Sam Pollock, the vice-president and general manager of the Montreal Canadiens when they won nine Stanley Cups in a period of 14 years during the 1960s and 1970s, died yesterday in Toronto. He was 81.
Though Pollock had a varied career in sports, he is best remembered for his expertise guiding the Habs through the final few years of the hockey's Original Six era and the league's rapid expansion of the 1970s without missing a beat.
In 1964, Pollock took over management of a team that had Toe Blake as its head coach and included such stars as Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard, Dick Duff and Jean Béliveau. Though the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup four times in Pollock's first five seasons, it was his genius restocking the Canadiens through the early years of the expansion era that became his most impressive feat.
When the NHL introduced an entry draft system during the 1970s, many assumed the Canadiens would stumble once they no longer had preferred position to select the best players from Quebec.
Instead, by recognizing the entry draft as the key to success in hockey's new era, Pollock found general managers from the six clubs that joined the NHL in the six-team expansion of 1967 willing to take aging but well-known players in exchange for their draft picks.
He then built the Canadiens into a powerhouse by drafting a succession of players who became legendary in Montreal. From 1971 to 1974, the Canadiens drafted Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Doug Risebrough and Mario Tremblay - six players who played on all four of their Stanley Cup winning teams in the late 1970s.
Pollock picked up the goaltender of those teams, Ken Dryden, for two prospects in a trade with the Boston Bruins.
"He always had the players ready and the coaching staff, too," said Réjean Houle, one of his former players, who went on to become general manager in the 1990s. "That way he helped us be a better team. I had a lot of respect for Mr. Pollock."
It was Pollock's securing of Lafleur that may best illustrate his shrewdness.
In May of 1970, he sent Ernie Hicke and a first-round choice to Oakland for the obscure François Lacombe and the Seals' first-rounder, all the while with his eye on the gifted Lafleur, who was then tearing up junior hockey with the Québec Remparts.
The following season, when it appeared that the Los Angeles Kings might finish last and claim the top pick, Pollock sent veteran Ralph Backstrom to the Kings to boost them ahead of Oakland and allow Montreal to claim Lafleur first overall in the 1971 draft.
Lafleur went on to become the best player of his era and his No. 10 is now retired by the Canadiens.
Pollock also lured Scotty Bowman to Montreal, convincing the former coach of the Montreal Jr. Canadiens to leave the fledgling St. Louis Blues, a team he had guided to three consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup final.
When the Bronfman family sold the team to Molson Breweries in 1978, Pollock turned down a job with the Bronfman-owned Montreal Expos and went to work full-time as vice-president of Carena Bancorp Holdings, part of the Bronfman financial empire.
Later moving to Toronto, he became chairman of Labatt, a director of the Toronto Blue Jays and in 1995 the club's chairman.
Though Pollock's sports career was spent mostly in hockey, he was a lover of baseball from his earliest days growing up in Montreal. So in some ways, his move to succeed Paul Beeston as the Blue Jays top executive in 1997 at age 73, a job he held for 17 months, was a return to his roots.
"I got into hockey through baseball," Pollock said at the time. "It was my favourite sport as a kid. In Montreal, I played both baseball and fastball. When I was in my teens, I was a reasonably decent player. I was 20 when I joined the Montreal Canadiens, but I never lost my love for baseball."
Pollock was born in Montreal on Christmas Day of 1925 and joined the Canadiens organization in 1947 after managing a softball team that had included many Canadiens players.
"We were always looking for the best players," Pollock said in 2003 of the team known as the Snowdon Stars. "Most of the hockey players were good athletes. When the hockey season finished, a lot of them were available."
While the Habs were racking up Stanley Cup victories during the 1950s, Pollock was behind the scenes serving as director of player personnel, scouting and overseeing the Canadiens junior and minor pro affiliates.
His success in the NHL earned him the honour of assembling Team Canada for the 1976 Canada Cup, a team many consider the most talented squad ever assembled.
He was a member of the Order of Canada and l'Ordre du Quebec. Pollock and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category in 1978.
Born Christmas Day, 1925
Years as Habs GM 14
Stanley Cups won as GM 9
Specialty Trading aging players to poor teams in exchange for draft choices. Players acquired by this method: Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Ken Dryden.
Some career highlights
Joined Canadiens organization in 1947.
Appointed director of player personnel in 1950.
Appointed general manager in 1964.
Recruited Scott Bowman as Canadiens' coach in 1971.
In charge of team that won inaugural Canada Cup in 1976.
Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.
President of the Toronto Blue Jays between 1995 and 2000.
Invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1985.
Quote "First of all, you have to have continuity if you are to have success. I think it gets the manager and the players to become more attached to each other."
Sources: Canadian Press, Hockey Hall of Fame.