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Gainey steps aside, with reputation slightly tarnished Add to ...

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

Bob Gainey has 33 days to get his act together.

The former general manager of the Montreal Canadiens said yesterday afternoon in Montreal that, after seven years of trying to bring Montreal - and Canada, for that matter - the first Stanley Cup since 1993, he is stepping aside and just might spend that spare time learning to "play the piano."

He could, theoretically, join tenor John McDermott and Prairie Oyster's Russell deCarle in Peterborough on March 14 for the third annual benefit concert on behalf of the Gainey Foundation - itself a critical factor in his decision to step down from hockey's most-examined job at the relatively young age of 56.

The song he might choose that night as musicians gather to honour the memory of Gainey's wife Cathy, who lost her battle to cancer in 1995, and their daughter Laura, who was lost at sea in 2006, is obvious: My Way. He said he was doing so "after a long and difficult period of reflection," but it did not exactly shock anyone, as such resignations so often do.

"I wasn't totally surprised," team president Pierre Boivin said.

Nor were members of his very tight and protective circle of friends. "We're happy because Bob's happy," one said. Family members also understood, having seen the effect a first grandchild, Jackson Robert, fast going on one, has had on Gainey's outlook on life.

"I want to capture a little more of my own time," he said. More time for his three surviving children and their partners; more time for the charitable foundation and its several projects; time, as well, for the Canadiens, as he agreed to stay on as special adviser to new general manager Pierre Gauthier, who was quickly brought into the organization by Gainey some 6½ years ago.

"In my heart I'll always be a Canadien," Gainey told a packed news conference. "I leave the team in good hands. I've done my best and now it's time for me to pass the torch."

It was an appropriate symbolism - connecting to the famous John McCrae line ("To you from failing hands ..." ) - that sits high in the Montreal dressing room. For it is here, more than anywhere, that Gainey's legacy as a manager will be measured.

His reputation as a player - five Stanley Cups, Hall of Fame, called "the world's best all-round player" by former Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov - is set in stone. His reputation as a manager comes with different weights.

When he arrived in 2003, his team seemed instantly to improve. The Habs became a playoff regular and, only two years ago, went 47-25-10 for 104 points and had the city salivating that, finally, the Cup might be coming home to what many Quebeckers consider the trophy's designated mantel.

But they could not get there. The closest Les Glorieux could get was the second round, where they lost twice.

He leaves with a 241-176-7-46 record under his watch, a very respectable percentage, but no playoff success to speak of.

Over the past year or so, the city that always seemed to worship its long-time captain and now general manager began to question its faith. The team's 100th-anniversary celebrations were somewhat fouled by a coach's firing and a number of embarrassing situations involving young players.

Last summer, having taken over the coaching duties himself, Gainey decided to undertake dismantling the team - one of the most extensive ever seen. He hired a new coach in Jacques Martin. (Martin, incidentally, had been Gauthier's inspired choice when Gauthier was GM of the struggling Senators). He let an astonishing 10 unsigned players go. And he traded and signed so many new players that this year's Habs looked as much like last year's as this year's Super Bowl halftime show sounded like the last one.

Some things worked, some didn't. He tried to get local favourite Vincent Lecavalier from the Tampa Bay Lightning, but failed.

Where some players shone - defenceman Josh Gorges, whom he traded for, and Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, both signed as free agents - others did not. He traded for Scott Gomez, an $8-million bust in New York and, for most of this season, a bust in Montreal. He signed enforcer Georges Laraque to a three-year $4.5-million deal and that experiment ended recently with Gainey telling Laraque just to go home and they'd buy him out come year end.

The greatest controversy involved goaltenders, with the media increasingly arguing in favour of Jaroslav Halak and Gainey stubbornly favouring his own draft pick, Carey Price, who mysteriously went from sensational to questionable in less than three seasons.

There were other deals to celebrate and deals to condemn - but that, of course, is the reality of being an NHL general manager.

There was also the reality of life and, aware that his own contract would be coming up soon for renewal, Gainey decided, given the new ownership of the Molson family, the new coach in Martin and so many new players, the time seemed ripe to step aside. He did it himself, thereby avoiding any possibility - real or imagined - that the organization would make such a decision for him.

He and Boivin chose now instead of June in order that Gauthier could make the required decisions leading up to the March 3 trading deadline.

"As soon as I leave this room today," Gauthier said, "I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get the job done." Bob Gainey, of course, had already left the room.

He had a life to get back to.

****

BOB GAINEY

AGE 56

BORN Dec. 13, 1953,

Peterborough, Ont.

PLAYING CAREER 16 seasons, all with Montreal, from 1973 to 1989.

STATS 1,160 games, 239 goals, 262 assists, 501 points, 585 penalty minutes.

AWARDS Five Stanley Cups as a player with Montreal, one as

general manager of Dallas in 1999, Conn Smythe Trophy in 1979, won Frank Selke Trophy 1978 to 1981.

IMPACT A bruising left winger who was considered the best defensive forward of his era.

MANAGEMENT CAREER

Appointed coach of the Minnesota North Stars in 1990, later became coach and GM. Dropped coaching responsibility in 1995. Was an assistant general manager for Team Canada's 1998 Olympic hockey team. Replaced by Doug Armstrong as Dallas's GM in 2002 and became a consultant. Joined Montreal as general manager in 2003, twice acted as interim coach. Now stays with Montreal as a consultant.

RECORD WITH MONTREAL

241-176-46-7 during the regular season, 11-22 in the post-season. Zero appearances beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

QUOTE "I leave the team in good hands. I've done my best and now it's time for me to pass the torch."

The Canadian Press

 

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