Would You Buy A Used Hockey Player From This Man?
Shrewd Sam Pollock trades today's surplus for tomorrow's stars, which is why Montreal should win another Stanley Cup
None of his NHL rivals would blame him—and most would be downright relieved—if Sam Pollock, the boss of the Montreal Canadiens, took life a little easier. It would be perfectly O.K. with them if Pollock, the Godfather of hockey, let a day pass without making the Atlanta Flames, say, or the Los Angeles Kings another of his too-good-to-refuse trade offers. And nobody would protest if, just once, Pollock went a whole weekend without combing the NHL bylaws for loopholes that might benefit the Canadiens. Go catch a trout, Sam. Play a round of golf. Enjoy yourself.
Alas, Sam Pollock is not cut that way. At 51, he remains what he has always been, a ham-fisted little man who simply cannot help brooding and fussing over his beloved hockey team. He finds no peace in the fact that Les Canadiens are a sports dynasty ranking right up there with the old New York Yankees and Boston Celtics. Or that the current team, which some people are calling the best in NHL history, opened its quarterfinal-round playoff series against St. Louis this week as a solid favorite to win a second straight Stanley Cup, and the eighth in Pollock's 13 years as general manager. Or that the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, Montreal's entry in the American Hockey League, are loaded with enough young talent to keep the parent club strong for years to come.
"You just can't relax," Pollock pleads, discounting these all-too-apparent riches. "You can't take anything for granted. People say we're the best, but the Stanley Cup is like a new season. In horse racing, 2-to-5 favorites don't always win, know what I mean?"
A gruff high school dropout who bears little resemblance to the sort of glad-handing boulevardier you might expect to be running the dashing Canadiens, Pollock is a paunchy 5'6½", with slitted eyes and a viselike mouth. Although he speaks French as well as English, he says so little for publication in either language that reporters invariably write about his mannerisms rather than his words. Thus it has been duly recorded that when he is not nervously pacing the floor, Pollock spends a lot of time clutching the bottom of one of his shoes, blowing his nose (he suffers from sinusitis) and mopping his monkish bald patch.
It is also well chronicled that Pollock seldom sets foot inside an airplane if he can possibly help it, journeying to such distant points as Minnesota and Chicago, and even Los Angeles, by chauffeur-driven limousine. He characteristically declines to say why—"It's nobody's damned business"—except to note that he can get a lot of paperwork done in the back seat of an automobile. So it was that Pollock set out the other day for a meeting of the NHL's Player-Owner Council in New York. As the driver wheeled Pollock's 1977 Lincoln Continental off on the start of the 750-mile round trip, the boss sat beneath a dim light, poring over the contents of the four briefcases that always accompany him. He arrived in New York at midnight and showed up at the meeting the next morning. The eight others in attendance flew in for the session, which was held, after all, at La Guardia Airport.
Despite his unorthodoxies, Pollock manages to stay a step ahead of everybody else. In New York he stayed in a $160-a-day suite at the Regency Hotel, where two jangling telephones kept him huffing and puffing. Boston's Harry Sinden would call on one phone, whereupon St. Louis' Emile Francis would ring on the other, and Pollock would no sooner hang up a receiver than somebody else would be on the line. During a lull, he slumped onto a couch, his ruddy features tightening into a faint smile. "Isn't this something?" he said, acting as though it were all out of the ordinary.
The fact is that Pollock built the present-day Canadiens with a succession of Byzantine deals (see box) that required phone calls—and plenty of them. But Pollock is unlike certain other wheeler-dealers you find in sports—George Allen, Jack Kent Cooke, F. Eugene Dixon Jr. and Mike Burke, to name a few. They traffic in big names and big bucks and expect quick results. Pollock prefers to build his juggernauts gradually. "There's a temptation in sports to try to buy instant success," he says. "You keep reading where teams make trades to help them this season. We hardly ever do that. We make deals that will help us three or four years from now."
