montreal’s puckstopping. Son of a Croatian sailor, Cattarinich was an owner, subsequently, of racehorses and the tracks they ran on, Laviolette was known in business, apparently, as The Silent One and also Silent Joe. He was co-owner of the Canadiens between 1921 and 1935; in the ’30s he was in on a brief effort to put an NHL team in Cleveland.
• Jack Laviolette, Hall-of-Fame defenceman, was a playing manager when managers were also, sort of, coaches, too. His on-ice career ended when he lost a foot in a car accident in 1918. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that didn’t keep him from refereeing the benefit game that was organized on his behalf in 1921.
• George Kennedy, son of a sea-captain, was born George Kendall: he changed his named when he got into wrestling. He was good at that, a Canadian amateur champion before he turned to managing other wrestlers, and lacrosse teams, and buying the Canadiens, which he did in 1910, paying Ambrose O’Brien $7,500.
As manager Kennedy shaped the team that won Canadiens’ first Stanley Cup in 1916. “A natural humorist,” he was called in 1921, alongside a tale of a retort of his from a year earlier, during a particularly feisty spell in the NHL rivalry between Ottawa and Montreal. When the Senators’ secretary wired to wonder how many tickets the Canadiens would require for an upcoming game in Ottawa, the reply Kennedy sent back was: “None. None of my friends want to see you or your yellow team again.”
Kennedy was sickened in Seattle in 1917 in the outbreak of Spanish flu that killed Joe Hall and stopped the Stanley Cup finals. He never really recovered his health after that: Kennedy died in 1921 at the age of 39.
• With partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau, Léo Dandurand bought the Canadiens in 1921 (for $11,500) after George Kennedy’s untimely death. Dandurand was, in his time, a busy man, the owner of many horse racing tracks, a boxing and wrestling promoter, and (in 1946) founder of the Montreal Alouettes. In his 14 years managing the Canadiens, Dandurand oversaw three Stanley Cup championships. Among other things, he’s remembered as the man who brought Howie Morenz to Montreal and the owner of a restaurant called Drury’s. Dandurand forbade his players from driving cars because of the risk of leg and hand cramps.
• Ernest Savard was a stockbroker and sometime owner of Montreal’s baseball Royals, who headed up the syndicate that bought the Canadiens for $165,000 in 1935 from Dandurand and Cattarinich. An “expert golfer,” the Gazette called him that year, and “outstanding sportsman.” He served as GM for just a year before handing over to Cecil Hart; one of Savard’s first moves was to name Canadiens captain Sylvio Mantha as the team’s (playing) coach. The appointment, intoned the Ottawa Journal, “was believed to be the start of a re-organization program which it is hope will make the club a dangerous factor in the coming campaign.”
In 1937, when talk arose of Montreal’s two teams possibly amalgamating, Savard said that the Canadiens would never change their name.
• Cecil Hart, an insurance man, coached the Canadiens to a pair of Stanley Cups before he came back to manage them in 1937, insisting that he’d only take the job if the team brought back Howie Morenz to play. Lester Patrick called him “one of the best managers who ever sat on a hockey bench.”
• Jules Dugal was the Canadiens long-time secretary and business manager in 1930s who did some stand-in coaching when Leo Dandurand was indisposed. In 1938, the Montreal Gazette reported that he crossed words with Chicago Black Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin during a heated game at the Forum and also “whipped off his glasses and prepared to trundle into battle” when Bill Tobin, Chicago’s business manager, taunted him.
As Canadiens GM, Dugal got into a hoo-ha in 1940 with Bill Stewart in a game in New York after the referee claimed that Dugal had sent out the Canadiens to “get me” because “I put him out of the arena five years ago and he’s never forgotten.” After the game, Stewart stormed into the Habs’ dressing room, furious about the curses Dugal had been yelling at him and challenging him to a fight, which Dugal didn’t accept. About sending players after the ref, Dugal said, “I’d be crazy to do anything like that. Much as I dislike the man, I would not do a thing like that.”
