MONTREAL — Erik Cole played 101 games in a Canadiens jersey, admittedly a drop in the 6,000-plus-game bucket of the franchise. But eight months after the veteran forward was traded to the Dallas Stars, he still holds dear the memory of having played for the Habs.
“It was a pleasure and certainly an honour to play for the Canadiens organization, and to play for (owner) Geoff Molson,” Cole said during the Stars’ 23 hours in Montreal, Dallas defeated 2-1 at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.
“Geoff’s such a great owner. He’s one of the owners I think players really respect and appreciate. Montreal is much like the situation in Dallas — ownership and management that is personable and around the team, encouraging you. That’s a great situation to be in as a player.”
Cole arrived in Montreal as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2011, agreeing to a four-year, $18-million contract. He touched down from Carolina, with whom he’d broken into the NHL as a 22-year-old in 2001.
The Hurricanes had been Cole’s home — and produced his 2006 Stanley Cup championship — for 494 of his 557 NHL games, the other 63 played in Edmonton following a July 1, 2008 trade.
He wound up back in Carolina in March 2009, traded there by the Oilers, and played another 139 games for the Hurricanes over two-plus seasons before being lured to the Canadiens as a UFA by then-GM Pierre Gauthier.
On a 2011-12 line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, Cole scored 35 goals — six better than his previous high — to lead the Habs in that category while equalling his career-high 61 points.
But good luck to those who wanted to discuss with him his strong season, Cole bitterly disappointed by the Canadiens’ failure to make the playoffs.
He returned to the gym within weeks, his body still beaten up from the season, and suffered a lower-body injury that took much of the lockout and well into the winter to heal.
It was at lockout’s end, as training camp began and he continued to rehab his injury, that Cole famously thought aloud:
Enjoying his young family and with the greedy bite escrow would take from salaries in the new CBA, he suggested, the idea of retirement following the season had crossed his mind, with two years then remaining on his contract.
Then last Feb. 26, 19 games into the abbreviated 48-game season, Cole was traded to Dallas for Michael Ryder, now gone to New Jersey, and the Stars’ third-round pick in June’s entry draft, which would be Connor Crisp.
With a crop of youngsters in the organization and a salary-cap pinch soon to be felt, something had to give.
And Cole was that something in new GM Marc Bergevin’s first significant trade, the veteran waiving his no-trade clause to let the deal go through.
Ryder fizzled and wasn’t offered a new contract here; the savings ultimately went to the two-year deal signed by Daniel Brière. Crisp, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound, 19-year-old prospect, is producing a point a game at centre with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
Some believe that Bergevin’s hand was forced by the broad-brush mention of retirement by Cole, then a frustrated, rehabbing player who was discovering the joys of quality time with his wife, Emily, and their young children, Bella and Landon.
But the native of Oswego, N.Y., who turns 35 next Tuesday, isn’t among them.
“I think it’s a possibility that it could have played a factor, but you can only speculate on stuff like that,” Cole said. “For me, Berg is a great guy and a great GM and I’ll take him at his word.
“Just how he was, the type of player and teammate he was throughout his career, I was seeing how that translated to his front-office position. Simply put, (a Habs concern about retirement talk) was not how it was worded to me, and I would assume Berg was being honest with me.”
No matter what truly precipitated the trade, Montreal was then and Dallas is now.
Cole returned north at season’s end for the finish of his children’s school year and to close up his home, the family moving to Texas in the summer.
“It’s a lot easier this year, not being there by myself, being settled. Having the sense of normalcy back has been good,” he said. “Having my family with me has had a huge impact for me.
“The whole situation with our front-office moves and the coaching changes is nothing that I’m unfamiliar with. That’s been good, too. It’s a good situation and it’s a really good time to be a part of this organization
“Just the way (GM) Jim Nill carries himself and the way he is around the guys — it’s good, he’s a real positive influence.
“And Lindy’s coaching reputation speaks for itself, all the successes he’s had over his career,” Cole added of new head coach Lindy Ruff, who arrived from the unemployment line via the Buffalo Sabres.
Settling his family hasn’t been without a few challenges, his son repeating third grade because of the differences between Quebec and Texas curricula.
“It was quite a big jump and we felt it would be better to hold Landon back than have him play catch-up,” Cole said. “But things are moving quickly. Hockey has started for him and my daughter has already been in one school production.”
He joked that Bella, a keen actress in her South Shore school here, already has her eyes on Broadway.
Cole hasn’t burned up the scoresheet this season, with a goal and four assists in 12 games. He’s been struggling with a nagging injury since the end of training camp, and how he’s dealt with it has impressed his coach.
If Cole was largely invisible Tuesday against the Canadiens, he had played his best game of the season the night before in Buffalo.
“I think Erik’s getting closer to his game,” Ruff said before Tuesday’s match. “He had a few issues earlier, injury-related, that he was trying to get taken care of, and he played through that situation.
“It was a little bit of a tough go for him and I have to give him credit for playing through that. But I thought (Monday) was by far his best game. He really skated well, like the old Erik Cole. He challenged wide and took pucks to the net.
“The speed in his game was real evident and if he brings that every night, he’s going to be a dominant player.”
Cole gratefully said Ruff was “right on with his assessment.
“It’s nice to hear that they recognize when you’re battling through some aches and pains. I thought I had a pretty good training camp. I was ready to go and just had some nagging stuff that lingered through one of our last preseason games.”
He spoke generally — saying it wasn’t his situation — of taking a shot off a foot, then having pucks magnetically attracted to the same foot over and over again.
“I was having a tough time, the usual at the start of the season. It’s always a little tougher adjusting the body to the grind of the season. Once you get in front of that, it’s much easier to just focus on playing the game and not worry about what hurts so much.”
The visit to Montreal by Dallas this week was so quick that Cole touched base first with his former teammates by text message a night before arrival, when the Stars were in Buffalo and the Canadiens were in New York.
“It’s tough under the circumstances with both of us on the road,” he said. “But I’m sure I’ll bump into them at the rink, or during warmups and after the game.”
Cole and the Stars were en route back to Dallas by midnight, this short-stay Canadien thinking warmly of his days in a Habs jersey.
“Had things ended differently in Montreal, had I been able to play out my contract, that would have been fine,” he said. “That was certainly my intent when I signed my contract.
“But unfortunately in this business, there are some things you can’t control or do much about. So you say thank you, and then you move on.”
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