Is Jacques Martin the Worst?
Montreal Canadiens fans will always tell you that the worst coach in franchise history is the guy doing it right now, whenever "now" may be.
Company man Claude Ruel hated coaching Les Glorieux. He took over a team of veteran stars who had served under Toe Blake, the greatest coach in Montreal history, and had trouble getting them to listen to him, let alone give him respect. He was vilified by his players, the press, and the fans, and earned a reputation as one of Montreal's worst coaches ever. And in two stints as the coach of Les Habitants, he had a winning percentage of .648.
What other sports organization on Earth could call a coach who won a championship and won nearly two-thirds of regular-season games one of the worst in team history? For most organizations, this man would be considered one of the best to ever coach the team.
Unfortunately, Ruel won his single Stanley Cup in 1968-69. It was the end of an era in which Montreal won four cups in five years. This was Toe Blake's team winning a cup; Claude Ruel was just standing in his shoes. The next year, when Montreal missed the playoffs for the first time since 1948, it was Ruel who was blamed.
Al MacNeil was brought in from the Nova Scotia Voyageurs to replace Ruel. He coached the team for a mere 55 regular season games and to one of the most unlikely championships in Montreal Canadiens' history. The experience was so unpleasant for him that he never coached in Montreal again.
The young, monolingual MacNeil was pilloried in the press by the French veterans on the team. Henri Richard particularly complained about his coaching methods and line combinations. Additionally, veteran John Ferguson responded very negatively to being benched for the fast, young Massachusetts born prospect Bobby Sheehan. Al suffered death threats throughout the playoffs and was only vindicated when they won the Stanley Cup.
Neither of these men were the all-time worst coaches of the Canadiens, but at the time the fans, the press and even the players seemed to think so. The standard is higher in Montreal. A highly regarded coach like Pat Burns could be nominated for this list just because he never won a cup in Montreal. Cup winners like Jean Perron and Jacques Demers might make the list because they didn't win enough.
It's a horrible job trying to be the Montreal Canadiens coach and live up to that history and the expectations that come with it. An organization that boasts the likes of Toe Blake, Scotty Bowman and Dick Irvin clearly has a high standard for success.
Special thanks to D'arcy Jenish for his book The Montreal Canadiens 100 Years of Glory and Claude Moutons' The Montreal Canadiens: An Illustrated History of a Hockey Dynasty for detail as well as stories from the eras I didn't live through.
Great Checker, Poor Coach
W-L-T: 124-83-23 (.589); PTS: 271
Guy Carbonneau was a great NHL player and a great Montreal Canadien. Those two characteristics seem to put him on the fast-track towards coaching in Montreal. Unfortunately, the list of players who have made that trip and failed is, as mentioned in the introduction, long.
Guy's experience at the NHL level consisted of being an assistant coach to Michel Therien between 2000 and 2002, and then being an associate coach with former linemate and GM Bob Gainey in 2006. He then took over for Gainey.
Guy lasted two and a half years in Montreal. He missed the playoffs in his first year but then won the Northeast Division in 2007/08. He was nominated for the Coach of the Year award but was beaten out by Bruce Boudreau in Washington.
His team, which had steamrolled the Bruins in the regular season, struggled to get past them in the playoffs, taking the series to 7 games even after building up a 3 games to 1 lead. The Canadiens then were swamped by the Flyers as a shaky Carey Price suddenly turned porous. No will was to be found in the Montreal organization to replace Price with Jaroslav Halak until it was too late.
Carbonneau has a profound understanding of hockey, and certainly, of the defensive aspects of the game. He had a better record than Canadiens coaches Claude Julien, Alain Vigneault, and Michel Therrien, but they have all found work and generally done well in other markets.
Guy Carbonneau makes my list because he seems to be the kind of coach only the Montreal Canadiens are willing to hire.
He currently works as an analyst for Canadiens games on RDS—a French-language sports network in Quebec.
GC: 48 W: 11 L:26 T: 3 PTS: 31 WPCT: .344
Sylvio Mantha was an early Montreal Canadiens star. He was one of the first offensive defenseman to play in Montreal. He was also one in a series of player/coaches brought in by general manager and part owner Leo Dandurand when he was tired of running the bench himself.
The notion of bringing back a former player to coach in Montreal became a recurring theme for the Canadiens, and is a strategy that has rarely brought about positive results in a hundred years. Jacques Lemaire and Toe Blake seem to be the only two former Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame players who became good NHL coaches.
