After 14 seasons building a strong farm team in Halifax with the three-time Calder Cup champion Nova Scotia Voyageurs, the Montreal Canadiens announced in June of 1984 that they were moving their American Hockey League farm team to Sherbrooke, Quebec.
The Vees would be taking over the affiliation from the Winnipeg Jets, whose minor-league club had been in Sherbrooke and proved to be unsuccessful both on the ice. They failed to make the playoffs, and were the lowest-drawing team in the entire AHL.
One of the players making the move from the Maritimes was an undrafted player who came to the Canadiens’ training camp in 1983 on a tryout, and earned himself a one-year AHL contract: Brian Skrudland.
Eyes On The Prize caught up with Skrudland on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Sherbrooke Canadiens’ inaugural season being capped off by the conquest of the Calder Cup. The discussion was about Sherbrooke, life in the AHL, and some other general hockey wisdoms.
“There was a lot of curiosity wondering what is this move going to be like? As a whole, Halifax and the Voyageurs had such a long dynamic relationship with the fans. When I first got there, I was quite surprised at our booster club. I was blown away by the regular fans, the 300-500 fans that were out there for every game, and who showed up for every event. The Calder Cup was won in Halifax. It’s a beautiful city on the ocean... You can go on and on. We really enjoyed it. It was my first year away from home as I was fortunate to play my Junior hockey in Saskatoon where I grew up and got to stay with my parents. So that was that was a wonderful experience for me. I still probably have more friends in Nova Scotia than I do anywhere else in the world after only one year. And just like that we head off to Sherbrooke.”
Pierre Creamer was brought on board as head coach, “graduating” within the Canadiens organization from the Verdun Juniors to the AHL. Claude Larose, a veteran AHL forward who carried over from the Winnipeg farm system was named captain of the team, and Dave Allison and Larry Langdon, Voyageurs transplants, were named his assistants to start the season.
“You know, it was probably about seven days into camp when the Canadiens released the first load of guys, as they wanted to really get us established early that year, so there was a whack of us at the same time. I showed up to the room, I’ll never forget this, there was probably 70 guys in that room that had arms on them like my legs. I never seen that before. I’m 21 years of age. Couple of them I think were in their early 30s, full beards, ‘who the heck are these guys??’ They were a bunch of senior players that we’re going to help us fill in the camp. I’ll never forget Dave Allison going ‘if one of those guys even come near me, I’m going to whack them so hard with my stick’. So the first couple days were a little tentative in Sherbrooke.
“We had a much older group to start the season. We even had Jordy Douglas, who played on the left side with Gordie Howe in Hartford. So there were some great stories as well. But we had a bit of a tough start. Although I’ll never forget being as happy as I was from day one when (Sherbrooke Canadiens President) Georges Guilbault, who ran Sher-Wood hockey sticks along with the Drolet family, came in on the day of our very first game and brought everybody sticks, that were actually very close to their patterns. Well, I’ll tell you, everybody was so excited about how hard we could shoot the puck, I think that we scared our goalies in warm-ups. Everyone was so excited that they had these new sticks, not that the old ones were bad. They were just so heavy compared to these new Sher-Woods.”
Despite the new lumber, the Canadiens had a rough start to the season, winning only three of their first 10 games, and rarely stringing a winning streak together for the first half of the season. Although the coaching staff tried to bring the team together, there was a number of factions that created a divided locker room. Claude Larose, Jordy Douglas, Murray Eaves, and Bobby Dollas were holdovers from the Sherbrooke Jets and struggled to find their place on the team with Serge Savard’s “Habs first” approach to the affiliate partnership. There were the displaced Voyageurs, who for the most part were anglophones and struggling in a francophone environment and under a new coaching staff, and you had hungry young players like Skrudland who just wanted the opportunity. This led to a lack of cohesion within the team.
“Absolutely there was that. Not only the nationalities, of course, but the language barrier. I think I could probably say quite honestly, some of the American players did not really enjoy it that much. Us young guys could care less as long as we’re playing and we’re being paid. I loved Sherbrooke personally. It was a great place to play hockey and we received great support there. But Sherbrooke, that area is a beautiful, beautiful part of the world. We were very fortunate, as Mike Lalor and I, as much as we weren’t supposed to, did all the ski hills in Bromont. As much as we enjoyed playing hockey, we just enjoyed life.”
But not everyone was happy. Five former Voyageurs left the Sherbrooke Canadiens by December, including 1983-84 team point leader Wayne Thompson, starting goaltender Mark Holden, Normand Baron, and assistants Allison and Landon. “I do not want players who refuse to follow team rules,” said Creamer after Baron was the latest veteran to leave the team.
From there the players held a vote, and three captains were selected: Jordy Douglas representing the Winnipeg veterans, Claude Larose kept his captaincy, and Brian Skrudland, who represented the youthful hope of the Canadiens organization.
“We weren’t really sure why Jordy was named a captain, because he was older than our coach, but he ended up leaving us sometime after Christmas, as he had a bad back and ended up going back to Winnipeg. So he never joined us for any of the playoffs or anything, but he definitely joined us for the parade.”
Larose would eventually give up his captaincy, preferred time focus on providing offensive help to the team, so Skrudland wound up eventually the sole captain on the team.
With a renewed focus and the youthful leadership of Skrudland leading the way, the team began putting more games in the win column, and slowly but surely began gelling together.
“I mean, there was motivation like you’ve never seen before. And I think that’s one of the advantages (of being close to Montreal), if you have a player sick on the big team, you’re an hour and a half, two hours, drive to replace him from Sherbrooke, versus a flight from Nova Scotia. I think that made a difference too. It sort of inspired us all.
