“People have asked me many times how someone goes about building the kind of tradition the Canadiens have. 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 the ice and off the ice and all of a sudden, you’re a winner. Believe it or not, that’s the easy part. Where most sports organizations go wrong is in letting up once they have reached, or are near, the top of their sport. Once you’re a winner, you keep improving on perfection. You keep making trades and changes that will strengthen their team, even if they aren’t popular at the time. You go about your business. That is where we might have been different from other franchises. Once we started winning, we worked even harder to continue winning, too many organizations relax at this point.” – Sam Pollock
Sam Pollock never relaxed, never stopped working, and ultimately, never stopped winning. No other executive in hockey can match his nine Stanley Cup championships, during his fourteen years as the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.
And while Frank Selke Sr. is rightfully regarded as the architect of the Montreal Canadiens success, it was Sam Pollock who took the template set out by Selke and expanded and increased the greatness of the Canadiens, as he maneuvered the team through a series of changing circumstances that provided one constant, the Montreal Canadiens continued winning Stanley Cups.
No other executive can match the success Pollock enjoyed as the Canadiens general manager. He won Stanley Cups during the original six era. He won Stanley Cups during the expansion era. He won Stanley Cups during the NHL’s battle with the WHA. He built up the greatest network of amateur teams, he excelled in drafting young junior age players, and his trading abilities were without equal.
Sam Pollock was born on December 15th, 1925 in Montreal. His early life was characterized by a love of all sports, especially baseball. Early on Pollock realized that he had limited athletic skills so he turned his attention to the organization of sports teams and leagues in Montreal and greater area.
Pollock first came to the attention of the Canadiens at the early age of seventeen when he managed a successful softball team that counted as its players such Canadiens stars like Bill Durnan, Toe Blake, and Ken Reardon. He also ran a successful local midget hockey team that supplied many players to the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
After graduating high school, Pollock became a junior clerk for the railway. In 1946, at the age of 21, Pollock left the railway to work for the Canadiens. Pollock’s duties consisted of keeping track of the players in the Canadiens system, as well as ensuring that the Canadiens boundaries were respected by the other five NHL teams.
In 1947 Pollock took over as manager and head coach of the Montreal Junior Canadiens. Three years later Pollock, with star Dickie Moore, led the Junior Canadiens to the 1950 Memorial Cup. Pollock was rewarded by being named by Frank Selke as the Canadiens director of player personnel.
“Sam Pollock got the job because he worked the hardest and was very shrewd,” remembered Selke later. “Financially he was one of the smartest guys I ever knew. He asked for a chance to coach the Junior Canadiens and I let him. If anybody ever deserved it at that age, Pollock did. And we built up a pretty good organization and won the Memorial Cup, Allan Cup, and the Stanley Cup.”
By 1951 Selke, in his fifth year as Canadiens general manager, had completed phase one of his rebuilding project, resulting in a well stocked, well run farm system, with its wide network of amateur teams. After accomplishing this first goal Selke turned his focus to concentrate more on the Canadiens. The Canadiens farm system was divided in two with Pollock controlling the east and former Habs great Ken Reardon focusing on the west. The main goal of the system was to have the weakest franchises solidified by stocking them with young talent. This resulted in the Canadiens being aware of every top prospect playing in Canada.
Sam Pollock’s success in unearthing great young hockey players can be seen in some of the players he delivered to the Canadiens, Dickie Moore, Henri Richard, Claude Provost, and Phil Goyette all of who became key parts of the Canadiens dynasty of the 1950’s.
The late 1950’s represented the first golden period for the Montreal Canadiens. Not only did the Canadiens win an unprecedented five straight Stanley Cups, but their amateur teams continued to win at all levels. In 1958, Pollock managed the Ottawa-Hull Junior Canadiens to the Memorial Cup finals against the Regina Pats led by his western counterpart Ken Reardon. Leading the Junior Canadiens was head coach Scotty Bowman and future Habs stars J.C Tremblay, Gilles Tremblay, Ralph Backstrom, and Bobby Rousseau against a Pats team featuring future Canadiens Terry Harper, Dave Balon, Bill Hicke, and Red Berenson. The Junior Canadiens prevailed and Pollock had won his second Memorial Cup.