Pollock concentrates on hoarding first-round draft choices, which have become his stock in trade. Drawing on Montreal's seemingly bottomless pool of talent, he deals surplus players, who are good enough to help most other teams, for first-round choices, the best of whom eventually become the Guy Lafleurs, Steve Shutts and Bob Gaineys that Montreal keeps turning up. Those who fall short of stardom become the surplus players he then trades, neatly enough, for more first-round choices. Pollock is so adroit at all this that he went into the NHL's amateur draft a few years back with five first-round picks, leaving the remaining 11 to be divvied up by the 15 other teams. In all, eight of the present Canadiens were first-round selections, with seven of the eight being claimed with other teams' picks. Nor is the end in sight; Pollock has options on at least four first-round picks in the next two years.
Simple though the procedure appears, it works only because Pollock is skilled at both judging and developing talent. For all his nervous mannerisms, he can be both patient and circumspect. An improbable organization man, he surrounds himself with sound hockey people like Coach Scotty Bowman and former Coach Claude Ruel, now the club's director of player development. It is a measure of Pollock's confidence in them—and, heaven knows, of his patience—that he does not listen to radio broadcasts of Montreal road games. Instead, he waits for Bowman or Ruel to telephone him with the results. "It's hard to follow something I can't see," he says. "When I get it from Scotty or Claude, then I know what's happened."
In an era of free agents, runaway salaries and general turmoil in sports, Pollock has been a bastion of common sense. "Sports is basically a business like any other," he preaches. "You've got to keep expenditures in line with revenues." When the rival WHA came along to bid up salaries, Pollock was flexible enough to increase his payroll and offer multi-year contracts. Unlike the wild-spending New York Rangers, however, he refused to go overboard, swallowing hard as Réjean Houle, J. C. Tremblay, Frank Mahovlich and Marc Tardif bolted to the WHA. Similarly, when Goaltender Ken Dryden asked to renegotiate his contract after leading the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1973, Pollock refused. Dryden sat out a year in protest, the Canadiens lost the Cup and Pollock wrung his hands even more than usual. But Dryden returned the next season (Houle is now back, too), and while the goaltender does not admit he was wrong, he will not say Pollock was in error, either.
"I'd probably have done just what Sam did if I'd been in his position," Dryden concedes. "If he'd renegotiated with me, it would have resulted in either an enormous number of other renegotiations or bad feelings." And Dryden's agent, Arthur Kaminsky, says, "Sam has vision. His salaries are fair and they bear a realistic relation to one another. He doesn't let one player throw it out of whack."
Pollock also waited out the two years—1974 and 1975—that the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup. Philadelphia-style intimidation became all the rage in the NHL during that period, and some Montreal sportswriters second-guessed Pollock for not following suit. Anguished by the Flyer success, Pollock nevertheless stuck to the Canadiens' traditional skating game, refusing to transform the Flying Frenchmen into the St. Catherine Street Bullies. "You've got to have a plan and stick to it," he says. "It's like building a house." Pollock was vindicated last year when Montreal skated to a 58-11-11 record, the best in NHL history, then won 12 of 13 playoff games, including a four-game sweep of Philadelphia in the finals. This year's team had an even better 60-8-12 record (only one of those defeats occurred at home), meaning that Montreal has now lost just 20 of its last 173 games. None of which comes close to satisfying Sam Pollock.
Pollock's rampant perfectionism extends to everything he does. "Sam is painstaking and thorough," says Bowman, a Pollock protégé who managed the St. Louis expansion franchise into the Stanley Cup finals three straight seasons and then, after a dispute with the St. Louis owners in 1971, returned to Montreal to coach his mentor's Canadiens. "When he gets into something, he finds out everything he can about the subject." This is true of the Jersey cattle Pollock owns, and of his fine collection of Canadian art, particularly works by the Group of Seven. This also goes for the precautions Pollock took when B'nai B'rith honored him last month (Pollock is a Presbyterian of Scotch-Irish extraction) as Montreal's Sportsman of the Year. The dinner was one of those $25-a-plate affairs, attended by more than 800 in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and for reasons best known to himself, Pollock insisted in advance on carefully going over the names of the 40-odd dignitaries at the head table.
