The Professor passed away Tuesday and you can bet there were lots of smiles around the NHL at the thought of Ron Caron.
And not just because he picked the day of a game between his two most beloved teams, the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues, to take his leave.
You couldn’t help but smile at the former St. Louis Blues general manager even though seconds after he impressed you with his thoughtful, gentle nature it was just as likely you were convinced the man was possessed. No one could tear up a press box like Caron, who turned into a raging maniac as soon as the puck was dropped for a game featuring his Blues.
Everyone who’s been around the NHL for more than 15 years has a Ron Caron story. They called him The Professor for his hockey intellect and amazing knowledge of baseball, Caron’s second great passion, but it was his temper that forged his legend. And the distinctive sandpaper voice that broadcast his temper meant almost everyone did a Ron Caron impression.
No team set Caron off more than the Toronto Maple Leafs, who always seemed to finish near the bottom of the NHL standing and then knock off the favoured Blues in the playoffs during the late 1980s, Caron’s salad days as the Blues GM.
Caron loved to howl about the rough-housing of Leafs like Wendel Clark and John Kordic against his Blues, who were not quite as rambunctious but not exactly choir boys. Not with the likes of Basil McRae in the lineup.
One night at Maple Leaf Gardens, Caron could be heard shouting that Kordic or some other Leaf miscreant, “should be in jail.” During another contentious game, Bob Stellick, then the Leafs’ public-relations chief, asked Caron to tone it down after a chair was sent flying in the press box. Caron drew himself to his full 5-foot-7 or so and challenged Stellick to a fight.
However, underneath all that noise was a smart, resourceful hockey man. And Caron had to be nimble, given that he was hired by the legendary tightwad Harry Ornest just after he rescued the Blues from being moved to Saskatoon. At the time, Caron was still hurting from being fired as assistant GM by the Canadiens but he didn’t hesitate to take the job even though Ornest had a reputation as a difficult boss.
Here’s a look at Caron I wrote almost 22 years ago:
Team Caron built shows he's no buffoon
7 April 1990 The Globe and Mail
Of the many words used to describe Ron Caron, one serves better than the rest: mercurial.
The St. Louis Blues' general manager is famous across the National Hockey League for his lively temperament. As a game progresses, so do Caron's emotions. Soon, he is striding up and down the press box, railing against the injustices of the referee or the opposition in his gravelly voice.
Almost everyone has a Caron story, similar to one told by Joe Bowen, the Toronto Maple Leafs' broadcaster. On one occasion this season in St. Louis, Bowen was handling a radio broadcast by himself when he received an unexpected commentator.
Caron, who sits next to the visiting team's radio booth at the St. Louis Arena, was growing increasingly annoyed at the roughhouse tactics of the Leafs. The shouts built to a pitch, until Caron burst into Bowen's booth while he was on the air, screaming, “Take your (censored) team and go home!”
“You know, I always promise myself I won't do that stuff. But I never keep it,” said the 60-year-old Caron, who is a popular, engaging man despite his outbursts.
“I get very emotional as a game goes on. If I have to watch a game in public, like in the press box in Toronto, it's tough. I believe it has something to do with my strong, competitive soul.
“Talk to me after a game and I'm a rational soul.”
Caron's emotions have been in full evidence during the Norris Division semi-final between the Blues and the Leafs. During the first game, he complained loudly about the work of referee Dan Marouelli. He felt Marouelli missed several fouls, particularly by the Leafs' Wendel Clark.
A check by Clark on the Blues' Rich Sutter on what Caron thought should have been an icing call prompted him to complain to officiating supervisor Bryan Lewis. And to a number of reporters the next day.
Caron also says he'll push for a rule change this summer to eliminate body contact on icing calls.
Like many people who freely display their emotions, Caron has been labelled a buffoon. But as the Blues' recent success has revealed, this is a narrow judgement.
In building his current team, Caron made numerous trades, particularly with the Calgary Flames. When he shipped players like Joey Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Rick Wamsley and Rob Ramage to Calgary, Caron was accused of running a Flames' farm club and helping mould their Stanley Cup champion team.
A look at the Blues' roster now shows Caron to be an astute trader. Of the 24 players currently on the team's NHL roster, 16 were acquired through trades, two as free agents and only six through the NHL entry draft.
“You've got to believe in player movement if you don't like what you see,” Caron said.
It's an unorthodox way to build a team, although Caron had little choice when he was hired in the summer of 1983 by former owner Harry Ornest. The club had just been dumped by Ralston Purina Ltd., and the situation was so chaotic the Blues had not taken part in the 1983 entry draft.
During the three years Ornest owned the club, money was tight, until attendance improved, new ownership came along and Caron was able to start building with the draft.
When Caron came to the Blues, he was still demoralized by his firing by the Montreal Canadiens. He spent 26 years with the club, rising to assistant general manager before his firing. It is a day he still remembers: "I was let go the 13th of April, 1983," he said yesterday.
In the early days, Caron was not reluctant to trade his No. 1 draft picks, which goes against the current wisdom. “What's the use of looking to the future if you don't know you're going to survive?” he said.
In his first year, Caron traded his first pick to get Wamsley because he knew Mike Liut needed a solid backup goaltender. “And down the road I knew Liut would be moving because he was expensive.”
Caron's typical trade in those days was one quality player for two or three journeymen. “We went for quantity,” he said.
One such trade was sending Perry Turnbull to Montreal for Doug Wickenheiser, Greg Paslawski and Gilbert Delorme. Turnbull never lived up to his potential, while the three players Caron received provided years of service.
On the current team, recent trades have brought Sutter and defenceman Harold Snepsts from the Vancouver Canucks to provide valuable assistance in the playoffs.
And of course there are the two big trades that landed centre Adam Oates and right winger Brett Hull in the past two seasons. On the basis of those deals alone, Caron has gained much respect.
This season, the Blues spent a good part of February in first place in the Norris Division, before slipping to second with a 37-34-9 record.
Now there are even a few No. 1 draft picks on the team. Rookie-of-the- year candidate Rod Brind'Amour was the team's top pick in 1988.
“I did trade one No. 1 pick this year (to Vancouver in the Sutter and Snepsts trade),” Caron said. “But it was a pick I got from Montreal (he switched No. 1 picks for 1990 in a deal for defenceman Mike Lalor) so it won't be a good pick anyway.”
The ability to change with his circumstances has put Caron and the Blues on the edge of becoming one of the league's top five teams. What won't change is his nature.
“I'm intense, but I'm not tense,” he said. “You can't wind yourself too tightly. I let my emotions out.
“I'm not going to get ulcers. I'm going to give them.”