These players who played for Pollock became known as Sam’s boys and were to play a crucial part in the Canadiens future.
“When you were one of Sam’s gang, you were taught to do things the right way. We had to wear a hat at all times, and a shirt and a tie. First class, that’s how he trained us right from the start. If you forgot your hat when you got back to the bus, then you go home. He wouldn’t bring you to play the game. If guys were smart, they learned a lot about how to act and about discipline. It was very important to his system when you were a younger player. They watched how you reacted. Sam was very strict, but on the other side, he was very fair. He treated you pretty good and I learned a lot when I was still very young.” – Jacques Laperriere
In 1959 the Ottawa Hull Canadiens went on to play in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, a minor league formed and controlled by the NHL, unlike the American Hockey League. Many of the Habs stars of the 1960’s passed through this league on their way up to Montreal. Charlie Hodge, Jim Roberts, Jacques Laperriere, and Claude Larose were some of the more prominent players. In 1962 the Canadiens captured the league championship. Unfortunately, the league dissolved at the end of the 1963 season.
Pollock took most of these players and transferred them to the Omaha Knights of the Central Hockey league where they captured the league championship in 1964.
In his first seventeen years with the Canadiens Sam Pollock was able to produce a winning amateur system, that had provided players for the Canadiens that would go on to star for the team. In 1964 the Molson family, owners of the Canadiens decided that he was ready to take the next step up the corporate ladder.
Changes were afoot in the Canadiens offices that summer, not only had it been four years since the Canadiens won the cup, but the team’s architect Frank Selke Sr. was now seventy two years old. In reality the race to replace Selke was only a two horse race. Pollock was chosen by the Molson family over his western counterpart Ken Reardon. Much to Reardon’s credit he displayed no bitterness at being passed over.
“Sam Pollock is the most intelligent man I’ve ever met,” explained Reardon, “not just in hockey, but in life.”
Reardon chose to stay with the Canadiens as the team’s vice president and Toe Blake continued to be the teams head coach. “Toe Blake was probably the greatest motivator of talent I’ve ever seen,” explained Pollock.
But the team was in a period of transition. Only Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Claude Provost, and Jean-Guy Talbot remained from the team that had won five straight Stanley Cups in the late 1950’s. They were soon joined by Sam’s boys, players who had come up through the farm system and had been guided by Pollock.
In his first year at the helm Pollock made two trades that showed his ability to think both short term and long term. In December he traded for Dick Duff, a player who was to play a key role on four Canadiens cup winners, but it was a trade that received little notice at the time that may have been the most lopsided deal in NHL history.
In one of his first moves as Canadiens general manager Pollock traded Guy Allen and Paul Reid to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Alex Campbell and the rights to Ken Dryden. The Bruins were enthralled with Allen and knew that Dryden was going to college to pursue his education. Needless to say things things didn’t turn out well for the Bruins, neither Allen or Reid ever played a game in the NHL. Dryden, on the other hand, almost single-handedly stopped the Bruins potential dynasty run in 1971, as well as beating them in the finals in 1977 and 1978 and the semi finals in 1979.
“People build teams in certain ways. I’ve always traded for futures – not pasts.” – Sam Pollock
In his first two years at the helm Pollock’s Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but Pollock’s stewardship of the team extended beyond his office in the Montreal Forum. In the 1966 Stanley Cup finals the Canadiens found themselves down 2 games to none after losing the first two games of the series on Forum ice. Now heading to Detroit for game three, Pollock took his captain Jean Beliveau aside.
In his autobiography, Beliveau recalls that,
“When we arrived in Dearborn, Sam was in the mood for positive reinforcement. He handed me $500 dollars and said, “Jean, find a good restaurant and take the boys out tonight. If you need anymore, pay it and I’ll reimburse you.”
“Sam was very conscious of the fact that we needed to take some of the pressure off. And it worked. We won the next four consecutive games (and the Cup), three of them in Detroit.”
Unlike most of his contemporaries Pollock was never satisfied with the teams success. In 1966 the Canadiens, the defending Stanley Cup champions held a training camp that featured more than 110 players.
However, times were about to change in the NHL and it would be Sam Pollock, not only at the forefront of that change, but also as the person who learned the new rules of the game the quickest and went on to enjoy the most success.
