Gainey defined team-first mentality


The new-team smell had faded by early 2003 when George Gillett Jr., by then two years the majority owner of the Montreal Canadiens, met Bob Gainey for the first time.


MONTREAL — The new-team smell had faded by early 2003 when George Gillett Jr., by then two years the majority owner of the Montreal Canadiens, met Bob Gainey for the first time.

It was at a restaurant dinner in Vail, Colo., attended by Gillett’s wife, Rose, and three of the couple’s four sons. The hosts planned to talk hockey with their guest, having heard excellent reviews about Gainey as a potential general manager for the Canadiens.

“We’d been told, by several people who had a unique perspective on the sport and the club, that getting someone the calibre of Bob Gainey would bring a real level of intellect and class to the organization,” Gillett said Monday from Vail, a half-hour after Gainey officially had stepped down as the Canadiens’ GM.

“He’d been a great player. He’d made huge personal physical commitments the way he played, and you’d love to have somebody like that in a front-office position. We had a number of candidates, but every time we looked at Bob, he was just the right man at the right time for the club.”

Gainey accepted Gillett’s invitation to travel to Vail, and upon arriving at the restaurant he quickly sized up the family awaiting him.

“Bob came in, looked at us fellas and said, ‘Mrs. Gillett, where will you be sitting?’ ” Gillett recalled, laughing.

Gainey seated himself beside his future employer’s wife and through the appetizer, entree and dessert, they talked about everything but hockey.

“For the whole evening, it was Rose and Bob talking about books and cottages, the world and travel, great hotels, language,” Gillett said. “We just sat there, desperately wanting to talk about hockey. But we never got the chance.

“The wonderful part of it is, Bob showed us that he’s a renaissance man. He had another side to him that was far broader.”

Gillett and Gainey eventually would talk hockey, of course, and it wasn’t long before the owner installed his cultured dinner guest in the Bell Centre suite of executive vice-president and general manager.

On Monday morning, hours before the public announcement, Gainey called Gillett in Vail to tell him of his decision to step down, taking a reduced role as special advisor to incoming GM Pierre Gauthier.

“We had a long, long chat about his decision and a lot of other things,” Gillett said, his voice tightening. “I invited him to come out to Vail soon and he said, ‘I’ve written it in my notebook. That’s an invitation, and I accept.’ ”

Gillett is a heavyweight in global business, dabbling in dozens of them as an owner or partner. He knows that good chemistry with your people is every bit as important as a strong resume. And he knows that he found both in Gainey.

“There are moments when there’s a juxtaposition, that unique combination of situation and circumstance,” he said. “When it works, it’s magic. It’s hard to describe and it’s hard to replicate.

“When Bob said yes to joining the Canadiens, it gave the entire organization a sense of confidence, of style, and restored to the Canadiens a great deal of the lustre that had been part of their great heritage. Not to say that it was lost, just that it needed to be polished a bit.”

And now Gillett couldn’t hold back his tears.

“Bob Gainey brought silver polish to his job. It’s amazing how much class and style he brought. He reminded us of what it meant to be a fan of the Canadiens. . . .

“Bob brought something to every conversation we had. He taught me and my family. He was a marvelous partner with us, and it would have been very difficult for us to have been involved in Montreal without him.”

Gainey steps down with his champions and his critics, probably more of the latter.

He was a players’ manager, willing to work both with the craftsmen and the plumbers, nurture and cajole more effort from them where others might have cut their losses with trades or the waiver wire.

He was far from perfect, and he’s satisfied to let others decide his legacy. But to Monday’s end, as he left to watch the Olympics on TV and perhaps even play the piano, Gainey was his own man.

Through it all, he’s commanded respect by the example he’s set.

Veteran team photographer Bob Fisher on Monday recalled his own early days with the club in the mid-1980s, of being “where I shouldn’t have been” when team captain Gainey walked into the Forum dressing room shortly before a practice.

“Bob just said, ‘Gentlemen,’ and there was immediate dead silence in the room,” Fisher said. “In my 25 years since, no other captain has had that kind of respect from his players.”

Gainey took his leave 23 minutes into Monday’s 50-minute news conference, rising to shake the hand of his president, Pierre Boivin, and of Gauthier before he exited stage left and out of the room, his successor alone in the spotlight.

His entire career, Gainey has been about the team more than the individual. His rules were not going to change now.

“It’s been a privilege to participate with the organization again in a different role,” he said before he went. “It’s been fabulous. I’m very thankful for the opportunity.

“I’ve done my best. And now it’s time for me to pass the torch.”

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