Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Brain Drain

For Christmas I was given a copy of Jean Beliveau's memoirs. I have been reading the book and am only pages from finished now.

What strikes the reader of this book, other than the fact that Beliveau just seems like a genuinely down-to-earth, nice guy, is how the Habs have changed since he came and left the team. Beliveau speaks about it a bit, but is too generous to indict anyone too much.

The Canadiens, as we know from their record, dominated the NHL from the mid-50s to the 1980s. Their success is gauged by Stanley Cups and other trophies, but it was built with amazing strategy and foresight. While the slow down in Cups is an obvious red flag for this organization, it is perhaps the dissociation with the latter that is more significant.

The Canadiens of the 1930s by all accounts were a good team, but by the late part of the decade, it was clear they weren't the pace setters in the league. That honour, on examination, must by rights go to the Toronto Maple Leafs who had the championships and the strategic minds to go with. Someone at this critical juncture recognized enough was enough and plucked a towering hockey mind (Tommy Gorman) to steer the club. He in turn found his man in Dick Irvin and did what it took to secure his service. Then, when Gorman left and somewhere along the way, and I won't get into the intrigue, Conn Smythe and Frank Selke split company and Selke arrived in Montreal. Beliveau doesn't go into all that much about Selke himself, but there are a few interesting snippets that point to the kind of manager he was.

First and foremost, it seems that Selke was an excellent (if not infallible) evaluator of talent. But being sensible, he also knew not to rely completely on his eye, and he probably realized that his rivals were pretty good too. He knew quantity of talent would likely yield better quality and so he set out creating teams and leagues to feed the Canadiens. The 1950s Habs were a big product of the seeds he had sown in his earlier tenure with the Habs and by the time the Canadiens were ready to start winning Cups they had too much talent to be stopped.

We predictably focus on the on-ice talent, but I think Selke knew the importance of off-ice talent as well. The advisors he kept around him and the apprentices he developed were just as important as those players. When Dick Irvin left as coach, Selke (according to Beliveau) wanted to replace his friend with an old acquaintance from Toronto. But it's a testament to the man that he was obviously open to collaboration as Ken Reardon was able to convince him of the case for Toe Blake. Greatness was retained in the organization in that instance, because greatness was recognized.

While players would change and Cups would come and go, the commitment to quality people in the front office was clearly there long after Selke. On his retirement, his replacement was a well-groomed candidate from within the organization, Sam Pollock. Pollock was to take the team into a much less stable era (with expansion, a draft and a rival league) and duplicate, if even exceed what Selke had done.

Their legacy
The legacy of Irvin and Selke was passed to Blake and Pollock and Bowman. From there it was absorbed no doubt by some in the organization, both on (Lemaire, Robinson, Gainey, Dryden, Savard) and off the ice (Cliff Fletcher, Caron, etc.)

Following Pollock's decision to retire, he apparently struggled with the naming of a replacement. Though he clearly recognized in Scotty Bowman a unique talent, he also recognized a fiery temper that might befit a GM of a team with other egos.

Some point to the selection of Irving Grundman as the beginning of the end for the Canadiens dominance, and perhaps it was. But at this stage, the Habs still had a bevy of learned people in their employ who knew the ways of Selke and Pollock.

Perhaps it's not important where the chain was broken, only that we know it was. Somehow the team that provided the model for both management and coaching for many decades ended up with Rejean Houle guiding Mario Tremblay. Somewhere along the line the braintrust filtered down the drain.

How it happened is not something that can be treated in one blog post, but there's little question that it did. With the braintrust gone, so was the culture of patientce and the feeling that the management held the upper hand over the always braying Montreal media.

That was ages ago now.

The attempt to restore the line was made in 2003 when Bob Gainey was headhunted for a return. Gainey, a 1970s Canadien himself must have learned a thing or two from Pollock and from Selke.

Restoring the tradition

What is missed by people that believed Gainey was just another in the line of graduates from the Montreal school is critical review of what he actually did. A review suggests there was some conviction, but perhaps not enough patience, and certainly not enough examination of what can be done under the current regulations to push an advantage over opponents to the extremes that Selke and Pollock once did.

I write this piece in the shadow of the Mike Cammalleri trade, and so it may seem like a criticism. Perhaps it should be. But I could have written it without that particular trade.

Gauthier himself is clearly an intelligent man and a thinker who puts care into his work. Yet he's no Selke. This would perhaps not be so important were there no mirrors of the great GM ion the modern game, but that doesn't appear to be so. With the Red Wings topping the West for yet another season, their management team shines above all. But there are examples of much more clever manoeuvring than that accomplished by Gauthier (and indeed Gainey) in San Jose, Philadelphia, Boston and other places.

As a Habs fan, I have to ask why.

Why should an organization that learned time and time again the importance of quality running through every vein (on or off ice) be so content to fill its ranks so? Why should all the organizational currency in managers and coaches be allowed to filter out only to come back and haunt the team?

In its longest ever Cup drought, the Canadiens need a Tommy Gorman moment. An admission that better people exist somewhere and that finding them should become a priority. Because Gorman doesn't become Irvin to Selke to Blake to Pollock to Bowman without that moment of truth.

I wish this team of owners would stop hoping they'll luck into something and put some of the Markov profits into some serious recruiting efforts. And for me this doesn't mean Gauthier needs to go, just that he has to be surrounded and fed by the best budgets will allow. And that in moments of pause, assistant coaches, 16 months into their time with the organization won't have to be the lone available option.

M. Jean Beliveau is far too much of a gentleman to ever say it, but every line between the lines in his memoir spoke of quality. I can't see how he wouldn't be with us on this.

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