Expansion was on the minds of NHL owners throughout the 1960’s. In charge of the expansion committee it was Pollock who successfully argued that the league should double in size to twelve teams. He felt that in order for the league to succeed in the United States, the league had to have teams in certain television friendly markets.
Expansion also meant the end of an era for the Canadiens. The Canadiens network of amateur teams and players would come to an end with the emergence of the NHL entry draft. As compensation, the league awarded the Canadiens the right to the select two french Canadian players in lieu of their two first round draft choices from 1964 to 1969. It is a testament to the genius of Sam Pollock that he was able to convince the other teams to go along with this arrangement, claiming that the Canadiens image as the Flying Frenchmen was important to the health of the league. Ironically, the Canadiens only took advantage of this option in 1969 when they chose Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif with the first two picks of the draft.
It was also Sam Pollock who drafted the rules of the 1967 expansion draft. Now with the benefit of hindsight this seems like a blatant conflict of interest, but it is interesting to look back and see the high regard that NHL President Clarence Campbell had for Pollock’s skills.
“What Sam always had going for him is that he knew what was needed to win,” said Campbell, “He was as shrewd as anyone in the judgment of players and I don’t know of anyone who was more knowledgeable as to the workings of the league’s by-laws.”
As drawn up by Pollock, the 1967 expansion draft consisted of twenty rounds. Each of the original six teams would be effectively giving up 20 players from their system to be spread out amongst the six newer teams in a draft style format. Each original six team was allowed to protect eleven skaters and one goaltender.
No team had more to lose than the Canadiens, not only did they have arguably the best NHL talent of any of the original six teams, but they clearly had the deepest farm system and the most coveted prospects. Using his power within the league, Pollock was able to add two provisions that helped him and the Canadiens make it through the draft with most of their talent intact.
The first rule added by Pollock was that any junior aged players signed the previous season could not be drafted by the expansion teams. The second rule stipulated any player who had just completed his first year professional “and fell outside the junior rule”, could not be drafted until after the tenth round of the proceedings.
This allowed Pollock and the Canadiens to protect Beliveau, Richard, Ferguson etc. on their original list, protect players like Jacques Lemaire whom they had signed the year before, as well as players like Rogie Vachon who had just completed his rookie season with the Canadiens.
Pollock’s plan worked to perfection. With the Canadiens having the most talent they lost the majority of their third and fourth line players (Larose, Roberts, Berenson, Balon etc..) as well as some of their goaltending backups (Charlie Hodge, Gary Bauman etc..) very early in the draft. By the time the tenth round had passed, players available such as Serge Savard and Rogie Vachon were not selected because the Canadiens had already lost the maximum of twenty players.
Incredibly, Pollock had managed to protect his best players and his best prospects. In many ways it was his greatest personal triumph and was the first step in maintaining the Canadiens preeminence atop the hockey world.
However, it would be wrong to think that Sam got everything pushed through the way that he envisioned it. During the laying out of the rules of expansion, Pollock suggested that a moratorium be placed for two to five years on the trading of draft picks. This way the expansion teams would find themselves with a solid nucleus of players down the road, and theoretically would be competitive with the original six teams quicker. The other teams turned down this suggestion from Pollock. It was a decision they would quickly come to regret.
Heading into the expansion period, Pollock held all the best cards. He presided over the most organized franchise with the richest talent base. The new teams, hoping to become competitive with the original six teams quicker, turned to Pollock for the players to fill out their roster. He gladly obliged, but they paid a terrible price; the draft picks they sent to the Canadiens.
“That’s where Sam Pollock did a great job for the Montreal organization,” remembers longtime NHL executive Cliff Fletcher. “He set it up to be successful for a decade more by cashing in fringe assets for futures. He was very adept at doing it and he did a great job for Montreal.”
With the Canadiens vaunted amateur system now a mere memory, Pollock was forced to find another main source for player talent. He found it in the first round picks of the new expansion teams. By trading away fringe players he was able to stockpile high end draft picks. From 1969 to 1974, the Canadiens had 17 first round draft picks and eight second round picks (in 1972 the Canadiens held four of the drafts first fourteen picks, in 1974 they held five of the first fifteen picks).
“Restocking the team was important to us and we quickly realized that the draft was going to be the major area of importance.” -Sam Pollock
In looking at what he gave up in trade and what he received later, it’s easy to see how Sam got the nickname “Trader Sam.”
-June 11th, 1968 trades Gerry Desjardins to Los Angeles for the Kings first round picks in 1969 and 1972. With the 1972 pick the Canadiens chose Steve Shutt.
-January 23rd, 1970 trades Dick Duff to Los Angeles for Dennis Hextall and the Kings second round pick in 1971. With that pick the Canadiens chose Larry Robinson.
-May 29th, 1973 trades Bob Murdoch and Randy Rota to Los Angeles for cash and the Kings first round pick in 1974. With that pick the Canadiens chose Mario Tremblay
-March 9th, 1974 trades Dave Gardner to St. Louis for the Blues first round pick in 1974. With that pick the Canadiens chose Doug Risebrough
The true genius of Sam Pollock can be found in his ability to adapt. No other general manager was able to find the keys to success as quickly, nor as effectively as he did. And while most of this can be traced to his fertile mind, it would be unwise to overlook the man’s Spartan work ethic.
“Sam had a tremendous asset that put him far ahead of his opposition. He was very, very dedicated and worked 18 to 20 hours a day while the other managers were working 8 to 10. He not only worked harder, he was smarter, and a guy who can put those two things together is going to be more successful.” – Red Storey
Expansion and the draft were not the only changes Pollock encountered as the sixties came to a close. His star players, Beliveau, Richard, Worsley etc. were all aging as he tried to seamlessly bring new players like Lemaire, Savard, and Vachon into the mix. Undoubtedly, the biggest departure during this time was the retirement of Toe Blake after winning the 1968 Stanley Cup. Replaced from within the Canadiens organization by Claude Ruel the team was able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in 1969 but trouble lurked on the horizon.
The 1969-70 season represented the low point of Pollock’s tenure with the Canadiens. For the first time under his watch the Canadiens missed the playoffs and for the first time their were doubts raised about the Canadiens future. Had the other teams caught up?
The seventies began under a cloud for the Canadiens, as the decade ended howecer, they would be celebrating six more Stanley Cups and there would be no doubt about the genius of Sam Pollock.
“That’s what made Pollock so good at what he did,” recalls Red Fisher. “He always seemed to have the right answers. He was a private person who made a career out of keeping things to himself. He did, however, have all the answers. Even his opponents knew that.”
For Pollock and the Canadiens, May 22nd, 1970 was the beginning of their dream season. On that date Sam Pollock consummated a trade that would position the Canadiens to dominate the decade, although at the time no one could have imagined it. In the deal the Canadiens sent Ernie Hicke and their first round pick in 1970 to the California Golden Seals, in exchange for Francois Lacombe, cash, and the Seals first round pick in 1971. One of Pollock’s greatest gifts was his ability to think ahead of the curve. With the Seals’ status as one of the league’s worst teams, Pollock gambled that the first round pick he received in return would be a high one, one that could him acquire the player he desperately wanted.
Pollock’s second move was to convince Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau to postpone his retirement and play another year for the club.
In his autobiography, Beliveau details their meeting.
“We’re in a transition period,” began Pollock. “Please play one more year. Don’t worry about the points; I’m not worried about them. I’ll feel more at ease if your in the room. It’s hard to go through a full season without a slump. We have a lot of youngsters, and I want you to make it easier for them.”
Beliveau decided to make the 1970-71 season his last. He went on to lead the team in scoring, with 76 points in 70 games.
“I had great admiration for general manager Sam Pollock”, says Beliveau, “perhaps the finest hockey man who ever existed (and I say that knowing that Frank Selke preceded him). I admired not only his superb hockey knowledge, but also his tremendous ability to shoulder a killing workload. He selected hockey players in his own image, those who could combine their talent with hard work. When people ask how the Canadiens could be so good over such a long period of time, two answers come immediately to mind: Frank Selke and Sam Pollock.”
Beliveau wasn’t the only Canadiens star pondering retirement. Claude Provost, Gump Worsley, John Ferguson, and Ralph Backstrom all left the team, and while Pollock was able to convince both Ferguson and Backstrom to return their was a definite felling of change in the air at the Montreal Forum as youngsters like Pete Mahovlich and Guy Lapointe began to assume prominent roles with the team.
