Gainey recalls Mr. Pollock, who welcomed him to the NHL

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Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey’s NHL journey was put on the rails by the late Sam Pollock, who drafted him as the Habs’ first pick (No. 8 overall) in the 1973 amateur draft held in Montreal.

I spoke a half-hour with Gainey on Thursday afternoon about Pollock – always “Mr. Pollock” to Gainey – and his relationship with one of pro hockey’s greatest minds, a man he has followed into the Canadiens’ GM chair. What follows is that feature, which appears in Friday’s Gazette:

0-bob-1.jpgBob Gainey in his rookie photograph with the Canadiens in the fall of 1973. He’s holding a stick labelled for No. 14, Réjean Houle, who must have left it behind when he bolted the Canadiens for the World Hockey Association.
Courtesy Bob Gainey

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

As general manager of the Canadiens from 1964-78, the late Sam Pollock was known to have a superb poker face. This was a man who played his cards tight to his vest and wagered only after a study of the other players convinced him that the odds favoured his holding the winning hand.

Some would suggest those also are the qualities of current Canadiens GM Bob Gainey.

Just don’t ask Gainey to shuffle any similarities into a comparison.

“I wouldn’t try to make that bridge in any way,” he said yesterday, remembering the man who drafted him into the NHL 34 years ago. “Mr. Pollock was a shrewd and wise operator in his era, and he’s left a legacy that won’t be topped.”

Gainey’s career path was largely charted by a man he’d never met. Pollock used the Canadiens’ first-round choice in the 1973 amateur draft, No. 8 overall, to select a rugged 19-year-old winger from small-town Ontario.

Gainey believes it was the work of Canadiens scouts Ron Caron and Claude Ruel that caught Pollock’s eye. Yet there were no pre-draft talks between team and its future Hall of Fame forward.

The former Canadiens captain doesn’t even recall exactly how he learned that Pollock had called his name that May 15 at Montreal’s Mount Royal Hotel. He had been in town a week earlier to watch the Memorial Cup tournament, but players did not attend the NHL draft to tug on the jersey of their new NHL club, as is done today.

Maybe the news came by telephone, if not right away.

“I didn’t have my cell phone with me,” Gainey joked of a time when a cell was only something you studied in biology. “It’s all kind of fuzzy.”

But Gainey does recall a flurry of activity in the following couple of weeks, flying to Montreal to meet his new general manager, sign his first professional contract and be introduced to the media at a Windsor Hotel reception.

“For a 19-year-old from Peterborough, meeting Mr. Pollock in his Forum office was quite a leap,” he said.

Gainey went to the Forum with his Boston-based agent, Bob Woolf, and remembers sitting starry-eyed outside Pollock’s office, “probably wearing a tie somebody had tied for me,” his nerves not exactly soothed by the well-meaning banter of two team executives – 1950s star Floyd Curry and legendary former captain Jean Béliveau.

“They kept me occupied while Bob was in Mr. Pollock’s office,” Gainey said. “Finally I went in and met Mr. Pollock, and I think contracts probably were signed at that time. And that was it. Sometime later that day, I got myself back home to Peterborough and got on with the rest of the summer.

“I was at such a level of overall astonishment that all of this was going on, I don’t know if I absorbed my meeting with Mr. Pollock as much as I tried to survive it, and survive all the different things that were happening to me. I know I wasn’t the first greenhorn he’d had in his office.”

It was a good time to be a young player, the fledgling World Hockey Association courting many. Gainey was drafted by the WHA’s Minnesota Fighting Saints, but didn’t consider them, told by Woolf, “If you’re drafted by the (New York) Yankees or (Boston) Celtics or the Canadiens, you don’t even think about other things.”

Gainey vaguely remembers playing his first few NHL seasons for an annual salary between $25,000 and $40,000, “really quite good numbers. I’m pretty sure that, at 19, I was earning more playing hockey than my father was making.”

0-bob-2.jpgGainey is his 1974-75 Topps hockey card, on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There was no special talk with Pollock, just a message to all hopefuls on the eve of the 1973 training camp that here were the other players with whom they’d contest any roster spot available.

Gainey and Pollock would talk more in the five years they were GM and hardrock forward, especially when Gainey was the team’s players’ association representative.

“Mr. Pollock wasn’t a blanket on the team all the time, because Scotty (coach Bowman) had all of that well under control,” he said. “Sam’s job encompassed more than recruitment of players in the hockey department, which is most of my responsibility now. He also took care of ticket sales and the booking of the arena (now largely handled by president Pierre Boivin).”

While Gainey says he didn’t actively seek Pollock’s advice later in life, he did call upon him for counsel near the end of his playing days, a decade after Pollock’s 1978 departure from the Canadiens, “to use him as a resource to discuss where and how I might go next.”

That would be coaching in France, then coaching and managing in Minnesota and overseeing the North Stars’ move to Dallas.

Soon would come Dallas’ 1999 Stanley Cup championship and managerial responsibility with Olympic and World Cup teams, before Gainey arrived in Montreal as executive vice-president and GM in 2003, nine years after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Yesterday, in a release from the Canadiens, Gainey spoke of more than a dozen Pollock-era players who moved into NHL coaching or management.

“That has a lot to do with the model that we had to work with, Mr. Pollock the manager and Scotty Bowman the coach,” he said. “The opportunities rolled right into our cycle of life, when the NHL expanded again just as most of the the guys in my age group were ready to go into another career path.

“Over the years Mr. Pollock and I were on the same teams, the one-to-one time we spent was pretty minimal. But if you’re around anybody even for a short period of time, there are things you can learn. You find out why some things are done one way and not another, things that are filed into your bank of experience perhaps to be used again later.

“Mr. Pollock went through periods of enormous change,” Gainey said. “He started in the early 1960s when the NHL was very stable and things had been done a certain way for more than a decade.

“But not too long after, there was a period of another league forming (the WHA), the expansion of the NHL, a draft was implemented and international hockey was introduced in North America, with Soviets and other teams coming here and those players becoming available.

“Even through those huge transitions, Mr. Pollock was able to find a way to be the best at what he did.”

It is not lost on Gainey that, figuratively at least, he now occupies the desk of a front-office legend, and the man who more than three decades ago brought him into the NHL.

“If I happen to have picked up a couple of nuggets from Mr. Pollock along the way, lucky for me,” he said. “He was a very private person and, to a degree, I am. I’m just going about my responsibilities today with my own personality, trying to be successful for our organization and our fans.”

dstubbs@thegazette.canwest.com


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