Recognizing that Pollock's managerial gifts go beyond the business of hockey, brothers Peter and Edward Bronfman, chief owners of the Canadiens, recently elevated him to a directorship of Trizec Corp. Ltd., a large real estate firm they control. The Toronto Blue Jays obviously recognized the same qualities, for when they landed their American League franchise they sounded out Pollock about running the club. Baseball is another subject Pollock is up on, so much so that Wren Blair, the former Minnesota and Pittsburgh hockey executive, insists that at a sports banquet a decade or so ago Pollock easily beat the late Charlie Dressen, then manager of the Detroit Tigers, in a baseball trivia contest. Pollock turned down the Blue Jays, but allows that he might have welcomed such a challenge 10 years ago.
Pollock came by his interest in baseball early. Growing up in the English-speaking Montreal suburb of Snowden, he helped out in his father's men's shop and, as a teen-ager, was already enough of an operator to organize Canadien players of the era—it was the mid-'40s—into an off-season softball team. That brought him to the attention of the Montreal front office, and he soon had a job as a local scout. Still, he seldom missed a home game of the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Triple A farm club. (Curiously, he was a Dodger-hater, preferring the New York Giants.) And on Sundays Pollock often drove alone to Plattsburg, N.Y., 100 miles away, where his car radio could pick up broadcasts of major league games. "It didn't matter who was playing," he admits. "I was a real fan."
With the Canadiens, Pollock worked as a scout, a junior- and minor-league coach and, finally, as the fast-moving (by airplane in those days) director of the splendid farm system that General Manager Frank Selke Sr. had organized. Until, at age 37, he wed Mimi Kinsella in 1962 (they have three children: Mary, 13; Sam Jr., 10; and Rachel, 4), everybody went around saying, "Sam's married to hockey." It was, at times, a tempestuous union, which may have been why Pollock enjoyed the restful hours spent with baseball. Gilles Tremblay, a former Canadiens' star and now a club broadcaster (his playing career was shortened because of asthma), played for Coach Sam Pollock at Hull-Ottawa, where the Canadiens had a club in the old Eastern Professional League. Tremblay recalls the time Hull-Ottawa played an exhibition against the Canadiens, who were led by Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey and Jean Béliveau. Pollock drilled the minor-leaguers as though the exhibition were the Stanley Cup final, and fired-up Hull-Ottawa actually led 2-1 before collapsing in the third period to lose 5-2.
"Sam was furious with us," Tremblay recalls. "He kicked chairs around in the locker room and called a practice the next morning."
When the 71-year-old Selke stepped aside in 1964, Pollock was named to succeed him. He has not kicked a chair since—a fact that Montreal Star Sports Editor Red Fisher attributes largely to the rising cost of furniture. But it was the same old Pollock who for many years sat a few rows behind the Canadien bench, upbraiding players and referees in a screaming voice. "It was a mistake sitting down where the action was," he admits. "I got too excited." Pollock now watches games from a high, remote corner of the Forum, where he belabors Ruel, who sits next to him. "Look at that!" he rages at the slightest Canadien mistake. "I thought that was taken care of! Look at that!"
Although he is totally committed to the operation of the Canadiens, Pollock also has found time to acquire considerable clout in the councils of the NHL. He is the man hockey people come to when they want something important done, whether it be working out the formula for an expansion draft or running Team Canada (which he did, triumphantly, during last fall's Canada's Cup). In these dealings, Pollock can be both brilliant and brusque. "He doesn't suffer fools very well," says one NHL official. "The trouble is that he's so far ahead of most of the people he's dealing with." But Minnesota North Star General Manager Jack Gordon thinks that Pollock sometimes seems abrupt simply because he is so busy.
