From the archive: The puck stopped here
No job was too small or too large for Pollock (First published Jan. 15, 2009)
Editor's note: As the Canadiens celebrate their centenary season in search of their 25th Stanley Cup, The Gazette's Red Fisher looks back in a 10-part feature series rating the Best of the Best. We start today with the best general manager and will reveal one "best" daily for 10 days, ending with the all-time best Canadiens team .
I have seen the Canadiens win 17 of their 24 Stanley Cups since the club was founded on Dec. 4, 1909, during the half-century-plus I have covered the team - 12 in the first 20 seasons. (Some of my "friends" insist I was there for all 24.) Where does this mystique for winning start?
At the top, that's where. The general-manager's seat.
Frank Selke was the GM when I started covering the team at the start of the 1955-56 season as a second-year reporter with the Montreal Star. He had joined the organization for the start of the 1946-47 season, replacing Tommy Gorman, and while another seven years would pass until the Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup, he and coach Dick Irvin Sr. set the table for the dynasty the Canadiens were to become during the last half of the 1950s. Before Selke retired at the end of the 1963-64 season, the Canadiens would win an NHL-record five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1955-56 through 1960 in the six-team league.
His replacement: Sam Pollock, winner of nine Stanley Cups in 14 seasons - the most successful and the best GM in Canadiens history.
What made Sammy run?
During his 14 years in the general manager's chair (nine Stanley Cups and eight regular-season titles), no job was too small or too large for Pollock. Everything passed across his desk.
The puck stopped with him.
Today, Gary Bettman runs the NHL with an iron fist. It's black and white, no grey area. He's the boss. Those who preceded him were nothing more than employees of the owners.
Pollock, however, was a major figure in decision-making for the league during his years with the Canadiens, and you can be sure he never short-changed his Canadiens in the process. What mattered mostly was what was best for the Canadiens. No general manager in any sport was called upon more often to help in league matters.
Problems in Chicago? Sam's advice was sought.
A strong, high-profile person needed to organize the first Canada Cup?
The NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in time for the 1967-68 season. What was the best way to do it?
Sam had the answer.
"When great general managers are mentioned," the late NHL president Clarence Campbell once told me, "you think of names such as Jack Adams, Lester Patrick, Art Ross, Frank Selke - and Pollock. What Sam always had going for him is that he knew what was needed to win. He was as shrewd as anyone in the judgment of players and I don't know of anyone more knowledgeable as to the workings of the bylaws.
"There was an element of suspicion in Sam all the time," Campbell added, "but despite the enormous input he had into the creation of what were deemed to be improvements, I'm not aware of a single situation where he designed it for his own benefit. He was very resourceful in the ways he went about some of the things, but none was off-colour, nor could you say they were the product of a scheme."
Campbell was only partly right.
Pollock was always several rink lengths ahead of his peers in terms of making his team better ... always planning ... always scheming.
What made him so successful? Why was he so much smarter than any general manager of his or any other time? Somehow, he was always able to maintain his composure. He could be hurt, angered, disappointed and feel cheated, but in any struggle between these emotions and the need to win, he always put winning above everything else.
Pollock didn't allow his personal feelings to affect the way he handled his job. He was, for example, deeply disturbed when a number of his players defected to the World Hockey Association in 1972 and '73, among them Marc Tardif and Réjean Houle.
He was irate when Ken Dryden decided to retire only a few days before training camp opened in 1973. Dryden had wanted to renegotiate his contract and Pollock refused to consider the idea, but when the opportunity arose to get Dryden back the following season, Pollock didn't hesitate. It was the same with Houle.
"Exactly one minute ago," Pollock told me on the hone one day in 1976, "I signed Réjean Houle to a contract."
"You what? Is that the same guy that had you screaming when he jumped to the Quebec Nordiques? What made you change your mind?"
"He can help our team," Pollock said. "Is that a good enough reason?"
That's what made Pollock so good at what he did: he always seemed to have the right answers. He was a private person who made a career out of keeping things to himself. He did, however, have all the answers.
Even his opponents knew that.
In 1971, when the late Stafford Smythe, who owned the Toronto Maple Leafs in partnership with Harold Ballard, was facing a prison sentence on charges of defrauding Maple Leaf Gardens of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Smythe told me he'd have "a lot of time to think" behind bars.
"What's your point?" he was asked.
"When I come out, I'll have all the answers," Smythe said. "Pollock won't be able to put over a thing on me."
Pollock would surround himself with the best people, but he always had the last word. He was a warrior as well as a worrier. He took nothing for granted. In the moments before his Canadiens would be facing a team with 30 fewer points, Pollock would be found pacing back and forth nervously outside the Canadiens' dressing room. You'd never find him in the room, because that's where the coach and the players ruled. But, oh, how he worried!
What he didn't worry about was making hard decisions, such as the time he decided to hire Scotty Bowman as head coach - shortly after Al MacNeil, a midseason replacement for Claude Ruel, led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1970-71. MacNeil was assigned to coach the Canadiens' AHL affiliate - the Nova Scotia Voyageurs.
"How can you fire a coach who won the Stanley Cup?" I asked Pollock.
"I didn't fire him," he explained. "All I did was re-shuffle the cabinet."
Tomorrow: Best coach
- - -
Habs General Managers
Jack Laviolette and Joseph Cattarinich 1909-10
George Kennedy 1910-21
Leo Dandurand 1921-35
Ernest Savard 1935-36
Cecil Hart 1936-39
Jules Dugal 1939-40
Tommy Gorman 1940-46
Frank J. Selke 1946-64
Sam Pollock 1964-1978
Irving Grundman 1978-83
Serge Savard 1983-95
Serge Savard and
Réjean Houle 1995-96
Réjean Houle 1996-2000
Réjean Houle and
André Savard 2000-01
André Savard 2001-03
Bob Gainey 2003 to date
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette