ClaudeRuel_672Former Canadiens coach Claude Ruel passed away Monday at the age of 76.

To some, Ruel may be a sort of footnote in Canadiens history, but his role in the success of the team in his 33 years with the team has been prominent on almost every level.  After an eye injury ended his junior career he was hired by Canadiens general manager Frank Selke in 1962 to coach the Montreal Junior Canadiens at the age of 23.  He evolved into Canadiens director of scouting, was a Stanley Cup winning  head coach in 1969 and later on was director of player development.

The Canadiens could never have had a better or more loyal soldier. His main talent was talent evaluation.. It was on Ruel’s recommendation that Sam Pollock drafted an unheralded defenseman named Larry Robinson.

Although he knew he wasn’t emotionally suited for the mind games that go into running an NHL game from behind the bench, he reluctantly replaced Toe Blake as head coach when he retired in 1968 and immediately won a Stanley Cup. He came back again to be head coach for two years after Bernie Geoffrion resigned mid-season in 1979.

But, of all of the important roles he filled with the hockey club, none surpassed his relationship with Scotty Bowman during the Canadiens golden years of the 70’s.  His organizational designation was director of player development but in fact he was Scotty Bowman’s right-hand man.

Scotty Bowman - Claude Ruel

Scotty Bowman – Claude Ruel

Those of us who traveled with the hockey club in the 70’s remember vividly those long post- practice sessions with the young so-called “Black Aces” long after Scotty Bowman and the veterans had left the ice. Lafleur, Shutt, Lambert, Gainey, Jarvis, Risebrough, Tremblay, Napier, Robinson, Wilson, Langway, Engblom all, at one time or another came under Ruel’s wing.  The scene was remarkable. Up tempo non-stop skating. Ruel whistling hard passes, shouting “Skate, skate, skate” and punctuating that with an encouraging, “C‘est ça. C’est ça.” To a man they trusted him even as he was driving them relentlessly. In the end, those players became the backbone of the Canadiens teams that won four straight Stanley Cups in the 70’s as well as the winners in 1986 and ’93.

It has become one of those ofte-repeated hockey stories.   In the spring of 1977 Ruel was working alongside Bowman with the big team and was not part of Canadiens amateur scouting.  On an off-night  he went up to Laval to watch a junior game. The next day he told a meeting of Habs scouts that he had just seen, in his view, the best natural goalscorer since “The Rocket”.  That player was Laval Nationals right winger Mike Bossy.  To their everlasting regret with the Canadiens ignored Ruel and two months later drafted Mark Napier with the 10th pick in the ’77 draft.  The Islanders got Bossy 15th overall.  Napier was a pretty good player but Ruel was right about Bossy who scored 50 plus goals in each of his first nine NHL seasons and in five of them it was 60-plus.  With Bossy as their leading goalscorer the Islanders also won four straight Stanley Cups and nineteen consecutive playoff series.  He his now in the Hall of Fame.

It has been a difficult year for the Canadiens alumni.  Along with Ruel, we have also lost Jean Beliveau and Gilles Tremblay in recent months.