SWEEPING CHANGE AFTER A HORRENDOUS START, THE MONTREAL CANADIENS ARE ROLLING, THANKS TO A NEW COACH FROM THE OLD DAYS

November 13, 1995

Mario Tremblay has ruined it for every tape-watchin',
system-installin', acronym-inventin', cliche-spoutin' fraud who
has ever put chalk to blackboard. Coaching? Yeah, so? Tremblay
is the coach of the Montreal Canadiens, which, other than
managing for George Steinbrenner or being the public-relations
director for the Los Angeles Clippers, is reputed to be the
toughest job in sports. But as of Sunday he was 7-1 since taking
over on Oct. 21 with precisely zero previous experience as a
coach.

Changing lines? Sure. Tremblay did that at Montreal radio
station CKAC, where he cohosted a sports talk show and would
hang up on Robert from Ville St. Pierre on Line 1 and go to
Gilles from Laval on Line 3. "I love this job. I'm really
getting into it," the hockey player turned broadcaster turned
coach said between sips of beer in his office last Saturday
night after the Canadiens had thumped the Boston Bruins 4-1. "I
always loved being in the middle of the action, and this is
where the action is."

Blessedly there is a discernible pulse again at the Forum. The
Canadiens, after missing the playoffs last spring for the first
time in a quarter of a century, were outscored 22-4 in losing
their first five games this season, and the only appropriate
accompaniment for the grim events at hockey's shrine was a
dirge. Or a laugh track. But in a giddy, logic-defying and
wildly successful makeover that began with the Oct. 17 firing of
general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers, the
Canadiens, under Tremblay and new G.M. Rejean Houle, have
rekindled the passion that makes hockey in Montreal distinct.

The Canadiens had grown musty after their 1993 Stanley Cup
victory, and following their abysmal start this year there was
an outcry for team president Ronald Corey to bring in outsiders
with fresh ideas, to air out the franchise before the move to
the new Forum in March. Instead, Corey looked in his backyard
and snubbed experience in favor of genetics. He reached out for
two men who were part of Montreal's powerhouse teams of the
1970s.

Corey's hiring Houle was about as close as you can get to
marrying your cousin. Houle was the public-relations director at
Molson Brewery, which owns the team, and president of the
Canadiens' Old-Timers Association. He had been out of the NHL
since retiring in 1983. He knew the Canadiens well enough, but
he didn't know the league. "I'd be lying if I told you I knew
the 15th guy on Anaheim's team," Houle said. In the press
gallery they all agreed he ran a great beer tent at the Formula
One Grand Prix race in Montreal every June, but they didn't know
if he could be the caretaker of the NHL's most storied team.

"It's a different kind of work, but it all boils down to
managing human resources," Houle said. "In beer, you have to get
the right product on the table. Here you have to get the right
product on the ice."

After Houle was hired and charged with finding a coach, he
immediately thought of Tremblay, a close friend from their
playing days. Tremblay also thought of Tremblay, though he
didn't tell CKAC listeners that. (On the air, he was mentioning
Alain Vigneault, an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators, as
a candidate to coach the Canadiens.) "Ronald Corey challenged
me, asking me if I was sure I wanted a coach with no
experience," Houle said. "But Mario's been around the game all
his life. And he has a presence, a big character. I really
believe if you have the right person, he can learn the job as he
goes."

Tremblay was a wild-eyed, wildly popular third-line winger who
was a big part of Forum lore for 12 seasons. He assisted on the
Game 7 overtime winner in the 1979 semifinals against Boston
that kept Montreal's streak of four straight Stanley Cups alive,
and he broke Peter Stastny's nose with a punch in the infamous
Good Friday playoff game against the Quebec Nordiques in '84.
Tremblay was brought in as coach to instill emotion into the
mopes wearing bleu, blanc et rouge this season.

After eight games, in which the Canadiens zoomed out of the
dressing room and outscored opponents 18-3 in the first period,
it's obvious that Tremblay can locate an adrenal gland. But he
was not expected to tinker so extensively with personnel,
shuffling players with such abandon you would think he was one
of his old talk-show callers offering a quick fix for the team.

Tremblay dropped winger Vincent Damphousse from the first line
and put third-line center Brian Savage on left wing with Pierre
Turgeon and Mark Recchi. The result? Savage was tied with Mario
Lemieux with a league-high 12 goals through Sunday. "I should
pinch myself," Savage said after Saturday's win, in which he
scored a goal. "Mario and me. The odds must have been pretty
high on that."

Meanwhile, Tremblay tried Damphousse at center on the second
line, where left wing Benoit Brunet, who has never scored more
than 10 goals in a season, responded with seven in eight games,
six of which were set up by Damphousse. But Tremblay's most
creative move was putting together what he dubbed the Smurf Line
of 5'9" Saku Koivu, 5'10" Valeri Bure and 5'8" Oleg Petrov,
which had four points against Boston. True, the Smurfs were
manhandled by the Washington Capitals' best checkers in a 5-2
loss on Nov. 1, which ended Tremblay's record 6-0 start. As a
result, he might have to put some muscle on the wing when the
Canadiens are on the road and he doesn't have the last line
change.

The team's offensive surge has coincided with the resuscitation
of franchise goalie Patrick Roy and robust work by the defensive
pairing of Peter Popovic and Patrice Brisebois: The 6'6"
Popovic, a Swede, used to play as if he came to Canada as a
conscientious objector, and no one calls Brisebois "Breeze-by"
anymore. "Patrick's the biggest factor in the turnaround,"
Recchi said. "We feel we don't need four, five, six goals to
win." After an amateurish .802 save percentage in his first four
games this season, Roy finally cracked .900 after making 35
stops against Boston. "At the start of the year I had trouble
breaking in new pads," said Roy, a two-time Stanley Cup MVP. "It
gave me trouble here"--he pointed to his head--"and here"--he
pointed to his legs.

The Canadiens have their legs now, skating rings around the
Bruins as they did in Tremblay's day. The coach knows that bumps
loom on this joyride, that sometimes the game will spin at 45
while he's working at 33 1/3. But, so far, what's the big deal
about coaching? Tremblay and assistant coaches Yvan Cournoyer,
Steve Shutt and Jacques Laperriere--all former teammates of
Tremblay--have won 28 Stanley Cups among them. "That has to show
up somewhere in what we do," Tremblay says. The Cup is awarded
for hockey, not rocket science.

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL BERESWILL Under Tremblay, Turgeon (77) and the Habs have been goal-oriented. [Pierre Turgeon scoring goal] COLOR PHOTO: PAUL BERESWILLTremblay, who won five Cups on the ice as a Canadien, has made all the right moves behind the bench. [Mario Tremblay standing behind Montreal Canadiens' bench]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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