“And then of course, being the captain of the team. I was thoroughly honoured there. I did find that I was I was a young captain in that league. And I never really thought too hard about it, because I never really took what others were saying about me seriously. I took it with a grain of salt, I always listened. But at the same time it was water off a duck’s back, I’ve been told my entire career that I was a bad skater, or told my entire life that I probably won’t make it because of skating, blah, blah, blah. But, you know, I always found that I could get from A to B, almost as fast as anybody. It just was the fact that my style didn’t look very appealing, so I never really let that sort of stuff worried me but at the same time, I enjoyed the leadership side of it. I enjoyed the fact that I could assist the coaches. I find that the captain is an extension of the coaches as much as as much as he’s an extension of his players, representing each and every one of those players, but at the same time, I do believe said the captain and the coach really need to see eye to eye in order to have success.
“There were so many young guys and real good older guys. I really got along with my roommate Mike Lalor. We ended up getting a place over in Lac Magog, we bought a snowmobile, so we kept ourselves busy, away from the Sherbrooke bars, and away from all the pretty young girls. So that probably helped us get to the next level.
“We had some older guys who were already married. Tomas Rundqvist came over from Sweden with his wife Louise. You know, and I’ll never forget Ric Nattress and his wife Jackie. Thank God for Jackie. They had little Dustin at that time, but thank God for Jackie because Mike Lalor and I didn’t mind babysitting as long as she was cooking, so we found ourselves at the Nattress’ quite often, you know, and Ric had been there. He was a wealth of information. And he really pushed Lalor and I to get stronger. I think that was one of the biggest pieces of advice from Ric. ‘If you’re going to play in that league (NHL), you guys got to get stronger’ and that also played a big part in reaching for the next level.
“The other was, as I go back to our coaching staff, I think they did just a wonderful job. Jean Hamel, I don’t remember any other assistant coach who ever wore his full gear as much as he did. He lost his eyesight the year before, so the Canadiens offered him a coaching job within the organisation, he was just unbelievable. And he competed in practice, as if he was going for the Stanley Cup every single day. So I mean, he made us work even harder and he helped those young defensemen. I know Mike Lalor would definitely be saying good things about him. I just thought that was awesome. I mean, here’s a guy who played. He competed, and not just on the ice, but off of it. He rode a bike like no other. That was something great for us to see on a daily basis.
“One of the things that I really thank the Canadiens for, and really look at that organization being as good as they are, knowing their players, taking their time, and not rushing people. I never got a sniff in two full years in the American Hockey League, not that I deserved it. But I think there were times that there were thoughts of calling me up, and I am so happy that they didn’t. I felt that I wasn’t ready. My game was not where it needed to be able to compete at the NHL level.
“It’s amazing, but winning, winning, winning, winning. I played hockey for one reason, and that was not only to have fun, but to win. I wanted to win every single time I did up my skates. I think that’s one of the things that it really takes to be a Montreal Canadien.
“Winning is the players responsibility. Every time that they put their skates on is to win. The management, the coaches, every time that they make a decision, it’s to make themselves better, and make their teams better. It’s up to the players to win. You can’t put skates on coaches, they can’t go in the corner, they won’t back you up when there’s someone’s kicking the shit out of you. You know, you got to do that. And I’ve always found the players and the teams that I was involved with understood that and went out every day to push each other. There were times, hey, we fought in practice back in the day, because it was competitive. And, you know, there were 26 guys out on that ice for practice, not 22 or 23. There were six extra guys that wanted to push and get a position. So I always said, ‘Hey, you guys better wear ankle guards today. I might not be in the lineup tomorrow’. But I have always felt that I’ve always found that it’s the players responsibility to go out and win. The coaches prepare you they put everything on, especially today, there’s so much preparation. There really isn’t a rock that isn’t uncovered today, and it’s unbelievable the effort that the coaches put in on a daily basis, and I got a chance to be able to do that. I have more respect for them today than I ever have. I wasn’t very good at that. I thought I’d be great at it, but I wasn’t, and that’s the reality and a reality I have to live with, because I really, really thought that would be something that I could do for years afterwards.”
The Sherbrooke Canadiens were a sub-.500 team for the entire season, having lost too much ground in the first half. However in their final 12 games of the season, the team only lost three games, and on the final game of the season defeated Springfield 5-4 to qualify for the playoffs.
“We made a great push at the end of the year. All of a sudden we get into the playoffs and win the first round, win the second round... We ended up picking up a couple of wonderful younger players, Patrick Roy and Stéphane Richer. John Kordic joined us after his junior season with the Portland Winterhawks. The Canadiens were finished in the first round that year. So we had brass making the trip for every game.
“Of course winning is the biggest thing that anybody can do at any level, and when you win in the minors, you get an opportunity. That of course created an opportunity for seven of us following from Sherbrooke to the big team. But of course, that story continues as we went on to win a Stanley Cup. So Sherbrooke was one of the greatest stepping stones of my career. I think it really helped me focus on strictly wanting to be the best hockey player I could possibly be.”
From a successful tryout in 1983 to AHL captain in 1984, Skrudland had quite the meteoric rise in the Canadiens organization stemming from one opportunity that was given to him. At the end of the 1984-85 regular season he was voted Most Underrated Player by the Sherbrooke press. By the end of the playoffs he proved them right by being awarded the AHL Playoff MVP, and was the first to lift the Calder Cup as captain. He would go on to join the Montreal Canadiens the following season where he would of course win the Stanley Cup.