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Stu on Sports: Remembering a day Canadiens fans would like to forget

From left to right: new Canadiens GM Réjean Houle, new head coach Mario Tremblay, team president Ronald Corey and new assistant coach Yvan Cournoyer pose for photo during news conference at the Bell Centre on Oct. 21, 1995.
From left to right: new Canadiens GM Réjean Houle, new head coach Mario Tremblay, team president Ronald Corey and new assistant coach Yvan Cournoyer pose for photo during news conference at the Bell Centre on Oct. 21, 1995.

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of a day Canadiens fans would probably like to forget.

On Oct. 21, 1995 — four days after firing general manager Serge Savard and head coach Jacques Demers — Canadiens president Ronald Corey hired Réjean Houle and Mario Tremblay to take their spots after the team got off to an 0-5-0 start to the season. Corey also fired assistant GM André Boudrias and top scout Carol Vadnais, while hiring Yvan Cournoyer as an assistant coach .

Houle and Tremblay, who had no experience in either position, were both signed to three-year contracts.

“I have known both of these men from the moment they joined the Canadiens — Houle in 1969 and Tremblay five years later,” the late, great Red Fisher wrote in the next day’s Montreal Gazette. “I have known Cournoyer since 1963, and he was among the best of the great Canadiens stars who have pulled us out of our seats hundreds of times. All are good , decent men who have played with pain and stared down adversity, but this mountain they now approach is as difficult a climb as it gets.

“They are brave men who are dedicated to winning , because that is what they were taught by great coaches such as Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman,” Fisher added. “As players, they knew how to win , but this is a new team without a shred of experience in the jobs Mons. Corey delivered to them. There are so many things they don’t know and, sadly , learning how to win all over again at this level takes a lot of time. There are no quick fixes . The 20 Stanley Cup rings they share are lovely mementoes, but their glitter won’t win a period, much less a game.”

The Canadiens got off to an 0-4-0 start with Demers behind the bench and dropped to 0-5-0 with a 2-0 loss to the Islanders in New York on Oct. 20 with Jacques Laperrière filling in as interim head coach. The next night, the Canadiens won their first game with Tremblay behind the bench, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 at the Forum to start a six-game winning streak.

For those who know me, I do things my way, ” Corey said during a news conference a few hours before the game against the Leafs. ” Hockey has changed drastically since 1982, when I took over this job. In terms of the general manager’s job, I was looking for somebody with business experience (Houle has been public-relations director at Molson Brewery since 1986). I wanted somebody with a talent for leadership and communication.”

It was Houle’s decision to hire Tremblay after agreeing to take the GM’s job a few days earlier.

“He told me he had accepted the job of general manager with the Canadiens and I was happy for him,” Tremblay said at the time. “Then he told me he had a No. 1 choice in mind for the head-coaching job, and I was it. Anybody who knows me also knows that a dream of mine always has been to be a head coach in the NHL, and particularly with the Canadiens. Still, I didn’t jump at it. I wanted to talk with my family about it first.”

Tremblay told Houle he wanted to bring in Cournoyer as an assistant coach and got the OK. Cournoyer also had no experience as a coach.

The Canadiens ended up going 40-27-10 that season with Tremblay behind the bench before losing to the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, the Canadiens went 31-36-15 with Tremblay before losing to the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs.

An emotional Tremblay decided to resign as coach a few days later.

I sat at home with my wife and two daughters on Sunday (a 4-0 loss in New Jersey had eliminated his Canadiens in five games the night before) and I didn’t see any happiness in their faces, ” Tremblay said through quivering lips at a news conference. ” I told myself: ‘I have to do something to put a smile on their faces.'”

Tremblay had one year remaining on his contract, estimated to be worth US$300,000, and Houle decided to pay him in full.

“He deserves it — and more, ” Houle said at the time.

Alain Vigneault was hired to replace Tremblay before the start of the next season.

Houle would remain GM until Nov. 20, 2000, when he was fired by new president Pierre Boivin and replaced by André Savard with the Canadiens en route to missing the playoffs for the third straight season. The Canadiens also fired Vigneault on the same day, replacing him with Michel Therrien.

The Roy trade

Canadiens fans will mostly remember Houle and Tremblay for the Patrick Roy trade on Dec. 6, 1995, which came four days after Tremblay left the future Hall of Fame goalie in net for nine goals during an 11-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings at the Forum. It happened in Tremblay’s 19th game as head coach.

After finally being pulled, Roy told Corey — who was sitting in his normal spot in the first row behind the bench — that he had played his final game with the Canadiens, forcing Houle’s hand.

Houle ended up trading Roy to the Colorado Avalanche, along with captain Mike Keane, in exchange for goalie Jocelyn Thibault and forwards Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. Colorado would go on to win the Stanley Cup that season with Roy, who would win his second championship with the Avalanche in 2001, matching his total with the Canadiens from 1986 and 1993.

In his new book, Serge Savard: Forever Canadien, which came out in English on Wednesday, the former GM writes about how he was planning to trade Roy before getting fired.

