By TIM WHARNSBY
From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
MONTREAL — The city of Montreal and its citizens have undergone many changes since Robert Michael Gainey retired as captain of the Montreal Canadiens 14 years ago.
If, however, the cerebral Canadiens general manager had to select one change that stands out from all the others, that’s easy.
“I have noticed that the emotions of the city are running somewhat smoother,” the Hockey Hall of Fame member said. “There is still a lot going on in the city. Life in Montreal, of course, still has its twists and turns. But politically, I believe, the city is on a smoother track. There seems to be much more harmony among the people.”
One area that hasn’t changed is the passion for the Canadiens. It still runs deep. As the club’s new GM, it’s up to Gainey to bring some harmony to the team’s faithful.
Even though he has made few personnel changes since being hired on June 2 and officially taking office on July 1, the native of Peterborough, Ont., has already made an impact.
The proof is in the National Hockey League standings and in the stands. The Habs are off to a 3-1 start for a share of top spot in the Eastern Conference. And at the home opener at the Bell Centre against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, fans stood and loudly cheered the longest serving member of the Canadiens: defenceman Patrice Brisebois.
Why was this special? Well, for more than a year, Brisebois had been booed by the Canadiens’ faithful. He was nicknamed Patrice Breeze-by.
The catcalls escalated last season when, out of the lineup because of injury, Brisebois decided to take a weekend trip to Paris without telling any member of the Habs’ organization. Brisebois was caught red-handed when he arrived back in the city.
The fans were merciless on his return.
Brisebois continued to be a target in the exhibition season, even though his play was sound. Enough was enough for Gainey. In a postgame rant to reporters on Sept. 27, he described the fans who booed the player as “gutless” and “yellow,” among other choice words.
Judging from the warm reception for Brisebois on Tuesday, the fans apparently heard the message loud and clear.
Gainey, however, isn’t convinced the Habs’ faithful will be won over this easy.
“Like any place where the team has performed sparingly over the past few seasons, the fans are waiting for signs as to whether they should endear or commit themselves emotionally,” Gainey said.
Before his arrival, the Habs were out of the playoffs for four of the past five seasons.
Gainey didn’t make any major moves or signings in the summer. He believed the team would improve through the talent on the roster and the young prospects in the system. The quick start has proved he was right.
But can Gainey propel the Canadiens back to the top, to a 24th Stanley Cup?
When he took over the Minnesota North Stars franchise — later the Dallas Stars — it took him seven seasons as general manager to win the Stanley Cup.
“My goals right now are not to start thinking about a championship, but for the team to improve,” he said. “I’d rather go along in steps, gain some levels before we start making predictions about championships.”
After last season, during which the Canadiens fired coach Michel Therrien and failed to improve under new bench boss Claude Julien, the team appeared a long way from developing into a contender. The Habs talked to Gainey in April, and six weeks later they had their man.
“I decided that this is what I do, so I better get back into it,” he said. “We both had some hurdles to overcome. I had to decide whether this was the right job for me to take. They had to wait for [previous GM] André Savard to decide whether he was going to step down.” Savard stayed on as the assistant GM.
The entire process was concluded before the Toronto Maple Leafs stripped coach Pat Quinn of his GM portfolio and started a search for a replacement. After two botched attempts at landing Gainey, would the Leafs try again?
“There was no Leafs job yet when I started talking to Montreal and other organizations,” Gainey said.
In 1998, Gainey strongly considered working for the Leafs and his former Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden, the Leafs’ president at the time. But when pushed to the brink, he decided to remain as the Dallas GM.
Fourteen months ago, Gainey was six months removed as the Stars’ GM and ready to take up Dryden on his offer. But the Leafs were on the verge of undergoing an ownership change, and those above Dryden were not willing to bring in a new GM at that time.
“Both times it wasn’t meant to be,” Gainey said. “In hindsight, the first time it was better for me to stay in Dallas. I had some unfinished business. The second instance, it wasn’t the right time for me to come because of the changes in ownership.”
So what about his infamous statement that he could never return to Montreal as coach or GM? The situation has obviously changed for Gainey, who will turn 50 on Dec. 13.
“What I meant when I said that was I didn’t think I could come back so soon after my playing career ended,” he said.
During that 16-year playing career, he was on five Stanley Cup teams and won the 1979 Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff most valuable player. He also was a four-time Selke Trophy winner as the league’s top defensive forward and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992. He was Montreal captain for the final eight seasons of his career. Only Jean Béliveau held the honour longer.
In the 14 years since his playing days ended, Gainey has experienced his share of ups and downs. He lost his wife, Cathy, to brain cancer and helped saved one of his four children from a drug problem as the result of Cathy’s death.
He went to France to be a player-coach with Epinal, a First Division club, and returned to coach the Minnesota North Stars. Later, he added the GM portfolio and then stripped himself of the coaching role. He finally won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999.
It was time for Gainey to return to Montreal, where the passion to win and succeed still runs deep.
“He’s a winner. He’s a leader,” Canadiens defenceman Sheldon Souray said.
“It’s not easy playing in Montreal. Bob knows that. He knows how to succeed here.”