Assessing the Montreal Canadiens—the purportedly new, improved, rededicated Canadiens—is like assessing the proverbial glass of water. Is it half empty or half full? Is Bob Berry, who coaches the Canadiens or psychoanalyzes them or something, a genuine chain-smoking genius or merely a local boy making good, a guy who got lucky when he split last May from Dr. Jerry Buss and Buss's atrophying Los Angeles Kings? Is Montreal a true contender for the Stanley Cup or, once again, just another tomato can that will head straight for Palookaville once the playoffs begin?
On one hand, these Canadiens are essentially the same bunch that took an early postseason powder in both 1980 and '81. On the other hand, at the end of last week they had lost only once in their preceding 27 games, in the process running away from Buffalo and Boston in the Adams Division and overtaking Edmonton for the second-best record in the NHL, 42-12-17. Unlike the last couple of seasons, Montreal is clearly skating toward the playoffs with that old Esprit du Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
True, the Canadiens came on strong at the end of 1980-81 as well, going 18-4-7 in their final 29 regular-season games, only to perform so wretchedly in an opening-round sweep by Edmonton that at least one fan wearing one of those world-famous red Canadien sweaters sat in the Montreal Forum with a paper bag over his head. Ah, but wait till this season's playoffs. The 1981-82 Canadiens have some added ingredients, the most important of which are a hot rookie who may stop the club from playing musical goalies and a tough, innovative coach who's at least as good as he is lucky.
The Canadiens couldn't be happier about working for Berry. Under his predecessor, Claude Ruel, who was the coach from December 1980 through the end of last season, the Flying Frenchmen were more on the order of the Crying Frenchmen. They lamented mostly over Ruel's style of play—to check, to defend, to bore. "A skater like me needs the puck," said Guy Lafleur, the six-time all-star wing, last fall, "but Claude kept saying, 'Stick with your check! Get back!' I started hesitating. My game fell apart." By playoff time last year, the mood was grim. Says Goaltender Rick Wamsley, "You wouldn't crack a joke for fear they'd send you to Siberia." Worst of all were Ruel's practices. "It was the same routine every day," says another Canadien. "Always the same drills, and always Claude yelling, 'Lug the middle! Lug the sides!' Even today I have no idea what that's supposed to mean."
Berry, 38, brought his three-pack-a-day habit and a fresh outlook. He uses videotape to scout upcoming opponents and draws up a game plan for each one. He keeps copious stats, spots tendencies and lets the numbers determine which players will dress for games. In short, Berry is modern. Heck, even his practices are enjoyable. Sometimes he orders a scrimmage in which the lefthanded shooters shoot righthanded, righties left. Other days it might be his "Chinese fire drill"—a game of 10-on-10 with no checking, icing or whistles. Berry's silliest routine follows three-on-three mini-games: Each loser must roll over on his back and bark twice like a dog. "In an 80-game season, know what's a lot worse than silly?" says Berry. "Monotony."
A bona fide townie, Berry grew up on Mount Royal, starred at wing for Montreal's Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University and can't remember not knowing the way to the Forum. A few days before Irving Grundman, the Canadiens' managing director, offered him the job, Berry spoke with Montreal Gazette sports editor Red Fisher.
"What are they looking for up there?" Berry asked.
"A bastard," Fisher replied. "Do you qualify?"
He does. At Sir George, Berry sat at the knee of Coach Paul Arsenault, who once had his players do pushups on the Forum ice minutes before a championship game. At preseason camp Berry established his authority when he fined Lafleur, whose birthday happened to be that day, for missing an 8:30 a.m. practice. Unlike Ruel, Berry plays no favorites. Citing their lack of spark, in December he benched the team's top two plus-minus leaders, defensemen Brian Engblom and Rod Langway, for most of a game. He also sat down Steve Shutt for three games. Shutt, the NHL's single-season record holder for goals by a left wing (60), had never missed a game while healthy in his 10-year career. Of Berry, Wing Rejean Houle told Al Strachan of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, "When a guy tells you there are six players too many on a team and that you keep your job only if you keep earning it, you get serious fast." Shutt did. In his first 14 games after the benching, he scored nine goals and had six assists.