"Sam's always got a dozen meetings to go to," Gordon says. "One minute you can be sitting across from him, the next minute you look up and he's gone. He's not rude, just quick."
Pollock has few detractors. Some people, though, like to suggest that, well, after all, he inherited his Canadien powerhouse from Mr. Selke, didn't he? And there is no doubt that he has been helped by the team's glorious winning tradition. Yet the charge ignores the fact that as Selke's farm-system director. Pollock played a key role in building the well-oiled organization he later took over. It further ignores the fact that at the time he assumed command, the Canadiens had suffered through a four-year drought during which Chicago and Toronto were winning the Stanley Cup. At any rate, Atlanta General Manager Cliff Fletcher, a onetime Pollock protégé in the Montreal organization, notes, "Even if Sam has merely maintained a dynasty, that's probably harder to do than to build one."
Alongside the NHL's 12 newer (post-1967) teams, it is obvious that the six original clubs enjoyed certain advantages, an existing stockpile of players being the main one. Significantly, though, the only original club other than Montreal to avoid a spell of hard times has been Boston, which happened to have had Bobby Orr on ice most of the time. Detroit and the New York Rangers, for example, both failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs again this season.
In setting himself up as a kind of banker to newer teams, Pollock was doing what the other established clubs might have done, too. "There's nothing particularly shrewd about the concept of trading for future draft choices," says NHL President Clarence Campbell. "It's just that Sam has done it with consummate skill."
Examples of Pollock's craftiness abound. Want a promising young player? The Oakland Seals did in 1970 and Pollock dealt them Left Wing Ernie Hicke, a pretty good rookie. But wait. As part of the deal Pollock got Oakland's 1971 first-round choice, and when that turned out to be the first pick overall, he drafted Guy Lafleur, now the two-time NHL scoring leader and the game's best all-round player. Need a goalie? The newly launched Atlanta Flames did in 1972 and Pollock gave them the expendable Phil Myre. What Pollock got in return-sometimes a banker is content to preserve his assets-was Atlanta's promise to leave Montreal Defenseman Bob Murdoch alone in that year's expansion draft. Sly, too, was the way Pollock kept archrival Boston from drafting amateur Goalie John Davidson in 1973. Pollock owned the draft pick just ahead of the Bruins and he dealt it to less-menacing St. Louis, which grabbed Davidson.
Inevitably, the fast-stepping Pollock has left some grumblers in his wake. "Sam always gives you a rowboat for a battleship," complains Toronto Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard, who has been burned several times by the man from Montreal. Two years ago, in fact, Pollock shrewdly gave Ballard a rowboat for the rights to second-round draft choice Doug Jarvis, now the Canadiens' face-off and checking specialist. And General Manager Jack Gordon vows that his North Stars will think twice before peddling any more high draft choices to Pollock, as they did rather routinely when Wren Blair was their general manager. Like St. Louis and Los Angeles, other regular Pollock customers, the North Stars usually got value for their draft choices, capable players who helped bring the young clubs instant respectability. Over the long haul, though, only those expansion clubs that providently held on to their draft futures-Philadelphia, Buffalo, the New York Islanders-have enjoyed enduring success.
"What Pollock does defeats the entire purpose of the draft, namely to strengthen weaker teams," says Buffalo General Manager Punch Imlach, who has built the Sabres into a contender without benefit of a single deal with longtime rival Pollock. "He feeds on weaker teams desperate enough to mortgage their futures for immediate help. The way it stands, Pollock can carry this on forever. The Board of Governors should step in and stop this foolishness."