• Tommy Gorman won a gold medal in lacrosse at the 1908 Olympics. He was a sportswriter and editor at the Ottawa Citizen, too, not to mention, before that, a parliamentary page, at the age of nine. “The other boys used to stuff me in wastepaper baskets,” he recalled. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier is supposed to have seen him bloodied from the bullying and told him to keep the peace.
Gorman started his management career with his hometown Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, winning three Stanley Cups along the way. In 1934, he coached the Chicago Black Hawks to their first Cup; the following year, he was at the helm of the Montreal Maroons when they won the Cup. He coached the Maroons until they folded in 1938 before joining the Canadiens in 1940, overseeing more Cup wins in 1944 and ’46. All in all, Gorman won seven Stanley Cups with four teams.
• Frank J. Selke stood 5’4” in skates. In the later 19th century, his parents emigrated from Poland, when it was still a part of the German Empire. In Berlin, Ontario — it’s Kitchener, now — Selke’s father worked as a labourer and a hod-carrier on construction sites. Selke worked construction himself, and as an electrician; later on, when he wasn’t rearing hockey teams, he raised fancy chickens, Patridge Wyandottes and Golden Pencilled Hamburgs.
For years he worked for Conn Smythe in Toronto, but then they fell out, and in 1946 Selke resigned and joined Montreal as GM. “I’ve never liked the Leafs since we left Toronto for Montreal,” his wife, Mary, told Vern DeGeer in 1964, “but we won’t go into that. Just say I’m a dedicated rooter for the Canadiens. I stand up and cheer like everybody else when we score a goal. And I don’t mind telling you I can boo the referees, too, when they make a mistake.” In Montreal, Selke was on the job for nine Stanley Cup championships. In 1948, he said in a speech that if the boys of Europe had been taught team games and learned how to make national heroes of men like Howie Morenz, “there would be no Hitlers or Stalins necessary for them.”
• Sam Pollock, another nine-time Cup winner, was an English haberdasher’s son. Appointed to the job of Montreal GM in 1964, he was described as a roly-poly little man, as well as a nervous one who often chews on a handkerchief during an interview or a meeting. At 16, when he showed up try out for the Montreal Junior Royals, the coach took one look at him and told him to go home. Everybody assumed that Ken Reardon would be Selke’s successor, but no, wrong. Pollock brought Ken Dryden to Montreal and wangled the trade that allowed the Habs to draft Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson.
• Irving Grundman spent seven years as managing director of Montreal’s Forum before he took over from Pollock. Many people thought that Scotty Bowman would get the job, or maybe Ron Caron, but wrong, no. Before he got into rink-running, Grundman ran bowling alleys. He was 50 when he succeed Pollock, described in a profile that years as “a medium-built man” with “gray hair and blue eyes.” His clothes were “handsomely tailored;” his office, on the Forum’s second floor, featured “beige carpeting and beige drapes and several mighty modernistic and expensive paintings on the walls.”
“I grew up near the intersection of Pine and Saint-Laurent in the northeast end of the city,” Grundman attested. “It’s a tough neighbourhood. He was a butcher. I worked for him for 14 years, getting up early in the morning, going to the meat market and plucking chickens. When I look back on those days, running the Canadiens is not a tough job.”
• Serge Savard’s grandfather, Adélard, was a buttermaker in Landrienne, Quebec, who some Sundays refused to eat his supper, as a recent Savardian biography tells it, “feeling that he hadn’t accomplished enough on the weekly day of rest.”
Serge Savard’s association with the Canadiens began as a top prospect when he was 15, and he went on to win eight Stanley Cup championships playing on the team’s defence, overseeing another two as GM. In May of 1995, five months before Savard lost his job, team president Ronald Corey wrote him a memo that began, “The season that ended May 3 was certainly the most disappointing in the history of the Canadiens. We took a step backwards and also suffered significant financial losses.”
