From afar, it was bizarre to see Pierre Gauthier’s Montreal Canadiens spin out of control this season.
As a hockey general manager, control was Gauthier’s modus operandi. He was controlling to the enth degree.
Here in Ottawa, media members still talk about the time Gauthier put them on a one-cookie limit after arena meals (in retrospect, we need you back, Pierre). Like so much of Gauthier’s strict protocol, the tough love was ‘for our own good.’
When he was assistant GM of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993-94, Gauthier slapped a $100 fine on any employee or player who used the word “expansion” in reference to the fledgling Ducks. Why? Because he didn’t want to hear it used as an excuse.
Happily, Gauthier told the story of head coach Ron Wilson using the word twice in one sentence – a $200 slip of the tongue.
In Ottawa, Gauthier bristled at the sight of all those trendy big digits on the Senators jerseys. Radek Bonk wore #76. Alex Daigle was #91. Stan Neckar was #94. Not for long. In 1997, by Gauthier’s decree, they found slightly more traditional numbers, and so Bonk became 14, Daigle switched to 9 and Neckar, 24.
Neverthless, that sense of order and control was timely medicine for a Senators team looking to take the step beyond expansion laughing stock toward becoming a decent team. As he replaced Randy Sexton in December, 1995, Gauthier’s moves helped shift the organization from the former to the latter, and he didn’t mind if he was perceived as cold, bordering on ruthless, to achieve that end.
Some were stunned by the blunt manner in which coaches Jacques Martin and Perry Pearn were fired in Montreal this season by Gauthier, both on the day of a game, rewriting the handbook pre-game routine.
In Ottawa, when he first arrived, Gauthier’s moves were just as brash, but the Senators were such a low profile organization at the time, few outside of this region took notice.
Within weeks, Gauthier fired a head coach, assistant coaches, gutted the scouting staff and later released a dozen veteran players that didn’t fit into Gauthier’s plans.
Whatever his shortcomings, Gauthier brought stability to the Senators with the following moves, many of which still contribute to the roster of today:
– hired Jacques Martin as head coach. Martin’s calm direction was the salve to predecessor Dave (Sparky) Allison, a desperation internal pick after the classy Rick Bowness was let go. Allison thought a seance was the answer. Martin opted for getting the puck out of the freaking defensive zone. With Martin behind the bench, the Senators reached the playoffs for the first time, starting a postseason run from 1997-2004 that included a conference final in 2003.
– Hired Marshall Johnston as director of player personnel. Another smart hockey man, Johnston went on to become the Senators general manager, engineering the best trade in team history – Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders for defenceman Zdeno Chara and a second round pick used to draft centre Jason Spezza.
– Traded Bryan Berard, who did not want to sign with Ottawa, to the New York Islanders for Wade Redden. Until his skating declined around 2006, Redden helped anchor the Senators defence, along with a fellow westerner drafted by Gauthier, Chris Phillips.
Ahead of his time in recognizing the value of European players, Gauthier oversaw the 1996-97 drafts that brought Marian Hossa, Karel Rachunek, Magnus Arvedson, Andreas Dackell, Jani Hurme and Sami Salo.
Considering Gauthier was gone from the scene in 1998, selecting so many players that would go on to play for the Senators from those two drafts alone was a tribute to Gauthier and Johnston.
Quietly, mysteriously, Gauthier left Ottawa, citing family reasons and a wish to get away from hockey for a while, despite rumours he was going back to the Ducks. Less than three weeks later, he was re-hired by Anaheim, lasting until 2002. He joined the Canadiens in 2003 as an assistant to GM Bob Gainey, replacing Gainey in 2010. Gainey stayed on as an advisor. Now, they’re both gone.
Did he get a fair shake, considering most GMs have a five-year window? Different yardstick in Montreal, where glory was once the norm. Brian Burke has had twice as long as GM to effect change in Toronto as Gauthier got in Montreal. And Burke carries on, while both storied teams miss the dance.
So many of the impactful decisions of the past several years – big free agent deals, trades — were made under Gainey’s watch, Gauthier didn’t get the fresh slate, the true power, he inherited in Ottawa.
His personality also cost him.
While he was here, Gauthier was nicknamed ‘The Ghost’ as he drifted in and out of sight. Not surprisingly, Montreal’s media madhouse was less accepting of Gauthier being invisible in both official languages.
It’s his way. The man is a bird dog at heart. When the Senators would go on the road, Gauthier would, too, but in a different direction, to scout talent.
He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Gauthier, a vegeterian in a steak-and-beer fraternity. But he’s a decent hockey man, regardless of the mess he just left.