The Canadiens were also no longer the class of the league. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1970 the Boston Bruins were proclaimed to be the league’s new “dynasty” team. In 1970-71 they ran roughshod over the NHL cruising to the regular season title while featuring a lineup that included that year’s top four point getters and seven of the top ten, an unprecedented feat. And while Montreal had the fourth best record in the league they weren’t expected to be much of a match for the big, bad Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
Looks can be deceiving though. During this season of Bruins dominance, Pollock had been putting the Canadiens puzzle back together. Claude Ruel resigned as coach, midway through the year and was replaced by his assistant Al MacNeil, another Pollock protégé. This seemed to stabilize a tense and divided locker room. But this decision paled in importance compared to the next three Pollock masterstrokes.
In his years as Canadiens general manager there was always one player that Pollock had admired from afar; Frank Mahovlich. Pollock had vowed that if he ever got the chance he would try and acquire the Big M for the Canadiens. When Mahovlich played for the Toronto Maple Leafs this was an impossibility. On March 31st, 1968 the Leafs traded Mahovlich to the Red Wings were he enjoyed success initially. By the spring of 1971 however, Mahovlich had fallen out of favour with Red Wings management, and Sam Pollock, true to his word, picked his spot on January 13th, 1971 acquiring Mahovlich from Detroit for Mickey Redmond, Bill Collins, and Guy Charron. Mahovlich paid immediate dividends scoring 41 points in the last 38 games of the season.
It was another trade on January 26th, 1971 that garnered less attention but played a big role in the Canadiens future. During the year a reluctant Ralph Backstrom had left and rejoined the Canadiens, all the while expressing his desire to play in a warmer climate. Pollock granted him his wish by dealing him to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin. But Pollock’s reasons for doing the deal were not entirely altruistic. Pollock had wished to strengthen the Kings’ roster in an effort to help them keep ahead of the Seals for last place in the west division. The Kings did improve after Backstrom’s arrival and the Seals finished last. Since the Canadiens owned that pick from the trade a year earlier, Montreal now possed the first overall pick of the entry draft.
Another little noticed move at the time was the late season call up of an unknown goaltender named Ken Dryden. In the six games he played near the end of the season Dryden had given up only nine goals and won all six games. Pollock and the Canadiens decided to play him against the mighty Bruins in the first round. Ironically, it was the Bruins who had traded Dryden to the Canadiens seven years before in one of Pollock’s first moves as Montreal’s general manager.
The decision to start Dryden proved to be one of the smartest moves the Canadiens ever made as they upset the heavily favoured Bruins behind his stellar goaltending. A second round victory against the North Stars put Montreal back in the Stanley Cup finals again, this time against the Chicago Black Hawks. After splitting the first four games the Canadiens lost the pivotal game five in Chicago.
During this game, head coach Al MacNeil benched Henri Richard. In a rage after the game Richard vented to the reporters that “MacNeil was the worst coach I have ever played for”, setting off a firestorm in Montreal. MacNeil coached game six with in Montreal with a police guard standing beside him as the Habs won to force a game seven in Chicago.
In the middle of this firestorm in stepped a cool and calm Sam Pollock who when asked to comment on the situation replied, “if I know Richard as well as I think I do I bet you he’ll score a big goal for us.” When it came to hockey Sam Pollock was rarely wrong, in this case though he was, Richard scored not one but two big goals for the Canadiens, the tying goal and the Stanley Cup winning goal in game seven. And it was two of Pollock’s earlier moves that paid off in spades as Ken Dryden edged out Frank Mahovlich for the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
To further add to their achievement the Canadiens went into that spring’s entry draft holding the first overall pick, thanks to their trade of over a year ago with the Seals. With that pick, Pollock selected the player he had long coveted, the best junior hockey player in Canada; Guy Lafleur.
During that weekend the Canadiens had also announced the retirement of the beloved Jean Beliveau, and the hiring of a new coach of the team; Scotty Bowman. After the debacle in the finals, Pollock wisely decided to move Al MacNeil into the coaching spot of Montreal’s top farm team, while putting his predecessor Claude Ruel in charge of amateur scouting for the Canadiens. This was vintage Pollock, working with people he knew and establishing a sense of continuity that permeated the organization.