• As a player, Réjean Houle’s adjectives were exuberant and effective. As general manager in Montreal, he traded away Patrick Roy, Mike Keane, Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse, and Pierre Turgeon. He had tears in his eyes in 2000, when he was fired. “I did the best I could to put together a team within the budget I had,” he said, “and I think we’re in the middle third of the NHL.”
“When a team loses,” he went on, “the coach and the general manager are held responsible, but I think the players have to look themselves in the mirror and ask whether they did the job.”
“I’m 51 and this is the first time in my life I’ll be getting up and I won’t have a job to go to. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t have any hobbies. I’ve always enjoyed working.”
• The Boston Bruins picked André Savard, sixth overall in the 1973 NHL amateur draft, two spots ahead of Montreal’s choice, Bob Gainey. A centreman, Savard played a dozen NHL seasons for the Bruins, Sabres, and Nordiques. As Montreal’s GM, he brought in Jan Bulis, Andreas Dackall, and Doug Gilmour, among others, and discarded Brian Savage, Trevor Linden, Shayne Corson. After three years as Canadiens’ GM, Savard went into a meeting with club president Pierre Boivin to present his plan for the future of the team and came out having agreed to step down.
• “Gainey’s back? Yes! It’s going to be different now.” That was a Montreal taxi driver, quoted in 2003, en route to the South Shore on the June day that Savard stepped aside to make way for the Habs’ legendary winger to make a Montreal return. Gainey’s mother worked at his hometown newspaper, the Peterborough Examiner; his father spent 40 years in shipping and receiving for Quaker Oats. Gainey’s playerly adjectives were hardworking, painstaking, honest, flawless. He won five Stanley Cups and captained the team. In 1981, Viktor Tikhonov said he was the best player in the world. In Peterborough, as a junior, he got a job putting up TV aerials after he quit the one at a clothing store. “I didn’t sell too many clothes,” he said. “I guess I didn’t have the gift of the gab.”
“I can’t separate myself from my history,” he said when he took over as GM. Yes, he’d played on some famous teams in his time. “But this is new. The city has changed since I left Montreal. The team has changed. I’ve changed. We’re going to have to get to know one another.”
His plan? “We’re going to take the younger players and we’re going to improve them and we’re going to make them better. We’re going to push the players to do the things that need to be done to be a good team. It’s about tomorrow. It’s not about the 1970s … the 1980s or the 1950s.”
Seven years later, 2010, Gainey stepped down mid-season. “I’ve done my best,” he said, “and now it’s time for me to pass the torch.” Was it too soon? “If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier or a little later, I’d prefer earlier.”
• Pierre Gauthier was next. He’d co-managed the Canadian team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and oversaw hockey operations in Ottawa and Anaheim before returning to Montreal, his hometown. In California, when he was assistant GM of the fledgling Mighty Ducks, he fined team employees and players $100 each time they used the word “expansion,” because he thought it sounded like an excuse for losing.
When he arrived in Ottawa, he objected to players wearing big numbers on their sweaters, and caused Radek Bonk (76), Alexandre Daigle (91), and Stanislav Neckar (94) to reduce to 14, 9, and 24, respectively. Otherwise, he kept enough of a low profile with the Senators to earn the nickname The Ghost. “He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Gauthier,” an Ottawa reporter, Wayne Scanlan, wrote in 2012, a vegetarian in a steak-and-beer fraternity.” The flow continued when Gauthier got to Montreal, where columnist Jack Todd called him “a pint-sized bottle of vinegar.” As Canadiens GM, Gauthier was the man who fired the coach, Jacques Martin, who spoke French to hire another one, Randy Cunneyworth, who didn’t.
• Gauthier himself was fired in May of 2012. Introducing his replacement that month, team owner Geoff Molson said that the hiring of Marc Bergevin “represents the first step in re-establishing a culture of winning in Montreal.” Asked at the same press conference just how long it would take to turn the Canadiens’ fortunes around, Bergevin said, “I don’t have a time frame, but my vision of this team is that it has a good nucleus. To rebuild something, you start from scratch. I believe the pieces we have are good.”