It was the summer of 1978 and the Montreal Canadiens were the greatest organization in hockey. Fresh from winning their third Stanley Cup in a row and their 21st Stanley Cup ever, they were arguably the best run organization in professional sports. Sitting at the helm guiding the team was the single best General Manager in Montreal Canadiens history, Sam Pollock.
Sam was in his last of 14 years and was winning his ninth Stanley Cup as Les Habitants' GM. Behind the bench was the (even then) legendary Scotty Bowman. The team featured the Art Ross and Hart trophy winner Guy Lafleur. Ken Dryden and Michel "Bunny" Laroque had won the Vezina trophy as the leagues best goaltending tandem.
Bob Gainey had won the Frank J. Selke trophy as the leagues best defensive forward. Larry Robinson won the Conn Smythe trophy as the best player in the playoffs. Les Glorieux were unstoppable hockey titans with a history of teams, players and managers reaching back to before the first world war.
Then, on Aug. 4,1978, Molsons of Canada bought the team back from the Bronfmans for a reported $20 million. Three Molson cousins had sold the team to the Bronfmans back in 1971 and were apparently suffering from some sort of delayed sellers remorse. Molsons bought the team, the Habs moved from hard liquor to beer and the organization has never been the same.
The new ownership coincided with the "retirement" of Sam Pollock at the relatively young age of 53. Sam Pollock had picked up the general manager reins from the great Frank J Selke in 1964. Selke retired at the age of 71 after training his replacement Pollock for five years to succeed him.
The Montreal Canadiens slogan was and is "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high." The Canadiens tried to live up to this excerpt from the world war I poem "In Flanders Field" by John Macrae. The ideal was believed to hold for players and managers alike.
It stressed a culture of stability,continuity and mentoring to insure a worthy successor for each individual on the team. Sam Pollocks groomed successor was Scotty Bowman but that was not to be.
Molson's upon Pollocks retirement brought in Irving Grundman to be the general manager of the Canadiens. He was not a hockey guy he was a businessmen. His claim to fame was that he built from scratch an empire of bowling lanes in Montreal Ottawa, and Kingston called Laurentian Lanes. He was certainly not Sam Pollocks hand-picked successor.
He didn't have the legendary knowledge that Pollock had accumulated in a life time in hockey. He was an owner and operator of bowling alley's who seemed to think it might be fun to run a hockey club. Molson's apparently agreed and the fun soon began.
The next year Les Habitants won the cup again for the fourth year in a row. Irving Grundman has his name on the cup as the GM of a Stanley Cup winning team. This was of course Pollock's team, but that's how Grundman began his time in Montreal; at the top.
On June 11,1979 after winning that fourth Stanley Cup in a row Scotty Bowman announced he was leaving to become the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. Does anyone wonder if the Montreal Canadien dynasty might have continued longer if Bowman succeeded Pollock and groomed his own replacement say by the year 2000.
At the very least the Canadiens would have faced the eighties with a general manager who knew hockey and not that witless wonder, Grundman. At his farewell press conference Bowman said "...there was no room for Irving Grundman and me on the same team."
Who would you rather have? A hockey hall of famer or the bowling savant? Bowman said at the time he couldn't stand the way Grundman was running the team and had no respect for the mans hockey acumen. It could be called sour grapes. Now it just seems prescient.
Jacques Lemaire scored his last NHL goal in the playoffs that year. It was the Stanley Cup winning goal. At age 34 Lemaire had 55 points in 50 NHL games. He had 97 points in 76 games the year before. During the 1979 playoffs Jacques had 23 points in 16 playoff games. He and Cournoyer were the elder statesman on this great team.
He was the first line center with Lafleur and Cournoyer for a good deal of the time. He was an offensive player who was defensively responsible (go figure) good on the faceoff, with a huge shot. He had some good playing years left in him.
During the salary negotiations with Lemaire I still remember the defining quote that came from Irving Grundman.
Lemaire was threatening to play in Switzerland if the Habs wouldn't sign him for more money. Grundmans response to this crucial member of the Canadiens was , "No one plays hockey in Switzerland." ,except as it turned out Jacques Lemaire. A Montreal Canadien icon was lost and treated with disrespect in the process. It did not bode well.
The litany of failure continued for Grundman. The 1980 entry draft was held in Montreal. The hands down, no-brainer, consensus pick was Dennis Savard. He was a french canadian offensive wizard who had been genetically engineered to replace Guy Lafleur.
Lafleur in 1984-85 from his faltering hands finally I believe passed the torch to Stephane Richer. Richer dropped it. Then backed up over it.
Who did Irving Grundman pick in that 1980 entry draft with first overall pick that they'd stolen from the Colorado Rockies? He chose Doug Wickenheiser. Now Doug was a highly regarded kid at the time, bigger and tougher then the little Savard. He'd had great seasons in the western hockey league and was considered by some to be the better player.
However, in Montreal, turning your nose up at the second coming of Guy Lafleur/Jean Beliveau is akin to sacrilege. Grundman did it of course in his own inimitable fashion. His best quote this time was "We're not going to take a player just because he's French-Canadian we're going to take the best player available."
Grundman, of course, wouldn't have known the best player if he'd run and bitten him on the ass. Wickenheiser in the end had a reasonable NHL career. He carved himself out a niche in St Louis as a tough responsible checker. Unfortunately, offensively, the man could not score at the NHL level. Doug eventually scored 111 goals in 555 games which is a heck of a career. Denis had 473 goals in 1169 games and is a hall of famer.
There were other debacles in Grundmans short five-year stint in Montreal. In an ill-managed attempt to manipulate the waiver system he lost Pierre Bouchard, a Montreal rock of a defenceman and son of hall of fame Montreal Legend Emile "Butch" Bouchard. During the same mess he also managed to lose up and comer Rod Schutt.
What Grundman managed to do more then anything else was to break the threads and connections that used to run through the Montreal Canadiens. There was a path from captain to captain to captain ,GM to GM, goalie to goalie that ran through the organization Les Habitants have been trying to retie those bonds ever since.
From 1940 'til when Grundman was hired the Montreal Canadiens had five head coaches Dick Irvin,Toe Blake, Claude Ruel, Al MacNeil, and Scotty Bowman. For the next 31 years there have been seventeen and only Bowman the leftover from the Pollock days is going to make the hall of fame as a coach.
From 1940-78 there were three GM's before Grundman. From 1978 'til 2009 there have been five soon to be six and again no Hall of Famers. From 1940-78 there were nine Montreal Canadiens captains: Walter Buswell, Toe Blake, Bill Durnan, Emile "Butch" Bouchard, Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer.
It's a who's who of hockey greatness. Since then, it's been Cournoyer, Savard, Gainey, Chelios, Carbonneau, Keane, Turgeon, Damphousse, and Koivu. It's nine guys but the last six have been traded away.
Irving Grundman was arguably the worst GM in Montreal Canadiens history and the team still hasn't recovered from the desecration he visited on the organization. The Montreal Canadiens have become just another hockey organization and not really that good of one. The karmic burden the organization has taken on since that time isn't as staggering as some curses have been.
The Canadiens have managed to win two cups since his tenure ended ,in 1986 and 1993, but the organization itself has never been the same.
The Chicago Blackhawks in removing the hockey guy who put their team together for them may be taking on a similar karmic debt of their own. I'd warn them to be very, very careful. If they win a cup this year and then lose some of their key young players next year they may start down a long dark path that I can attest is painful to travel.