In the past the Canadiens invited their agents and friends into the locker room. Berry threw all the hangers-on out. He also sets curfews and checks beds. And whenever possible he insists on arriving at away games a day early to allow his players to spend more time together. Berry believes that a team must feel like a family. Who can argue? Montreal has by far the best record on the road in the league with 20 wins and eight ties in 36 games. "Discipline is just a fancy word for knowing your job and doing it," Berry has said. Yo, Red, he's qualified, isn't he?
Last season Berry's Kings had a club-record 43 victories. His departure from L.A. was unexpected and not at all amicable. In fact, when Montreal played in Los Angeles last Nov. 10, Berry told the local press, "Please don't make this into a battle of wits, me versus [King General Manager] George [Maguire]. He's obviously unarmed." A story: After the Kings lost 5-4 at Pittsburgh last season, Berry walked across the ice and smashed the clock controls. He was convinced the timekeeper had run off precious seconds while time was supposed to have been called. The NHL fined Berry $500, and he got a $2,100 bill from the Penguins for the damages. No problem. But it became one when Buss refused to reimburse Berry. "How can Buss pay players $3,500 apiece as a dumb goals-against bonus and take everybody to Hawaii and then not pay this bill?" Berry told Dink Carroll of Montreal's Gazette.
Another story: The Rangers eliminated the Kings in Round 1 of last year's playoffs. "I wanted to play whom I wanted to," says Berry. "Buss and Maguire told me not to dress a certain player. When you're told whom to play, then blamed when you lose...." Afterward, Buss offered Berry a one-year contract. That's about when Berry phoned Fisher.
"The bottom line is that Bob has tightened the reins here," says Larry Robinson, the Canadiens' perennial all-star defenseman. "All us players say we like to be treated like men, but deep down everybody wants a father, too." And Berry mothers as well as fathers his new team. Defenseman Robert Picard says Berry is quick to pat his charges on the back. In Quebec he took the whole team to dinner. In Denver he gave Wing Bob Gainey a $50 bill and told him to buy the club a drink. It isn't coincidental that at Sir George Berry majored in psychology. His methods work. "No one works harder than Berry, and he always has the right statistics," Wing Charlie Simmer of the Kings once said. "He's the Earl Weaver of hockey."
Before the season began, Berry decided that Montreal's biggest problem was a lopsided attack. For example, in 1979-80 the Canadiens got 147 goals from the line of Lafleur, Pierre Larouche and Shutt. The other 10 forwards combined for 137. So after studying films of the past few seasons, Berry took a deep breath and realigned his lines. He matched Mark Napier, a proved sniper, with Gainey and Doug Jarvis, his two best checkers. The result: At week's end Napier had equaled his NHL-high for goals with 35 in leading Montreal's checking line to a total of 74.
Berry's other major move was to place Keith Acton, a superpest who's even more of an agitator than Philadelphia's Ken (Rat) Linseman, between Lafleur and Shutt on the No. 1 line. Since Jacques Lamaire's retirement following the 1978-79 season, the Canadiens had been looking in vain for someone to center that line. The search is over. Through Sunday Acton had more than twice as many points (33 goals, 46 assists) as he had last year and was Montreal's top scorer. Now in his 11th season, Lafleur, 30, may have lost a bit of his dazzle, but he was the No. 2 scorer, with 26 goals and 56 assists.
"In L.A. I had the greatest line in the history of hockey," says Berry, referring to the Simmer-Marcel Dionne-Dave Taylor unit that was one, two, three in NHL individual goal-scoring most of the 1980-81 season. "But when they didn't score, we didn't win." He has no such problem at Montreal. When everyone is healthy and the lines intact, the Canadiens have the best scoring balance in the league. From Jan. 19 to Feb. 23, a stretch of 16 games, the Canadiens were undefeated, with 13 wins and three ties. During the streak the Lafleur-Shutt-Acton line had 19 goals. The No. 2 line—Pierre Mondou, Mario Tremblay and Houle—had 21. The No. 3 line of Gainey, Jarvis and Napier had 20. And the fourth line, which usually has Doug Risebrough centering Chris Nilan and Mark Hunter or Craig Laughlin and Doug Wickenheiser, had 12 goals.