Pollock had first met Scotty Bowman, when he was a 14 year old hockey player. Brought through the system by Pollock, he was forced to give up his playing career, and instead turned to scouting and coaching all under Sam’s watchful eye. He had recently led the expansion St. Louis Blues to three straight championship appearances. He would go to coach five more Cup winners for the Canadiens.
Pollock and the Canadiens had silenced the skeptics, after enduring questions about the end of their glory days, here they were just one year later, back on top of the hockey world and it was only the beginning.
With all of this success came increased attention, but for Pollock, a devoutly private man, this was for him a unnecessary part of his job. People wanted to know how he ticked, how come the Canadiens were so successful, what were the secrets of his success etc. Throughout his entire life Pollock shielded himself from this spotlight.
During his time as the Canadiens general manager he would watch the team play from Section 66 of the Montreal Forum, the highest part of the building. He also hated flying, and would take trains to the remote cities like Chicago and Detroit, and in later years would be chauffered to cities during playoff games, sitting in the back of the limo, propped up on pillows, with all of his files spread out before him.
“If I could accomplish the job, it wouldn’t really matter if I chose to stay in the background or spent a lot of time in front of the media, would it,” Pollock relected later. “All that would matter would be that someone was taking care of business and that we were winning.”
“Pollock was different,” says Red Fisher, “starting with the element of suspicion he carried with him. He never trusted anyone completely. That quality irritated a lot of people in his employ, but it and they served him well. He was in control, and one of the reasons was that he had to know about everything that was going on. Nobody ever really knew what Pollock was really thinking. Not completely at any rate. It was business, and Pollock’s business was nobody else’s business. His need to win was more important than anything else. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else was acceptable. Was Sam Pollock smarter than any of his peers? Probably. Did he work harder at his job? Definitely.”
There was no greater example of Sam Pollock’s single mindedness, his belief in himself and those who worked for him than on the day of the 1973 entry draft. Earlier that spring the Canadiens had won their sixth Stanley Cup under Pollock’s stewardship. Heading into that draft Montreal found itself in the possession of the draft’s second overall pick, thanks to a 1968 trade with the California Golden Seals.
Holding the first overall pick was the New York Islanders who were adamant about taking defenseman Denis Potvin with the first pick. Pollock also considered Potvin the best player in that year’s draft and tried desperately to acquire him from the Islanders. But by now teams were getting wiser to Pollock’s moves, due to his success and were hanging on to their picks. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to trade up, Pollock had decided to go with his second option.
Picking three spots at fifth overall sat the Atlanta Flames who were desperate to pick forward Tom Lysiak. Afraid that somebody else would pick Lysiak before they had the chance the Flames traded their fifth pick, their 1977 first round pick, and their 1978 first round pick to Montreal, for the drafts second pick, another 1973 first round pick, and a 1973 second round pick. Pollock was gambling that the player the Canadiens had desired would still be available with the fifth overall pick. Coincidentally, the 1977 first round pick would turn out to be Mark Napier.
Now sitting with the fifth overall pick, Pollock found the player he wanted still available when the St. Louis Blues came calling. The Blues were eager to select goaltender John Davidson and they were afraid that he wouldn’t fall to them with the eighth pick. Once again Pollock gambled, trading down in a swap of picks. And with the eighth pick of the draft Pollock selected the player he had wanted all along; Bob Gainey, a defensive forward from Peterborough.
The pick was greeted with shock and bewilderment by the Montreal press core and the fans who wondered aloud about drafting of “Bob who”.
“The Gainey draft developed out of a very large set of circumstances,” Pollock reflected later. “I always tended to look at the overall or big picture, such as how many players we had, and how many players we were going to have to protect in a given year. Very seldom was my philosophy to win a championship first, especially at the expense of developing a good team, because if you worried about winning championships in one particular year, you could make some very bad mistakes. So we got Gainey, a player who had the reputation of being a great defensive player and who had learned defense under the best; Roger Nielson in Peterborough.”
