THE CANADIAN PRESS
MONTREAL — Bob Gainey has resigned as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens after a tumultuous era at the helm of hockey’s most storied franchise, becoming the latest in a string of Habs GMs to leave without a championship.
Gainey becomes the third straight Habs general manager to leave the job without delivering a Stanley Cup — a once-unthinkable statistic for a team that was dominant for decades.
Gainey will remain employed with the Habs as a consultant to new GM and executive vice-president Pierre Gauthier, and he told a news conference Monday that he remains devoted the team.
He presided over an era where the Canadiens were competent during the regular season, poor in the playoffs, and flooded by fans’ nostalgic adulation as they celebrated their 100th birthday.
"I’ve done my best and it’s time for me to pass the torch. I’m leaving the team that I love in good hands," Gainey told reporters.
"The job of general manager required a vision and a long-term commitment and I didn’t want to commit myself now for four, five or six more years.
"If I had to choose between leaving a little earlier, or a little later, I’d prefer (to go) earlier."
The Gainey era ends with a record of 241-176-46-7 during the regular season, 11-22 in the post-season, and zero appearances beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The team is currently in sixth place in the East, with a record of 28-26-6 despite a crippling series of injuries to key players like Andrei Markov, Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn.
His successor, Gauthier, was general manager of the Ottawa Senators from 1995 to 1998 and of the Anaheim Ducks from 1998 to 2002, and has served the Canadiens in a variety of roles since 2006.
If Gauthier is preparing to make any drastic changes, he certainly wasn’t showing his cards Monday.
"It’s a great honour to become general manager of the Montreal Canadiens," Gauthier said. "I like our team. I like the organization. I’m very comfortable with Jacques Martin and our team of coaches."
Habs president Pierre Boivin announced the moves Monday. After delivering his statement, Boivin turned to face his departing GM and said: "I’m sure you would have preferred better results — but you can be proud of the organization and team you put in place."
Gainey, a Hall of Fame winger who was team captain from 1981 to 1989, is considered among the best defensive forwards in the history of the game who had even the Soviets marvelling over his combination of grace and power on skates.
As a hockey executive, he received an outpouring of sympathy after losing his wife to cancer and then his daughter in a boating accident.
He was given a prolonged, emotional ovation on the night two seasons ago that his No. 23 jersey was retired.
But the team has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs under his watch.
Gainey said after last season’s four-game playoff sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins that his job would be on the line if the team did not show improvements this year.
Despite the modest record, Habs fans can be frequently heard grumbling that the team’s fiscal hands will be tied for years by some of the big contracts Gainey took on — especially Scott Gomez’s US$51.5 million deal, which still has four years left.
Gainey has come in for heavy criticism for a number of other decisions that left fans perplexed.
Some of the most controversial moves revolved around promising young goalie Carey Price.
Gainey has staunchly defended Price since he used the team’s highest draft pick in a quarter-century — the No. 5 pick in 2005 — to select the British Columbia netminder.
At Price’s first NHL training camp, then-coach Guy Carbonneau said that unless the rookie netminder earned the No. 1 job in Montreal over incumbent Cristobal Huet, he should be sent to the minors.
But Gainey publicly disagreed with his coach, and ultimately Price made the team as a backup.
He then traded Huet later in the year, just as the Canadiens were atop the league standings and preparing for a playoff run. Price had a difficult playoff and the Canadiens were upset by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round.
Gainey then mockingly dismissed a question after last year’s playoffs about why the slumping Price — and not Jaroslav Halak — got to start every game in a four-game sweep by the Boston Bruins.
Price struggled throughout the series, while Halak got to play only one period and didn’t give up a goal. More recently, Gainey admitted to shopping Halak around the league this year.
This was before the backup netminder went on a tear; Halak now finds himself among the league leaders in save percentage while Price is increasingly riding the bench.
Both Price and Halak are restricted free agents at the end of this season and the city is divided by the debate over which goalie the team should keep.
Gainey’s replacement will have to decide whether or not to trade one or the other prior to the March 3 trade deadline.
Gainey made a number of moves early on in his tenure that quickly turned around a team that had missed the playoffs in four of the five years prior to his arrival.
The most stunning was the acquisition of Alex Kovalev from the New York Rangers for Jozef Balej just before the 2004 trade deadline in Gainey’s first season in Montreal.
After a slow start in the regular season, Kovalev caught fire in the playoffs and helped lead the eighth-seeded Canadiens to a first-round upset of the top-ranked Bruins.
Kovalev became an adored player in Montreal over the next four seasons, but Gainey chose to let him go as a free agent last summer despite a small fan rally outside the Bell Centre imploring Gainey to re-sign him.
Gainey also traded a struggling Jose Theodore and his rich contract to the Colorado Avalanche in 2006, freeing up money for the Canadiens to sign other players.
The Habs entered this season after receiving a drastic facelift, with Gainey obtaining Cammalleri, Gomez, Brian Gionta, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill, Travis Moen and Paul Mara in a flurry of summertime activity. Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins were among those who were shown the door.
– By Arpon Basu and Alexander Panetta in Montreal.
THE CANADIAN PRESS