Indeed, there is sentiment around the NHL that Pollock's—and Montreal's—gaudy success is somehow bad for hockey. At a time when the NHL as a whole is awash in red ink, it is certainly incongruous that the turnstiles at the Montreal Forum keep clicking away and the TV revenues keep pouring in—with the result that the Canadiens will make something like $2 million this year. Though he broods about the future of hockey as he does about most other things, Pollock does not apologize for his good fortune. His features a mask of anxiety, he demands, "Is it a sin for the Cincinnati Reds to be on top, too? Is it a sin that in the business world some corporations do better than others?"
Faced with the NHL's inequities, some reformers would like to reinstate the league's internal draft—a Big Brother type of program by means of which the have-nots can pluck excess baggage from the haves. If not quite a Break-Up-the-Canadiens campaign, this would enable lesser teams to pick up morsels from the Montreal banquet without paying Pollock's usual stiff prices. Not surprisingly, Pollock advocates abolishing such a draft altogether. "It benefits everybody to see weak teams rebuild, but it shouldn't be done by force," he says. The solution to the NHL's lack of parity, he says, is to award extra amateur draft choices to struggling teams "so they can develop their own talent." Though that is a little like the fox recommending that the chicken coop be better stocked, it also happens to be the soundest approach.
Because he is so brusquely efficient, Pollock comes across at times as an impenetrable figure. Few hockey people have ever been inside his house, a comfortable stone dwelling protected by two large dogs ("They're also pets but....") and an alarm system. Pacing about his simply furnished Forum offices, he seems ill at ease. Shutt, who led the NHL this season with 60 goals, says, "You'll pass him in the hall and he'll say, 'Hi, Steve,' and just keep going. I think he's basically shy."
But it also happens that Pollock, so often aloof and abrupt, is one of sport's most benevolent operators. If Montreal eminences like Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard and John Ferguson all retired without the rancor that so often surrounds such star-spangled departures, it is partly because Pollock makes a practice of bestowing what amounts to retirement bonuses totaling, in some cases, an extra year's salary. Astonishingly, all three Montreal coaches who previously served under Pollock—Toe Blake, Ruel and Al MacNeil—are still with the club in some capacity. MacNeil, for instance, replaced Ruel during the 1970-71 season, coached the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup and then resigned—or was replaced—after some anti-MacNeil sniping initiated by Henri Richard. To reward MacNeil, Pollock promptly made him general manager-coach of the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, a job so cushy that MacNeil has since turned down coaching offers in both the NHL and WHA.
Pollock's only chronic morale problem—and given the Canadiens' depth, it is scarcely avoidable—is that some players feel they should be getting more ice time. Earlier this season a couple of top amateurs in British Columbia even announced that they did not want to be drafted by mighty Montreal, preferring to go with lesser teams where they might break into the lineup right away. Between phone calls at the Regency, Pollock reddened as he discussed this irksome matter. By damn, he said, the Montreal Canadiens would draft "the best available players" regardless of their personal preferences. But then his manner softened.
"Maybe they were trying to tell us they aren't good enough to play for us, know what I mean?" he said. Plainly, the British Columbia lads should have kept quiet. If they are good enough to play for the Canadiens, they would figure, in time, to win more Stanley Cups than they ever dreamed possible, then to settle into grand and comfortable retirement. If not? Well, Pollock would ship them pretty quickly to one of those lowlier teams they had in mind anyway. For a first-round draft choice, of course. They could almost count on it.
HOW MONTREAL'S DYNASTY WAS BUILT
Captain Yvan Cournoyer (who underwent back surgery recently and will not skate in Montreal's Cup chase), Center Jacques Lemaire, handyman Jim Roberts and Defense-men Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Pierre Bouchard all graduated to the Canadiens' roster through the NHL's old sponsorship program, whereby teams owned an amateur's professional rights almost from the time the player entered kindergarten. Here is how the wily Pollock filled out the Canadiens' present roster:
KEN DRYDEN, goaltender: After Boston drafted Dryden as a 16-year-old amateur in 1964. Pollock immediately traded draft choices Guy Allen and Paul Reid to the Bruins for the pro rights to Dryden and Alec Campbell. Only Dryden has played in the NHL.
