Coaching The Farm: 1968-1981 — Al MacNeil presided over the greatest era

The modern farm team began to take shape.

Sylvain Lefebvre was recently relieved of his coaching duties at the head of the Laval Rocket, the American Hockey League farm team of the Montreal Canadiens. While the announcement of his replacement is pending, it’s an opportune time to take a look back at the history of the coaches behind the bench of the minor-league club, responsible for guiding the next generation of Canadiens players in their first forays into the world of professional hockey.

Read Part I of this series, covering the years from 1963-1968.

Al MacNeil (CPHL Houston Apollos, 1968-69, AHL Montreal Voyageurs 1969-70)

MacNeil, a veteran NHL defenceman of over 500 games, was named player/coach by Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock, taking over from Ray Kinasewich with the primary affiliate, the Houston Apollos, in 1968.

MacNeil was drafted by the Canadiens from the Pittsburgh Penguins during the intraleague draft, returning to the organization for which he played seven seasons prior. He accepted the tasks of player and coach proudly according to Pollock, who said he was expecting to have a great season in both roles. The Apollos were the third-best team in the nine-team league, but failed to get past the first round of the playoffs.

When the farm team moved to Montreal, it was reported that MacNeil was told to hang up the skates if he wanted to keep coaching, but he still played 66 games that season. The Voyageurs were the only team in the AHL to reach 100 points, but they lost in the second round of the post-season. Ron “Prof” Caron was named general manager of the new franchise.

MacNeil held the position for two seasons until 1970 when he was promoted to assistant coach of the Montreal Canadiens to help the miserable Claude Ruel, who did not want the position of head coach, but did anything that was asked of him by the organization. A mere two months after the start of the 1970-71 NHL season, Ruel stepped down, and MacNeil was then in charge of the Canadiens, but not before submitting his resignation as well. MacNeil was personally chosen by Ruel, and so MacNeil felt that he had to follow his decision. Canadiens owner Dave Molson and general manager Pollock, however, made their intentions known of naming him Ruel’s replacement, with no interim condition attached.

Ron Caron (AHL Montreal Voyageurs, 1970)

After MacNeil was promoted to assistant coach of the Canadiens during the off-season, Voyageurs general manager Caron took over the coaching duties of the farm team, but he only lasted a few months in that dual role. When Ruel resigned as Canadiens head coach weeks into the 1970-71 season, there was a ripple effect throughout the entire Canadiens hockey operations department. Caron was promoted to assistant general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, and relinquished all his duties with the Voyageurs. Pollock referred to it as “shuffling his cabinet.”

Terry Gray (AHL Montreal Voyageurs, 1970-71)

To help Caron shoulder the load with the Voyageurs, Pollock turned to his old friend, Scotty Bowman, who loaned him NHL veteran Terry Gray from the St. Louis Blues to serve in a player/coach role. However, when Caron was promoted to the Montreal Canadiens two months into the season, Gray quickly became the sole coach of the Voyageurs for the rest of the season. To allow Gray to focus solely on the on-ice product, Floyd Curry was named general manager of the Voyageurs, to help fulfil the administrative responsibilities.

Once the Voyageurs were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, Gray was recalled back to the Blues to help them in the NHL playoffs. He did not return to the Voyageurs for the following season.

Al MacNeil (AHL Nova Scotia Voyageurs, 1971-77)

In his rookie NHL coaching season in 1970-71, MacNeil was successful in his quest for a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens, but not without having a major public battle with team superstar Henri Richard. Richard was very angry at his utilization by the new coach and vented to the media. MacNeil resigned from his post as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens for “the best interest of the Canadiens and in my own best personal interest.”

MacNeil returned to the Voyageurs, with the farm team now stationed in Halifax, where he oversaw the greatest era of the Canadiens farm team as its head coach and general manager. During a stay of five seasons, MacNeil hoisted the Calder Cup on three occasions.

He was the first Canadiens farm team head coach to be named AHL coach of the year in 1971-72, and did it again in 1976-77. At the conclusion of the 1976-77 season, and a third Calder Cup championship, MacNeil left the Voyageurs to become Director of Player Personnel for the Canadiens.

At the conclusion of the 1978-1979 season MacNeil left the Canadiens to join the Atlanta Flames organization. He continues to work for the organization nearly 40 years later.

Frank St. Marseille (AHL Nova Scotia Voyageurs, 1977-79)

Frank St. Marseille, freshly coming off of a nine-season NHL career, was named player/coach of the Voyageurs to allow MacNeil to focus on his new responsibilities within the Canadiens organization. MacNeil would remain as general manager of the Voyageurs however, but St. Marseille had the responsibility to pilot the team on the ice. Starting in 1978, St. Marseille retired as a player to focus solely on coaching. He was the final player/coach on the Canadiens team, but not the final coach to play a game for the farm team.

Despite two decent seasons with the Voyageurs where the team finished in second and third place, respectively, eliminated in the quarter-finals of the Calder Cup Playoffs twice, St. Marseille was let go after two seasons to coincide with Bowman, MacNeil, and Pollock all leaving the Canadiens organization. New incoming General Manager Irving Grundman decided to go with a complete reboot of the coaching structure in his vision, and St. Marseille was collateral damage.

Bert Templeton (AHL Nova Scotia Voyageurs, 1979-81)

Bert Templeton arrived in the organization at a time of flux for the Canadiens as Bowman had left to the Buffalo Sabres and all-stars Ken Dryden and Jacques Lemaire had retired. Templeton previously had spent five seasons in the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League, winning the Memorial Cup and also coaching the Canadian Under-20 national team to a silver medal in 1976. Canadiens general manager Grundman also named him the general manager of the AHL team, and arena administrator in Halifax.

Templeton, described by long-time Canadiens beat writer Rejean Tremblay as a “drill sergeant,” was known for modernizing team practices that focused on physical conditioning. “Thanks to the training methods of Bert Templeton, the Voyageurs will be, this season, in such good physical condition that it draws comparison to the Soviets or the Czechoslovakians. This is enormous progress,” wrote Yves Letourneau, a columnist for La Presse leading into Templeton’s inaugural season.

He ran a one-man operation, and he wasn’t out to win a popularity contest with the players. When Ruel handed in his resignation in 1981, Templeton wasn’t even considered for the job in Montreal. He never stood a chance after being accused of prejudice by the Francophone players on the Voyageurs, including Richard Sevigny and Gaston Gingras, who backed minor-leaguer Géatan Rochette’s claim that Templeton regarded players who didn’t speak English poorly.

At the end of the 1980-1981 season, Templeton’s contract expired and he left the AHL to coach in the Ontario Hockey League for a remarkable 20 seasons.

Coaching The Farm: 1981-1990 — Canadiens develop successive NHL coaches

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