Eddy Palchak in his prime and upon retirement in 2000.
Longtime Canadiens trainer and jack of all trades Eddy Palchak, who tended to players’ needs during some of the club’s finest moments, passed away Wednesday night at 8:30 pm at the Montreal General Hospital. The Canadiens’ release of this morning:
Eddy pours a pail of pucks on Bell Centre ice on Dec. 4, 2009 before a legends skate prior to the Canadiens-Bruins centennial game:
I wrote a feature on Eddy in July 2000 as he took his retirement from the Canadiens. Here is that piece.
And at the bottom of it: a wonderful old postcard of Eddy, courtesy of Erle Schneidman at his Habs memorabilia website.
Published July 2, 2000
Wearing a Canadiens golf shirt and wristwatch, his heart as heavy as his massive Stanley Cup ring, Eddy Palchak walked into the Molson Centre garage on Friday afternoon, squeezed his body and a million memories into a 12-year-old Buick Riviera, and drove off into the new life he’s not terribly eager to begin.
Perhaps it’s like that when you’ve given 35 years to one employer; when the most famous and successful franchise in hockey is not merely your employer, but your family.
On Friday afternoon, Eddy Palchak – assistant trainer, trainer, equipment manager and, finally, supervisor of hockey purchasing – left the payroll of the Montreal Canadiens.
His retirement was not the thunderclap that rumbled over the city last Tuesday when Molson Inc. declared it was selling the Canadiens. But his quiet departure just three days later marked another era’s end, a fork in life’s road for a little fellow whose plentiful jowls and snowman’s physique are more familiar to longtime fans than many of the players who have passed through town during his stay.
Now, Friday noon, Palchak is sitting alone in the dressing room one last time, beneath the photographs of many of the Hall of Famers whose skates he sharpened and jerseys he washed, and his mood brightens when he says: “I went to the bank this morning, and the cheque, my last cheque, was there.”
It was the Canadiens’ suggestion, not Palchak’s, that he retire. The idea was broached a year ago, in fact, but the club agreed to his request that he stay until he turned 60, which he did in May. Recently, he was feted by his extended family, Canadiens and personal friends of then and now, and a few relatives compromising the truth over prime rib and ale at Magnan’s.
Three seasons ago, Palchak had stepped from behind the Montreal bench, where he’d worked for 30 years, to the Molson Centre’s executive offices on the seventh floor. A gimpy knee, poor mobility and the march of time decided the move, one he detested at first, but eventually grew to love.
The Canadiens put him in charge of purchasing, responsible for ordering anything required by his successor, equipment manager Pierre Gervais, and two assistants, Bobby Boulanger and Pierre Ouellette. Now, Gervais and Ouellette will make the orders.
It’s been 50 years since Eddy Palchak made himself at home in the Forum, befriended by a hot-dog vendor who frequented his father’s Ahuntsic restaurant. The vendor, Frank Nucci, would smuggle young Palchak into the Forum late on a Saturday afternoon – “not on a school night” – and let him hide among the weiners and buns, springing him 10 minutes before the doors opened so the eager boy could stake out a prime standing-room spot.
Palchak played good hockey as a youth, even winning local scoring titles in bantam and midget leagues, and at 19 he coached an Ahuntsic midget club to a Quebec championship.
But as he commuted by bus from home to Loyola College, he often found the pull of the Forum too powerful to resist.
“The No. 55 from Ahuntsic to Ste. Catherine and St. Lawrence,” he recalls, “then another bus to Atwater, and another to Loyola. But half the time, I’d miss that third bus and just cross the street – to the Forum.”
Palchak coached an N.D.G. junior B team in the arena, and in the mid-1960s, in Toronto to watch the Marlboros vs. the Junior Canadiens, he was pressed into emergency service as an assistant trainer. He joined the Baby Habs as trainer the next year, and in 1966-67 was called up to the NHL Canadiens, an assistant to Larry Aubut.
Montreal lost the Stanley Cup that final pre-expansion year to Toronto, then won it the following season, the first of 10 Cups Palchak has shared with the Canadiens. Only Henri Richard has more, with 11. Palchak is tied with two other brilliant captains, Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer.
Palchak wears his 1986 Stanley Cup ring, and has a fistful of others in safekeeping. Four of them have been gifts – to a childhood friend, a cousin, the cousin’s daughter, and a woman with whom he shared his life and downtown apartment for a few years.
The lost love, he recalls, was not nearly as precious as the second ring she stripped for parts.
“When we broke off, she had a jeweler pull all the diamonds out to make herself a ring,” he says. “One day she wanted to give me back the empty shell, but I was so mad I told her what she could do with it.”
Palchak doesn’t leave the same career he began 35 years ago. In his first season with the Canadiens, there were two or three equipment suppliers; now there might be a dozen. In the late 1960s, the team’s stick bill for a season was $30,000; in Palchak’s first year as purchaser, it was nearly $140,000.
A pair of skates, once $75, now cost the team $375. Palchak chuckles that, during 49 games with the Canadiens in 1983-84, Perry Turnbull went through 11 pairs, while Beliveau, one of the finest skaters ever, wouldn’t use more than two pairs per season – one at home, one on the road.
The Canadiens are notoriously generous when it comes to outfitting their players, from Palchak’s days under Sam Pollock, Scotty Bowman, Serge Savard and his most recent boss, general manager Rejean Houle.
“I’ve always been told: `If you need it, buy it,’ ” Palchak says. “To try to control costs, the coach would give the boys a list of rules at at the beginning of the season, and one of them was: `No equipment or sticks are to be given away without Eddy’s permission.’ Guy Lafleur was really bad, but you had to understand, he was Guy Lafleur.”
The Flower typically would use 24 dozen sticks a year. In his last full season with the Canadiens in 1983-84, he went through 65 dozen – 780 sticks – most of them souvenirs.
The equipment itself has revolutionized the game. Palchak remembers Cournoyer’s so-called shoulder pads: a pair of longjohns with felt sewn on the arms, a plastic cap fastened by Velcro on each shoulder. By contrast, today’s NHL player is a tank.
Equipment repairs are done the same day, if not by the manufacturer, then by a local shoemaker or in-house by Boulanger. In the early 1970s, Palchak recalls goalie Ray Martyniuk, a first-round draft choice who never played an NHL game, sitting at the Forum until 10 p.m., stitching his own gear with a needle and thread.
“But what’s changed most is the size and speed of the boys,” Palchak says. “Small guys used to be fast and the big guys were slow. Now, a 6-foot-4 guy skates like (5-foot-7) Cournoyer.”
Palchak has been preparing for his retirement the past year, scaling back to two- and three-day weeks as work would allow, and hopes to find something part-time to keep himself busy.
He admits to a fondness for gambling, once a partner with Savard and others in standardbred horses, and a regular at casinos.
“On the road, I’d often go to dinner with Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis, and they wouldn’t let me pay a dime for anything,” Palchak says. “So I’d take the meal money I’d saved, maybe $3,500 U.S., and drive to Atlantic City.”
The roulette wheel and blackjack table might or might not be in his plans now. But first he’ll be back in his office for a few days this week to settle a few accounts, at the request of Houle, and to pack up and leave for good. When the Canadiens reassemble for training camp in September, he’ll return only as a fan.
“I know I’m going to miss being involved in the game,” he says. “I’ll miss ordering two dozen sticks for this guy, skates for that guy.”
Then Eddy Palchak steals one last look at the legendary faces staring down in the Canadiens’ dressing room, his own home for as long as he can remember, pulls himself to his feet and says: “But mostly, I’ll miss the boys.”