Today’s Habs borrow from Senators’ past

If you look behind the Montreal Canadiens bench these days, you might be tempted to rub your eyes, wondering if you’re suffering from deja-vu. The faces look so familiar, but like a weird dream, they seem out of place somehow.

BY KEN WARREN

If you look behind the Montreal Canadiens bench these days, you might be tempted to rub your eyes, wondering if you’re suffering from deja-vu.

The faces look so familiar, but like a weird dream, they seem out of place somehow.

There’s the stoic head coach Jacques Martin, still wearing the powerful conservative ties. Beside him is trusted assistant Perry Pearn, every year adding a little more white to his salt and pepper lid. Over there is the new assistant, Randy Cunneyworth, still looking like he could play a regular shift.

For long time observers of the Ottawa Senators, it takes some getting used to.

All three were pivotal pieces during the “Woo-Hoo” days of the Senators organization, when the underdog squad scratched and clawed its way into the NHL playoffs for the first time in 1997. Martin and Pearn were the head and assistant coaches, respectively. Cunneyworth was the captain, the voice of experience, the veteran who had been through it all before and helped guide a teenager named Wade Redden.

Close your eyes for a few seconds and think back. Remember the sea of white towels waving in the air at Scotiabank Place? How about the Buddha good luck charm Tom Chorske carried in his shaving kit? Or the Steve Duchesne third period goal that broke a tense 0-0 tie in the final regular season game at the Corel Centre — yes, that’s what the building was called then — allowing the Senators to squeak into the playoffs?

That version of the Senators came within a whisker of shocking the Buffalo Sabres and advancing to the second round, losing Game 7 in overtime when Derek Plante’s slapshot caught the tip of Ron Tugnutt’s trapper and trickled into the net.

In one sense, it seems like ages ago, considering the number of playoff trips the Senators have had since. Yet it’s also a reminder of how fast time flies. The Senators really have been in the NHL since 1992. A full generation.

“I was talking to (Senators president) Cyril Leeder the other day and I said ‘I can’t believe it has been 20 years’,” Cunneyworth said before the Senators’ 3-2 win over the Canadiens Saturday night at the Bell Centre. “It goes quick. We’re all a lot older and a lot of things have gone on and that team has had a lot of success over the years.

“It was such an exciting time for me, just to be part of a young organization, with some history from the old days. And to see Alfie still playing and everything. It’s nice to know I was there when he first got there.”

Cunneyworth was speaking outside the Canadiens dressing room, where the walls are full of pictures paying tribute to Montreal’s unparalleled NHL success. A closer look at the most recent team photos also reveals the incredible Senators-ization of the current Canadiens franchise, stretching well beyond the Martin, Pearn and Cunneyworth links.

Cunneyworth, who was hired in the summer, laughs because he barely needed to introduce himself to anyone.

The guy in charge of everything on the ice is general manager Pierre Gauthier, who served as GM of the Senators from 1995-98. He made some questionable trades and left on bad terms before moving on to Anaheim for “personal reasons,” but Gauthier was responsible for putting Ottawa on the right track after the unsettled first several seasons of the franchise, including the hiring of Martin.

Montreal’s organizational chart includes Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens’ director of recruitment and player development. It’s a mouthful of a title, but he’s essentially in charge of keeping track of every prospect in the organization. Before coming to Montreal, Timmins was a jack of all trades within the Senators organization, serving at different times as strength coach, travel secretary and scout. Timmins convinced the Senators to select a guy named Martin Havlat with the 26th overall draft selection in 1999. Former Canadiens GM André Savard, an ex-Senators assistant GM and assistant coach, brought Timmins to Montreal.

Frank Jay, a former scout with the Senators, now heads up the Canadiens amateur scouting staff. Pierre Groulx, who once served as video coach for the Senators, is now the Canadiens goaltending coach. Dominick Saillant, formerly of the Senators, is the Canadiens director of media relations.

We’re now waiting for the press release announcing Lance Pitlick as the Canadiens new director of dressing room entertainment and Denny Lambert as the fighting guru, teaching young prospects about how to handle NHL heavyweights.

What makes the Montreal-Ottawa connections even more intriguing is the history of the earliest days of the Senators organization. When the three amigos — Leeder, Randy Sexton and Bruce Firestone — dreamed up the idea of bringing an NHL franchise back to Ottawa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they looked to three franchises as a foundation of how they wanted to build their team. They liked the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins because they were the teams of the present. Yet they also had deep respect for the Montreal Canadiens because of their decades upon decades of success.

Now, two decades into the Senators organization, the Canadiens are borrowing heavily from pieces of Ottawa’s past.

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