There is a litany of former players who coached in Montreal. It started with Newsy Lalonde in 1917 and includes Mantha, Babe Seibert, Alfred Lepine, Toe Blake, Bernie Geoffrion, Jacques Lemaire, Mario Tremblay, Jacques Laperriere (for one game), Bob Gainey, and Guy Carbonneau.
Sylvio Mantha was one of the earliest players to try to coach the Canadiens. He coached in an era in Montreal hockey that has been called the ordinary time. It featured a lacunae of Stanley Cup failure in Montreal that wasn't duplicated until, well, today. During this period the Canadiens didn't win a Stanley Cup for 13 years.
Mantha coached at a particular low point. The cash-strapped Canadiens were in danger of folding. They packed off league star Howie Morenz to the Chicago Blackhawks in move to save money. Mantha coached his charges to a last-place finish that year, and then was fired.
W-L-T: 10-33-5 (.260); PTS: 25
Pit Lepine was another former player who was brought in to replace the former coach Albert "Babe" Siebert, who had drowned in the off-season. The Canadiens were still suffering post-depression economic problems that saw their crosstown rivals the Montreal Maroons fold that year.
The team finished last in the league under Lepine. The fans booed Pit and demanded his firing. Alfred had the worst winning percentage of any coach in Montreal Canadiens history.
The Canadiens were saved with the hiring of Dick Irvin, who coached the team for the next fifteen years and provided some much-needed stability. There was additionally an influx of talent from the failed Maroon team, which made the Canadiens much more talented themselves.
W-L-T: 71-63-25 (.525); PTS: 167
Mario Tremblay is yet another former Canadiens player hired by a former linemate—then GM, Rejean Houle—to coach Les Glourieux. Tremblay had no previous coaching experience. He was simply thrown in to coach a group of players, some of whom he had played with previously.
Tremblay's record was mediocre but not horrible. However, he had a running dispute with equally hot-headed goalie Patrick Roy. It ended with Roy being traded to the Colorado Avalanche after a very public dispute between the two in a game against Detroit on December 2nd, 1995.
The Canadiens organization spent the better part of a decade seeking a goalie to replace Roy, and the team wallowed while they did it. That legacy makes Tremblay and Houle a generally ill-regarded management duo in Montreal.
Like Carbonneau, Tremblay was another former Canadiens head coach that no other organization was willing to hire after he lost his job in Montreal. However, he was retained as an assistant by Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota.
Mario Tremblay now does colour commentary on Canadiens' games for RDS, a French-language sports network in Quebec.
Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion Canadien's Great
W-L-T: 15-9-6 (.600); PTS: 36
In what would become the hallmark of the ill-considered Irving Grundmand era in Montreal, the great Bernie Geoffrion was appointed to replace all-time great Canadiens' coach Scotty Bowman.
Sam Pollock, the GM who had built two dynasties in Montreal, had hired Bowman as coach and groomed him to be the next GM. Instead, new ownership pushed Pollock out and replaced him with their own choice of GM: Irving Grundman.
Bowman stayed one more year in Montreal and won one last cup. Rather then serve under hockey neophyte Grundman, he left to take the GM's job in Buffalo.
New GM Grundman was left to find a coach to replace a man already being called one of the all-time great coaches in Canadiens, if not NHL history. Grundman made his decision on a coach while wandering in the Laurentians over the Labour Day weekend in 1979. He settled from a host of candidates on Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, a former Canadiens' 50 goal scorer.
The second-guessing in the press began instantaneously. He had previous coaching experience; it just wasn't all that positive, as he had developed ulcers coaching the New York Rangers for only 43 games in the 1968/69 season.
He was thrown into a low-pressure situation in Atlanta in which he coached the Flames to two losing seasons. He made the playoffs in 1973/74, only to lose in the first round. The next year, he lasted 52 games and again had to leave due to health concerns.
This was the man Grundman chose to replace one of the best coaches in franchise history. This was the man that Irving Grundman chose to throw into the pressure cooker in Montreal.
Geoffrion seemed woefully underprepared to coach in Montreal, especially when compared to the thorough, meticulous Bowman. He lost the room early. Claude Ruel came in again to save the Canadiens and fill the empty spot Geoffrion left after only 30 games as coach.
In his 30 games in Montreal, Bernie Geoffrion had a .600 winning percentage but seemed to lack not only the ability to be an NHL coach but even the desire to be one. This was one of the more ill-inspired hirings in the history of the bleu, blanc et rouge.