“Roy is a magnificent goaltender,” Philippe Cantin writes in the book. “But beyond all the affection he has for him, Serge feels that for his own good and the good of the organization, the time has come to part ways.

“Number 33 is taking up a lot of space in the locker room, and he holds too much influence over Demers,” Cantin adds. “The trade Serge envisions with the Colorado Avalanche will strengthen the Canadiens — there is no doubt in his mind.”

Savard would have been dealing from a position of strength if he had stuck around as GM and decided to trade Roy. That wasn’t the case for Houle after the goalie’s blow-up with Tremblay forced his hand.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Panic move

Corey’s decision to fire Savard and Demers only four games into the season was a total panic move and there aren’t a lot of quality candidates available to replace a GM and head coach that early into any season.

The Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup two seasons earlier, but had missed the playoffs the next season with an 18-23-7 record during a season shortened to 48 games because of a lockout.

In his book, Savard notes he believed the Canadiens had a team that could win another Stanley Cup that season and he told Corey that before it started. Savard adds that a big reason for the 0-4-0 start was the fact several players caught the flu at the end of training camp and were in a weakened state, while Roy was also breaking in new goalie equipment and was still adapting to it.

“To (Savard’s) way of thinking, panicking after four regular-season games would be ridiculous,” Cantin writes. “His experience as a player and general manager has taught him an invaluable lesson: Winners always maintain hope. He can remember all sorts of unexpected and incredible comebacks.”

Those included being a player when Team Canada rallied to win the final three games against the Soviet Union to take the 1972 Summit Series, a catastrophic month of March in 1986 with a 4-9-1 record when he was GM of the Canadiens before they went on to win the Stanley Cup, and losing the first two games of a first-round playoff series against the Quebec Nordiques in 1993 before the Canadiens went on to win their second Cup with Savard as GM.

As Canadiens fans know all too well, they haven’t won another one since.

Demers was on thin ice

On Tuesday afternoon, Savard did a 40-minute interview with Mitch Melnick on TSN 690 Radio to promote his new book.

Melnick asked Savard about a meeting he had with Roy and Keane shortly before he was fired as GM. It was a meeting Demers wasn’t aware of at the time.

“I think I explained that in my book,” Savard said. “Those two guys came to see me and they say: ‘Well, Jacques lost the room.’ And you’re talking about your captain and Patrick Roy and those two were very, very great allies of Jacques. But, you know, in coaching that’s the way it is. You look at Pat Burns, he was great the first two years here. He was great the first two years in Toronto. He was great at the beginning in Boston. He was great at the beginning at New Jersey. The coaching is not like in Toe Blake’s time or Scotty Bowman that you’ll be the coach for 10, 15 years. After a couple of years the message doesn’t go through.

“That’s what happened to Jacques and before I was fired, I was going to replace Jacques,” Savard added. “Because you know, the core of my team came to me, they say he lost the room.”

Who would Savard have hired as the new coach?

“I don’t know,” he told Melnick. “It just happened so quickly. I didn’t have time to decide. I was not going to do that overnight, but I was going to check it out and see in the next few weeks if it really was the case.”

The Chelios trade

During his interview with Melnick, Savard also spoke about his decision to trade Chris Chelios to the Chicago Blackhawks on June 29, 1990, in exchange for Denis Savard. The Blackhawks also received a second-round pick at the 1991 NHL Draft ( Mike Pomichter ) in the deal.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Savard told Melnick. “There’s things that I would never do today that I did in the past. I traded Chelios when one of my doctors told me that Chelios won’t play more than one more year, he’s done with his knee. So I believe that was a terrible mistake.”

When asked by Melnick if he was forced to trade Chelios because of the team’s concerns about his off-ice activities, Savard said: “That’s not true. This is not true. Ron never told me what to do.”

Denis Savard would play three seasons with the Canadiens and was part of the 1993 Stanley Cup team, while Chelios would win two Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenceman during his nine seasons in Chicago to go along with the one he won with the Canadiens. Chelios ended up playing 26 seasons in the NHL, winning two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 and 2008 to go along with the one he won in 1986 with the Canadiens.

A good read

I received an advance copy of Savard’s book and it’s a really good read, packed with a ton of information and interesting stories in 479 pages that Canadiens fans will enjoy.

One of the parts I enjoyed most was learning about Savard’s childhood, growing up in Landrienne — located about 15 kilometres east of Amos — where his father ran a butter-making factory that burned to the ground when Serge was only 5, the youngest of Laurent and Marie-Bethe Savard’s four children.

Laurent would rebuild the family business and Serge grew up in a house where the “other Holy Trinity” was religion, politics and sports. The three photos that hung in the family living room were of Pope Pius XII, former Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis and Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard.

In the foreward to the book, Savard writes: “This book is my truth, with my successes and my mistakes, from my childhood up to the present.”

He adds: “Throughout the process that led to the publication of this biography, I have tried to remain faithful to my father’s advice, which was the best gift he ever gave me: ‘Be a good person.'”

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