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Coaching The Farm: 1981-1990 — The Habs’ farm team develops successive NHL coaches

Pat Burns made a rapid ascent through the ranks of professional hockey.

Pat Burns Getty Images

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.

Part I: 1963-68

Part II: 1968-81

John Brophy (AHL Nova Scotia Voyageurs, 1981-1984)

John Brophy was the final head coach and general manager of the affiliate in Halifax, lasting three seasons, and being a breath of fresh air compared to the abrupt Templeton. One of Brophy’s big proponents was Guy Carbonneau, who enjoyed his time under Brophy’s tutelage.

“In my year (in Halifax) I had the misfortune of falling on Bert Templeton. I still had a good year, but during the following season’s training camp the Canadiens asked me to return to the Voyageurs, but I didn’t want to have to go through that same experience again. In the meantime, the team hired Brophy, and that’s when I decided to go to Halifax. Brophy wasn’t a hockey genius, but he knew how to motivate his players. He helped me raise my morale by giving me a push in the back frequently because he knew I was capable of playing in the NHL. He really helped to get me there.” (La Presse, 1988)

When the Canadiens decided to move their affiliate to Sherbrooke, it was determined that Brophy would not follow due to falling out of favour with Serge Savard. Brophy was a bit of a loner, and word has it that Halifax assistant coach Andre Boudrias was moved to a scouting position with the Canadiens because Brophy was not using his services. Besides, it was deemed that as a unilingual coach, Brophy would not mesh well with a city like Sherbrooke. A year earlier when Bob Berry’s job was in question in Montreal, it was clear that Brophy was not a candidate for the role.

Brophy was snapped up by the Toronto Maple Leafs organization soon after, initially to be assistant coach and eventually head coach of the NHL team. Meanwhile Brophy’s ignored assistant, Andre Boudrias, would go on to be one of the most prominent figures in the Canadiens organization for the next decade as Savard’s right-hand man for years to come.

Pierre Creamer (AHL Sherbrooke Canadiens, 1984-1987)

Although the rumour initially had Jean Perron being offered the role, Pierre Creamer was selected to be the first head coach and general manager of the new Sherbrooke Canadiens; a promotion from within for him from the Verdun Junior Canadiens, signing a two-year contract for the new role.

In his first season behind the bench, the Canadiens’ farm team won the Calder Cup for the first time in seven years despite a difficult start to the season, backstopped by a certain young goaltender named Patrick Roy. Immediately, Creamer was in high demand around the province, notably rumoured to be joining the Laval Voisins of the QMJHL as general manager, but Savard quashed those rumours quickly.

By the second season he had Jacques Lemaire keeping a closer eye on Creamer as Lemaire was promoted to the Director of Player Personnel for the Canadiens. “I’ve always found it important that the coach gets some feedback in his work,” said Lemaire to Le Soleil. “I will go to Sherbrooke for a few days to speak with Creamer, watch game film and practices, and then report back to Serge, who will always know what’s happening in his organization.”

After three seasons at the post, it was Sherbrooke Canadiens president Georges Guilbault who raised his coach’s profile by saying “All teams in the NHL who are looking for a coach should look towards Sherbrooke. Pierre is ripe for either a head coach or a general manager job in the league. He is equally able to guide a team behind the bench as he is from the second floor. Look at the success he had again this year. This team has shattered several AHL records and all the credit goes to him, along with (assistants) Francois Allaire and Jean Hamel. The Canadiens can count on a quality coaching staff. I would love for him to stay with us, but I get the impression that he is about to make a jump.”

A month later, after the Canadiens were eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs, Creamer was called to the big show by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pat Burns (AHL Sherbrooke Canadiens, 1987-88)

Burns joined the Sherbrooke Canadiens after four years behind the bench of the Hull Olympiques of the QMJHL. He signed a three-year contract with the Canadiens organization, but unlike his immediate predecessors, Burns did not also inherit the role of AHL general manager. That responsibility went to Boudrias who added it to his functions as assistant general manager to Serge Savard.

“We only had two serious candidates to replace Creamer,” said Savard, “[Sherbrooke assistant coach] Jean Hamel and Pat Burns. It was experience that gave the job to Burns. We also considered Clement Jodoin, but never approached him about the role.” (Le Soleil, 1987).

But Savard also upped the ante for Burns, immediately saying that the coach could graduate to Montreal as soon as the following season. “We only have two coaches in Montreal, whereas most other teams in the league have three.”

In Burns’ only season as AHL head coach, the Canadiens gave up the fewest goals in the league, backstopped by a fantastic season from Vincent Riendeau, but the team would end up being eliminated by the Fredericton Express in the first round of the playoffs.

During the course of the season, the Canadiens had to deal with a bit of a PR disaster when a beat reporter recorded Burns flipping his lid about several players after a Sherbrooke loss using colourful language, to put it mildly. At the conclusion of the rant the reporter ran to the nearest telephone to get the soundbyte played directly on the radio, without the benefit of censors. It was sensational media, but forever drove a wedge between the team and the reporters who follow it.

“I had no idea he was recording. If I knew, do you think I would have swore on the radio like that? I doubt that I am the first coach to swear after a loss, nor will I be the last. The other reporter that was there was also in the room at the time, but he had the decency to do a proper interview in due course afterwards.” (La Presse, 1987)

Savard’s prophecy would eventually fulfill itself in a certain way as the Canadiens brought Burns up to the NHL the following season, but not as assistant coach to Jean Perron, but rather his replacement. Savard was tired of tales of late-night drinks and lack of discipline among his team, and figured that former policeman and discipline-demander Burns would whip the team into shape. They would make it to the Stanley Cup Final in his very first season.

Jean Hamel (AHL Sherbrooke Canadiens, 1988-90)

Jean Hamel ascended to the head-coaching position in Sherbrooke after three-and-a-half seasons as assistant coach for the team and four years after an eye injury ended his on-ice hockey career. Hamel admitted being upset that Burns was preferred over him initially, but eventually admitted that the additional year as an assistant was beneficial for his developement.

“I had the opportunity to work under two great coaches. Creamer had a lot of coaching experience and was an excellent administrator. Burns was very strict as a coach but he also knew how to earn the confidence of his players.”

Facing an expiring contract with the Canadiens, Hamel was looking to take the next step in his coaching career. “He’s a great coach in the AHL and he does excellent work. Unfortunately for him, there are no open positions in Montreal,” said Savard (Le Droit, 1990), knowing full well that he might lose his head coach if a better offer came. “Like in the case of Pierre Creamer, we won’t try to hold him back if another NHL team offered him a contract. However, if another organization wants him for their AHL team, we will counter with a new contract.” (Le Soleil, 1990). That quote was specifically directed at the Quebec Nordiques, who were rumoured to be offering a deal to Hamel to coach their AHL affiliate in Halifax.

Hamel spent all six seasons the Habs farm team was in Sherbrooke on the coaching staff. The Hockey News named Hamel their minor-league coach of the year in 1990.

He eventually accepted an offer to become the general manager and head coach of the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL. He chose to coach in junior because he was tired of the travel requirements of playing in the pros and just wanted to teach hockey above all else. He coached in the QMJHL for six seasons.