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Bob Gainey received a hero's welcome yesterday as the Montreal Canadiens brought back a piece of their glorious past to be the architect of their future.

Gainey, a Canadiens winger for 16 National Hockey League seasons, a former Conn Smyth Trophy winner and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, signed a four-year contract as Montreal's new general manager and executive vice-president.

He takes over from André Savard, who, in a unique situation, becomes the assistant GM.

There had been speculation Gainey would end up with the Toronto Maple Leafs as either the GM or head coach. Club president Ken Dryden tried to hire Gainey as the GM on at least two occasions, according to Leafs insiders.

The Leafs' GM and head coach, Pat Quinn, is expected to be asked by the club's new ownership to relinquish one of his jobs. Dryden could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Although Gainey's playing days give him instant credibility in Montreal, it is what he has accomplished since hanging up his skates that makes him so valuable.

After beginning his coaching career in Europe, Gainey joined the old Minnesota North Stars as their head coach in 1990 and later added GM to his title when the team moved to Dallas. With Gainey as the general manager from 1996 to 2002, the Stars won five consecutive divisional titles, twice finished with the NHL's best record and captured the franchise's only Stanley Cup, in 1999.

Gainey had been working as a consultant to the Stars, who were approached by six or seven clubs this spring about his availability.

"I can't separate myself from my history," Gainey said, facing a news conference with well more than 100 members of local and national media. "I was with some great teams in Montreal during the 1970s and '80s.

"But I'd like to be firm that this is new. It was 13 or 14 years ago that I left Montreal. I feel like the city has changed, the team has changed and I have changed. And we're going to have to get to know each other again."

The hiring of Gainey brings an end to Montreal's recent string of filling key positions with inexperienced personnel. None of the Canadiens' four recent head coaches had NHL experience before being hired. Savard, like his predecessor, Réjean Houle, had no experience as an NHL general manager before taking over in November of 2000.

Initially, Montreal's gamble on Savard seemed to pay off when the Habs surprised the hockey world last season by ending up two victories short of the Eastern Conference final.

But this season, a subpar performance by 2002 Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore exposed many weaknesses. Several of Savard's moves came under fire, including signing defenceman Patrice Brisebois to a rich long-term contract and trading for underachieving winger Mariusz Cerkawski.

When the Canadiens failed to make the playoffs this season, Savard apparently suggested to club president Pierre Boivin and owner George Gillett that he might be willing to hand over the GM reins.

"It was certainly André who began our thought process," Boivin said. "That if someone of Bob's stature was available, then he would be prepared to step aside and continue his development under a mentor and continue to contribute in his real area of strength [scouting]

"But he was also ready to continue. This was not about finding a replacement."

Savard, who built a reputation as a super scout with the old Quebec Nordiques and Ottawa Senators before coming to Montreal, will assume scouting responsibilities with the Habs. He also received a new four-year contract.

"[Savard]s willingness to participate actively in bringing Bob on board showed that he placed the team's best interest above his own," Boivin said. "André's selflessness is remarkable, and it bears witness to his strong personal values."

Savard acknowledged yesterday that he felt immense pressure as the Canadiens' general manager and that patience was not easy to come by. While the pressure might have made him uncomfortable, it is exactly what attracted Gainey to the job.

"Montreal provides me with a great challenge and a much different environment than the one I've been in for the last 10 years," he said.

"It's going to be different, it's going to be exciting, it's going to be testy, it's going to be fun. This is one of the places that can provide that."

Gainey's appointment raises plenty of possibilities as to what other moves may follow, including the future of head coach Claude Julien, who was hired to replace Michel Therrien partway through last season.

There is already speculation that Gainey's former teammate Larry Robinson, now an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, could return to the Habs' fold. As well, recently fired Calgary GM Craig Button was Gainey's assistant in Dallas.

As for possible changes on the ice, Gainey put the emphasis on getting more out of the players currently on the Canadiens' roster.

"I see a large part of my job as helping people have good seasons," he said. "That's going to be an area of my job that I have to address. . . . We're going to make those players have good seasons, even if they don't like it.

"We're going to work with the players who are here. We're going to take our younger players, improve them and make them better. And we're going to push the players to do the things that need to be done to be a good team.

"It's about tomorrow. It's not about the 1970s, the 1980s or the 1950s."

Gainey in profile

Age: 49

Born: Dec. 13, 1953, Peterborough, Ont.

Playing career: 16 seasons, all with Montreal Canadiens, from 1973 to 1989.

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

Awards: Five Stanley Cup championships as player and one as general manager of Dallas Stars in 1999; Conn Smythe Trophy in 1979; and Frank Selke Trophy from 1978 to 1981.

Impact: Bruising left winger considered best defensive forward of his era.

Management career: Hired as coach of old Minnesota North Stars in 1990, later became coach and GM, dropped coaching responsibility in 1995, replaced with Doug Armstrong as GM in 2002 and became consultant for Dallas.

Quote: "Montreal is a great challenge and a much different environment than I got used to in the last 10 years."

Did you know? Gainey's son Steve plays for Utah Grizzlies of American Hockey League.

Canadian Press