A sad day for the FHF and Canadiens fans everywhere, as legendary GM Sam Pollock has passed away at the age of 81. Tributes and memories of Sam and the teams he built are going to be plentiful over the next few days, but we would be remiss if we didn't make sure we remembered Sam too. After all, Sam is a big reason why we are all here on FHF.
Other than my Dad, there's probably no one else on this earth who was more responsible for my being a Canadiens fan than Sam Pollock. Growing up as a kid in the 70's in Ontario you had two choices: suffer along with the good-but-never-great Leafs as they began their death spiral under Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard, or hitch your wagon to one of the other Original Six as the last remnants of the NHL-sponsored junior teams fell by the wayside in towns all over the province. That's how you found Bruins fans in Oshawa, and Chicago fans in St. Catherines, and Rangers fans in Kitchener, and Habs fans in Peterborough and in one little house on Aubrey Street in Bracebridge. My Dad made his choice decades before, and passed his love of Les Canadiens on to me; Sam Pollock was the one who kept the flame burning. Sam's genius made it easy to stay a Canadiens fan in a Leafs town.
Everyone knows the story of how Sam got the 1st overall pick from Oakland to select Guy Lafleur, and how he sent Ralph Backstrom to LA to help the Kings finish above the Seals just in case. That speaks to his genius, his two-steps ahead of everyone else mind. What it doesn't illustrate is Sam's understanding of Montreal, its fans, and the Canadiens legacy. Everyone forgets who went second overall that year; it was a guy named Marcel Dionne. Sam could have easily kept Backstrom, sat on the Seals pick, and ended up with one of Dionne or Lafleur at #2. Dionne finished his career with over 700 goals and 1700 points, a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best ever. But Sam wanted Guy, made sure he got Guy, and never looked back. And you know what? Sam made the right choice for his team, his city, and his fans. Sam knew that Dionne, as wonderful a scorer and player as he was, didn't have "it". Rocket had "it". Beliveau had "it". Morenz had "it". Guy had "it", and the Canadiens needed "it". This is no slight on Dionne, who probably would have become the lynchpin of a tremendous Habs team in the 70's and 80's, a perennial Cup contender. But Sam, born and raised in Montreal, knew the pulse and heartbeat of the Canadiens needed a larger than life, lift-you-out-of-your-seat star to remain the Flying Frenchmen hockey fans knew and loved. Dionne was an amazing hockey player, but not an event; Lafleur was. After watching Dionne become a star while Lafleur put up average numbers his first three years, Sam never waivered. He kept building a team and probably sat back and smiled when Lafleur exploded as a superstar and spawned a generation of kids in Canada who wanted to wear #10 and play right wing and fire rockets from the hash marks.
Sam's shrewd talent evaluation and philosophy helped lead hockey out of the dark ages, when the brutish Flyers and Bruins threatened to beat skill and speed right out of the league. He handpicked Scotty Bowman to lead a team that he stocked with stars like Lafleur, Robinson, Shutt, Gainey, and Dryden, plus invaluable soldiers like Tremblay, Wilson, Risebrough, Chartraw, and Nyrop. He won 9 Cups in 14 years. He took a great 1960's Canadiens team and kept it great through the 70's despite expansion, the advent of the draft, and the WHA. He gave older Canadiens fans a reason to keep loving and helped create an entire new generation of fans, including the FHF.
Sam was one-of-a-kind, and Montreal was lucky to have him. La fierté pour toujours, Sam. I'm forever proud to be a fan, thanks to you. RIP.