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Long-time Maple Leaf rival Bob Gainey: the complete package

Bob Gainey, who stepped down yesterday as the General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, has always been considered an outstanding hockey man—smart, thoughtful, determined.

All those attributes he had back when I first met him in 1976. That was not long after the Canada Cup, where he played a significant role with linemates—and Toronto Maple Leaf stalwarts—Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald in Canada winning the tournament. So solid a player was Gainey that he was referred to by one of the great ‘master’ Russian hockey coaches (the famous Tarasov, I think it was, or maybe Tikhonov) as the best all-around hockey player in the world.

He may well have been the most complete. He had come out of the Peterborough junior A club under Roger Neilson, and was drafted in the first round by the Canadiens—pro ready. He may have played a few games in 1973-’74 in the AHL, but he basically was a standout from ‘day one’ in Montreal. He was an extremely fast skater, with long strides. He hit hard, won battles in the corners and was rarely knocked off his feet. He seldom took penalties but was an outstanding penalty-killer himself. (He and another former “Pete”, Doug Jarvis, usually handled that job with the Habs in the mid-to-late ‘70s.)

He was not someone who scored as often as perhaps should have, given how often he created opportunities for himself with his speed and determination, but he was immensely valuable and the kind of player any team would want.

I liked Gainey as a player from the time I saw him play with the Petes in the early ‘70s. He was so tough—but clean. He played between the whistles and didn’t get involved in the stupid after-the-whistle stuff that made the Flyers the “Broad Street Bullies” in that same era. In fact, it was he and guys like Larry Robinson, (who hammered Gary Dornhoeffer of the Flyers with a check in the ’76 Cup finals, I think it was) that put an end to the Flyer myth of invincibility.

What was better than the Flyers’ brand of toughness, hard work and intimidation?

Montreal’s blend of real toughness along with speed, hard work—and talent.

Despite being on the “checking” line for coach Scotty Bowman, Gainey (who took the time to learn French over the years) was the guy who, as far as I’m concerned, became the straw that stirred the drink, despite being on a team of superstars like Dryden, Lafleur, Lemaire, Lapointe, Savard, Robinson, Shutt and others.

One day during the ’76-’77 season (the Habs were playing the Leafs at the Gardens that night) I went down to see if I could catch up with Gainey at the morning skate. I managed to speak with him as he was coming off the ice and asked if he would be willing to do an interview. He was amenable.

So, after his shower, we walked over and sat down in the Hot Stove Lounge, the restaurant and bar within the old Maple Leaf Gardens. With my little tape recorder we spoke for about half an hour as part of my interview for a future radio broadcast. We were both young guys, in our early 20’s but I was impressed by how mature he was. He answered questions slowly, thoughtfully. He was articulate and composed.

I walked away as impressed with Gainey on a personal level as I was with the way he played the game.

In the ensuing years, he would always respond to my requests for interviews, when I was working at radio stations in different parts of the country. He remained accessible, though I wasn’t a “big name” in the sports media world.

The last time I interviewed him was in the early ‘80s (I left the radio business shortly thereafter), a few years after the Habs had seen their run of four straight Stanley Cups come to an end. By then, the Canadiens were slipping a bit, not quite the power they had been.

I recall asking him the last time I spoke with him if the team still “hated to lose”, as I put it. (From the time I was a kid, I always thought that that was what drove the Habs—not just their pride and talent but their absolute hatred of losing.)

He replied, “Yes, we still hate to lose”. And it was clear from his tone and the way he spoke that he hated losing as much, or more, than ever.

The Canadiens won the Cup one more time in the ‘80s, Patrick Roy’s rookie season in 1986. Gainey was the captain of the team by then.

It was his 5th and last Stanley Cup in Montreal.

Of course, he won another championship as General Manager of the former Minnesota North Stars—in Dallas, in 1999. He came back to take on the same role with his old club, in Montreal. His number 23 was retired just over a year ago.

While he leaves his GM job in Montreal now with no championship, by all accounts he has remained true to himself through some difficult personal times in Montreal—a measured, thoughtful man.

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