MICHEL LAROCQUE, goaltender: In 1968 Pollock traded Bryan Watson to California for the Seals' No. 1 pick in the 1972 amateur draft, then used it to select Larocque as Montreal's second choice—and the sixth overall—in the draft.
LARRY ROBINSON, defenseman: Using Los Angeles' second-round pick, acquired in a 1970 trade that sent Dick Duff to the Kings, Pollock made Robinson his fourth choice—and 20th overall—in 1971.
RICK CHARTRAW, defenseman: Using "future draft considerations" acquired along with "a player to be named later" in a 1973 deal that sent Bob Murray, Chuck Arnason and the NHL rights to Dale Hoganson to Atlanta, Pollock made Chartraw his third pick—and 10th overall—in 1974.
BILL NYROP, defenseman: Using "future considerations" obtained hours earlier during a complicated series of pre-expansion deals with Atlanta, Pollock made Nyrop his seventh choice—and 66th overall—in 1972.
GUY LAFLEUR, right wing: In 1970 Pollock quietly traded Ernie Hicke and the Canadiens' No. 1 pick in that year's amateur draft to California in exchange for Francois Lacombe and the Seals' No. 1 choice in 1971. When California finished the 1970-71 season with the NHL's worst record, Pollock used its No. 1 pick to select Lafleur.
STEVE SHUTT, left wing: Using Los Angeles' first-round pick, acquired in a 1968 deal that sent Goaltender Gerry Desjardins to the Kings. Pollock made Shutt his first pick—and fourth overall—in the 1972 draft.
BOB GAINEY, left wing: In 1972 Pollock acquired Atlanta's No. 1 pick in 1973 as part of a "future considerations" transaction. Before the 1973 draft he traded Atlanta's No. 1 pick, and fifth overall, to St. Louis for the Blues' No. 1 choice in 1973, the eighth overall, and their No. 1 pick in 1974. In other words, for moving down three places in the draft, Pollock acquired an extra No. 1 pick for the Canadiens. Pollock then drafted Gainey with St. Louis' choice in 1973.
DOUG RISEBROUGH, center: In 1974 Pollock traded spare Center Dave Gardner to St. Louis for the Blues' No. 1 pick in that year's draft, then used it to make Risebrough Montreal's second choice—and the seventh overall.
MARIO TREMBLAY, right wing: In 1973 Pollock traded Defenseman Bob Murdoch and Forward Randy Rota to Los Angeles for a chunk of Jack Kent Cooke's money and the Kings' No. 1 pick in 1974. Pollock then used the Kings' draft to make Tremblay Montreal's fourth choice in the first round—and 12th overall.
MURRAY WILSON, left wing: No wheeling or dealing here. Pollock used Montreal's regular first-round draft choice—the Canadiens' third pick in the first round—to select Wilson 11th overall in 1971.
PETER MAHOVLICH, center: In 1969 Pollock obtained Mahovlich and Defenseman Bart Crashley in a straight player deal with Detroit, Garry Monahan and Doug Piper going to the Red Wings.
DOUG JARVIS, center: In 1975 Pollock traded minor-leaguer Greg Hubick to Toronto in exchange for the NHL rights to Jarvis, who had been the Maple Leafs' No. 2 pick that year.
YVON LAMBERT, left wing: In 1971 Pollock had his Montreal Voyageurs farm team pick Lambert from Detroit's Fort Worth affiliate in the "reverse" draft for minor-league clubs.
RÉJEAN HOULE, forward: In 1967 Pollock, at the behest of the Board of Governors, helped organize the plans for all the drafts as the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams. As part of the expansion agreement, Pollock also retained draft rights to the two best French-Canadian juniors for a period of three years. He used the so-called Pollock Amendment to draft Houle (and former Canadien Marc Tardif, now with Quebec in the WHA) from the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1969.