Sam Pollock, Canadiens’ brilliant former GM, dies at 81

Updated at 10:25 pm

sam2.jpgSam Pollock
Gazette file photo

Sam Pollock, the general manager whose Canadiens won nine Stanley Cups and eight regular-season championships during his 14 years at the helm of the club during the 1960s and ’70s, died today in Toronto. He was 81.

Gazette senior hockey writer Red Fisher’s tribute is here. Click here for Sam’s Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame profile, and here for an overview of his drafting history.

Sam was a member of the Order of Canada and Order of Quebec, as well as an honoured member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 1978, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder’s category.

Sam’s talents went beyond hockey; he served as chairman and chief executive officer of Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays from 1995-2000, and he was a tremendously influential businessman with, among others, Brookfield Properties, a commercial real-estate developer.

Here’s the background on what many believe is the NHL’s most brilliant trade, bringing future Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur to the Canadiens as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1971. From Sam’s Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame biography:

“Pollock wanted the first overall selection in the 1971 draft so he could take Guy Lafleur, so he made a deal with lowly California for that team’s first choice figuring the Seals would finish last and Montreal would get the first pick. During the 1970-71 season, though, Los Angeles was playing even more poorly than California, so Pollock traded the aging but still valuable Ralph Backstrom to the Kings for two insignificant players. Backstrom’s presence lifted the Kings out of last place, the Seals finished at the bottom, and the Habs drafted Lafleur. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Habs Inside/Out spoke with Canadiens great Yvan Cournoyer tonight, the Roadrunner having arrived on Canadiens ice the same year as Pollock landed in the GM’s chair, and leaving the same year that Pollock left the Habs to go into business.

Here’s that story:

Canadiens legend Cournoyer recalls Sammy Pollock, who signed him as an eager teenager

The Gazette

He built his hockey club shrewdly, with crafty selections, sleight of hand, a little smoke, a few mirrors. He could pull the wool over the eyes of a prospective customer like the best used-car salesman, throwing an extra body or draft pick into a deal like so many floor mats.

And he possessed an uncommonly keen eye, sitting patiently on raw talent he knew might still be a few years from blossoming into something truly great.

Today’s passing of former Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock rekindled memories of how he regularly pulled rabbits out of his hat at the draft or trading table, leading his franchise to nine Stanley Cups and eight NHL regular-season championships during his 14 years at Montreal’s helm.

Tonight, Hall of Fame captain Yvan Cournoyer remembered his own path through the Canadiens organization matching Pollock’s almost step for step.

“We arrived the same year (1964), and we finished the same year (1978),” said Cournoyer, who played 15 games in the 1978-79 season to earn his 10th Stanley Cup.

“Sam was his own man, with his own personality. He was a character. But he didn’t have to say anything. Just his look was enough.”

one_cournoyer01.jpgYvan Cournoyer, here as a Canadiens rookie, speaks of a mutual respect between Sam Pollock and his players.

Cournoyer was a teenager from Drummondville when he was called into Pollock’s Montreal Forum office to sign a standard player’s contract.

“A $1,500 bonus and $7,500 for the season,” he recalled, laughing. “You could make more in two or three weeks winning the Stanley Cup than in the entire season, can you believe it? But here I was, playing for my dream team and winning the Cup.

“Sam gave me a good five-year contract when expansion came (in 1967-68). He liked the guys who won for him. He respected his players, and we had great respect for him, too.”

As did other GMs around the league, grudging though it was.

Lou Nanne was boss of the Minnesota North Stars when Pollock left the Canadiens. In the 1981 book Lions In Winter by Chrys Goyens and Allen Turowetz, Nanne summed up the feelings of most everyone else in an NHL front office of the day.

“(Pollock) was so successful because he was just a few steps ahead of everyone else at all times,” he said.

A chapter in the book might be the definitive study of Pollock and his methods – of how he didn’t allow himself to get too close to players he might have to trade, of how he still suffered the hard emotions of a bad, if rare, stretch of games by his team.

“I once saw Sam on a TV show saying that running a hockey team was like running a chicken farm,” said Canadiens legend Dickie Moore. “He said it was all business, forget emotion. I just think that a lot of this was a front put on by a very astute man who saw the necessity of keeping his distance.”

Pollock’s players could read between the furrowed brows, of that there was no doubt.

“You always knew things were happening when Sam would get to nervously wringing his handkerchief in his hands,” said Guy Lafleur, the GM’s famous and most celebrated draft pick, No. 1 overall in 1971.

“The veterans who knew better would be checking his coat pockets to see if an airline ticket to someplace like Oakland was sticking out.”

That view was shared by future great Steve Shutt, Pollock’s No. 1 choice in 1972.

“Our joke was, ‘How do you spell relief?’ ” Shutt said. “ ’A-I-R C-A-N-A-D-A.’ Over and out. It wasn’t hard to stay motivated with Sam running the show, emotion or no emotion.”

It was Pollock’s thorough business skills, which would serve him well beyond his life in hockey, that put him head and shoulders above his so-called management peers, and the understanding that hockey was, above all, a business.

“When I started, front-office management might have been 50 per cent hockey acumen and 50 per cent business skills,” he said. “By the 1970s, it was 25 and 75 per cent. Now, I think it’s 15 per cent hockey sense and 85 per cent business skills.

“If you want to be successful in this business, you have to follow sound business principles. That means keep expenses low and profits high.”

(Pollock raised more than one eyebrow in 1971 when he signed the freshly drafted Lafleur to a two-year, $105,000 contract, the richest ever for a Canadiens rookie, one bolstered by a variety of bonuses.)

For all of his success, Pollock had his methods boiled down to a simple formula, one that didn’t do justice to the dynasty he built on his unique talent and special instincts.

“People have asked me many times how someone goes about building the kind of tradition the Canadiens have enjoyed for so long,” he said.

“It is really quite simple. You build a top-notch organization manned by the best people at all levels. You get each man doing his job on and off the ice and all of a sudden, you’re a winner.”

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