If the team goes belly up again early in the playoffs, the cause may well be the same as last year's: unsettled—which is not to say bad—goaltending. Richard Sevigny began last fall as the incumbent goalie, but in exhibitions he gave up nearly six goals a game. So, when the season started, Wamsley and Denis Herron shared the No. 1 spot. In his first five starts Wamsley looked sharp, winning three and tying two. But on Nov. 11, in a 4-3 victory over St. Louis, Wamsley allowed three soft goals. The next game Berry dressed Herron and Sevigny, and Wamsley watched from the stands—and kept watching. Then, on Dec. 29, Herron suffered a concussion when Anders Kallur of the Islanders banged into him. Sevigny started the next game, a 6-3 win over Chicago, but two nights after that he collided with the Rangers' Ron Duguay and badly bruised his thigh. He was replaced by Wamsley, who was making his first appearance in 59 days. Two days later, Sevigny broke his left hand in practice. Now Berry had Sevigny and Herron on the sidelines and, in Wamsley, a goalkeeper in whom he wasn't terribly confident. So he called up Mark Holden from Nova Scotia.
Wamsley played well the next six games, giving up just 15 goals. But on the morning of Jan. 20, he was stopped at a red light in his Chevy Celebrity when a truck plowed into him. After the accident he could barely move his neck. Now Berry had three ailing goalies and a fourth with not a minute of NHL experience. Wamsley missed two games, both of which Montreal won. He has been the No. 1 goaltender, or shared the starting role with Herron, ever since. Meanwhile, Sevigny hasn't dressed since his collision with Duguay. Three weeks ago Sevigny walked into Grundman's office and asked to be traded. "It's nobody's fault," he says. "But we've got three goalies and two nets. I'm 25 and I want out."
Herron is 4-0-1 since returning to action on Feb. 18. He, too, has asked Grundman to trade him. On March 9, NHL trading deadline day, Grundman shipped Defenseman Guy LaPointe off to St. Louis. He made no deals for Sevigny or Herron.
As bizarre as the goaltending situation has been, it hasn't had a deleterious effect on Montreal's defensive performance. With a goals-against average of 2.75, the Canadiens are the only club in the league allowing fewer than three a game. Berry refuses to say so, but he seems to have settled on Wamsley as his No. 1 man. At week's end Wamsley had played in 19 of Montreal's last 24 games and his 2.63 goals-against average was second best in the NHL among goalies with 20 games or more. First in the league, with a 2.57 average, was Herron.
Wamsley had lost only one of his last 19 starts and had yielded no more than three goals in 17 of them. That's some accomplishment for a man who three years ago wasn't drafted until, as he says, "they were about to shut out the lights. My theory is when your chance comes, you take advantage of it. That's how I've always survived."
Wamsley backed up Sevigny at Nova Scotia in 1979-80. Last season he was the No. 1 goalie there and let in only eight goals in five games with the Canadiens. Asked about Ken Dryden, the former Montreal all-star goalie who reportedly gave the front office rave reviews of Wamsley after having coached the goalies in preseason camp, Wamsley says, "I listened to Kenny, but he uses incredible words, and whenever I'd ask him a question, he'd start explaining and 10 minutes later I'd forgotten what I asked."
Wamsley is 5'11", 185 pounds, and his style is to stand up, play the angles and, he says, "let a lot of pucks hit me." That's when he knows he's playing well. "If I stretch to make a save," he says, "I'm probably not playing right." If things go bad he might pull out his copy of Goaltending by Jacques Plante and skim a chapter or two. He's almost apologetic about the normalcy of the way he prepares for games. "I don't stare at pucks or throw up," he says.
In September of 1980 Wamsley was invited to play in a between-periods exhibition in London, Ontario during a junior game between Brantford and the home team. Wamsley, a former standout for London, faced five penalty shots off the stick of an erstwhile Brantford wing named Wayne Gretzky. Wamsley made four saves and won $250.
He says protecting the nets for the Canadiens is far easier, but not as easy as it was when Dryden guarded Montreal's goal. His life was made simple by Serge Savard, LaPointe and Robinson, perhaps the most dominant group of defensemen in NHL history. Only Robinson remains, and while he's no longer the best at his position, he, Engblom and Langway form the nucleus of a solid and aggressive unit. "You know you'll face about five tough shots a game," says Wamsley. "So all I must do is stop all the easy ones and half of the toughies, and we're probably going to win."
As Montreal rushes toward what could well be a date with the Islanders in the Stanley Cup semis, Berry is cueing up videotapes, lighting up cigarettes and taking careful notes. "You never know how things might go in a playoff," says Berry. "All you can do about it now is establish the idea you can play."
Consider it established, Bob.