“There could only be one boss, one person in charge of where the team and the organization were going to go,” declared Pollock. “Responding to the media , or playing to the media, or listening to the fans is the quickest way to start losing. The fans are great, but the thing they respect most is a winner. Don’t get me wrong, we were very conscious of our fans. But we ran the team. The thing that the fans know the least is managing a sports franchise. They have their favourites and strong emotional attachments with them. A sports administrator who wants to be successful can never think that way.”
The biggest threat to Pollock and the Canadiens success in the early 1970’s came from outside the NHL as the WHA established itself as a league to rival the NHL. Pollock held firm during the early years of the WHA, as other teams began signing marginal players to guaranteed long term extravagant contracts. Pollock chose instead to let players such as J.C. Tremblay, Marc Tardif, and Rejean Houle sign with the rival league. In Pollock’s organization no one player was bigger than the team itself. Each player would have to earn his superstardom and be paid accordingly. For Pollock his top player was paid the most, his second best player was paid the most, etc..
“I felt that a player would have to prove his worth as an individual and team member before he could be considered a superstar,” explained Pollock. “Some were quite upset to hear my definition of a superstar. I felt that a superstar was a player who had produced well above average performances for a period of time. During the WHA years, I was trying to convince our players that their paydays would come if they produced for the best hockey team in the world.”
For Pollock and the Canadiens the solution to this problem was bilateral contracts that would give the player security as well as incentive. For example in 1975 Guy Lafleur signed a ten year contract with the Canadiens, that gave him raises that would pay him among the leagues best if he performed like it, with a renegotiation clause after the third and the sixth years that could be triggered by either party.
“I learned at this time that long term contracts were useless unless they had a reasonable form of renegotiation built in,” stressed Pollock. “You had to build in flexibility because you could predict that somewhere down the road, one side or the other was bound to be unhappy over something.”
In 1976 Pollock was asked to be the general manager of Team Canada in the inaugural Canada Cup. Putting together a team that featured 17 future Hall of Fame players, Pollock guided Canada to the championship.
The culmination of Pollock’s work came in the mid to late 1970’s when he presided over what many consider to be the greatest hockey team to ever play the game. In 1976 he won his seventh Stanley Cup as the Canadiens swept the two time defending champion Philadelphia Flyers in the finals.
The Canadiens repeated in 1976-77 and set single season records for wins, points, fewest losses, goal differential, and fewest home losses, many of which still stand. Nine members of that team were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Thirteen members of that team have gone on to be coaches or to serve in executive positions in the NHL. This was a special team, one the likes of which we are unlikely to ever see again. All of them, “Sam’s boys”.
In 1978 the Canadiens won their third straight Stanley Cup, his ninth in his fourteen years at the helm of the team. At the conclusion of the season, the teams owners, the Bronfman family decided to sell the team to the Molson family (whom they had originally purchased the team from in 1971). With his various business interests and his ties with the Bronfman’s, Sam Pollock stepped down as Canadiens general manager, having accomplished more than any other hockey executive. He was immediately elected into the builder’s category of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In 1979, the year after he left the Canadiens, the team went on to win its fourth consecutive Stanley Cup. And even though he wasn’t there that year, and his name is not on the Stanley Cup for that year, everybody knew that it was just another Stanley Cup for “Sam’s boys.”
Sam Pollock never looked back as he pursued various business interests and sat on many board of directors. He was named to the Order of Quebec and the Order of Canada. In the 1990’s he returned to his first love, baseball. He served on the Toronto Blue Jays board of directors and from 1995 to 2000 served as the chairman and the CEO of the team, and recently served as the vice chairman of the Jays care foundation.
“You can never set out to build tradition. You start out to build a winner. If you can perpetuate that winner, you might end up with tradition. But tradition is a by-product. It can only be measured after the fact. But the obvious fact, too, is that success breeds tradition. In the case of the Canadiens, the oldest team in professional hockey, they have been blessed through the years with one or two superstars; they’ve always had the Hall of Fame players. That and the fact that tradition will build up when you’re winning because when you are talking about a championship team, there is a lot more stability than you will have on a losing club. Winning clubs don’t change players, coaches or management as often as losing clubs. That’s where tradition is built up.” – Sam Pollock
On August 15th, 2007 Sam lost his long, private battle with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife, Mimi, children Mary, Sam, and Rachel, and seven grandchildren.