These days, when you look behind the bench of the Montreal Canadiens, you will see four coaches patrolling the players: Luke Richardson for the defencemen, Dominique Ducharme for the forwards, Kirk Muller for the special teams, and Claude Julien to oversee them all. It is quite a standard practice in the modern NHL to have numerous coaches. However this was not always the case.
Legendary coaches such as Dick Irvin and Toe Blake were alone behind the bench; no assistants were working alongside them during games. These legendary coaches managed the forwards, the defencemen, the special teams, and all things in between all by themselves by wielding a tight grip of power.
So the question becomes: When did the bench transition from a single head coach to a group of coaches? And who was the first assistant coach to go behind the bench? This series will explore this question.
The story begins with one person: Claude Ruel.
Ruel was the man of many faces and a loyal soldier for the Montreal Canadiens organization, going wherever he was needed and taking on whatever role was asked of him. Growing up playing hockey for the Montreal Junior Canadiens, an injury cut his playing career short, and he turned to coaching of Canadiens’ affiliates soon afterward.
He quickly made his way through the ranks and joined the parent club as a trusted member of the upper echelon. He was at his best as the Director of Scouting from 1963 to 1968, during which time he earned the trust of managing director Sam Pollock to make all the decisions during the amateur draft.
More often than not he was Director of Player Development (1975-1980, 1981-1995), taking great pride in making sure that the young prospects in the organization developed into permanent members of the Montreal Canadiens.
Finally, on a couple of occasions, Ruel was called to be behind the Canadiens’ bench as head coach. This is the relevant tranche of his career for this story.
The first time he coached — in 1968 — Ruel had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Blake who had freshly retired and moved into an executive role within the organization. It was two years into Ruel’s first stint as head coach that he brought on Montreal Voyageurs head coach Al MacNeil to serve as the first ever assistant coach in Canadiens history. The media were confused, fans were concerned, and people wanted to know whether it was setting up an eventual handover.
“It’s an innovation as far as we’re concerned,” said Managing Director Pollock reassuringly at the time. “Other teams have already begun using this system. In the near future every team will be using a head coach and one or more assistant coaches.”
“I picked MacNeil because I know him well,” said Ruel. “He’s an honest man, sincere. A hard worker in every situation. We know each other very well, so it will be easy to communicate. It’s a collaboration that we are undertaking.”
MacNeil would watch the games from the stands and provide feedback to Ruel, who continued to manage the bench by himself during games.
However the experiment was short-lived, as within three months of the nomination, Ruel quit the head-coaching post and left MacNeil to pick up the pieces mid-season. The early media speculation about the need for an assistant revealed itself to be true, and cynicism was placed on any future assistant-coaching hires.
MacNeil would also vacate the position at the conclusion of the season — not before winning the Stanley Cup — and return to Nova Scotia to coach the Canadiens’ farm team away from the spotlight and the language divide of Montreal.
MacNeil’s departure led to the promotion of Scotty Bowman to the head-coaching role. Bowman was similar to Ruel in the sense that he grew up in the Canadiens’ farm system, with an injury cutting his playing career short, and turned to coaching the Canadiens’ minor-league affiliates. Ruel, knowing Bowman for many years, served as his assistant, a role he was much more comfortable with, returning to the formula of head coach and assistant coach. Just like MacNeil, Ruel would watch the games from high above, and give Bowman some feedback after the games.
Ruel returned behind the bench a second time 10 seasons later in 1979 later to replace Bernie Geoffrion. Although he had the support and counsel of Ruel and Blake to work with, Geoffrion couldn’t stand the pressure of coaching in Montreal and left 30 games in.
Ruel completed the season on his own, but once in ended he approached new managing director Irving Grundman and presented him with his conditions to remain behind the bench.
“I gave Mr. Grundman honest and sincere conditions,” said Ruel to La Presse. “When you work with a group of 24 players there are things you like, and other things you don’t, and that’s what we talked about.”
He wanted an assistant coach.
“This past season I accepted the job almost half-way through the season. Under those circumstances it was best that I did everything on my own. But to start a season with 80 games, it will take two people”. Grundman accepted the condition within a week, and Ruel had the green light to hire his own assistant.
The search was the talk of the summer in the newspapers, and ultimately Ruel ended up choosing an assistant who would survive seven coaching changes, four general managers, and become one of the longest-tenured assistant coaches in the history of the National Hockey League. His story will be the subject of the next article in this series.