After completing the 1979-80 season on his own, Claude Ruel made the request to Managing Director Irving Grundman for an assistant coach for the next season in order to remain behind the bench.
“I don’t want a guy who says one thing to me, but says something else to the players,” said Ruel to La Presse. “We need unconditional trust towards one another, otherwise we’re starting off on the wrong foot.”
Ruel knew a thing or two about the role of the assistant coach, occupying the role under head coach Scotty Bowman previously. But unlike with Bowman, Ruel was considering having the assistant behind the bench with him, which would be a first for the Montreal Canadiens.
“I haven’t thought of anyone in particular, but I have a few names in mind,” claimed Ruel. However one candidate emerged immediately in media speculations: former Canadiens defenceman Jacques Laperrière.
Laperrière was a life-long member of the organization, like Ruel and Bowman, and spent 12 seasons playing for Montreal. Prior to this was the top graduate of their Hull-Ottawa farm team, after playing his Junior years with the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After his retirement, he returned to the renamed Montreal Juniors to act as head coach. The job only lasted two years, as Laperrière was turned off by the violence in the Junior game.
“It wasn’t hockey and I wanted nothing to do with it. There were brawls non-stop. I saw 20-year-olds beat up 16-year-olds. They would stick fingers in each others’ eyes. There were people who liked this,” reminisced Laperrière in 1997 discussing his departure 20 years prior.
Another candidate who was widely speculated in the press was Jacques Demers, who had just resigned suddenly as head coach of the Québec Nordiques. He admitted he was interested, and already having some early conversations with Ruel about the assistant role.
Ruel was more coy when asked about the rumour. “That guy does good work. He has NHL experience and he likes hockey. I didn’t think about him, but if he becomes available, maybe I’ll need to read up on him a little bit.”
Demers did indeed end up meeting with Ruel where they discussed the position, with Demers doing everything he could to get the job, but the outcome of that meeting was rather conclusive: Laperrière was the only candidate.
The only problem was that Laperrière wasn’t exactly in the good graces of the organization in 1980, as several years prior he sued the Canadiens organization for $50,000, money his lawyers claimed he was owed through an insurance clause in his contract when a knee injury brought an end to his playing career in 1974. The Canadiens argued that he wasn’t eligible for the payout because of some contractual irregularity.
An initial out-of-court settlement offer of $45,000 reportedly failed, and the two parties went to trial on June 26, 1980 in the heat of the rumours about the assistant coaching position. On the second day, the two parties managed to smooth things over, and came to an agreement, ending the lawsuit and concluding the trial without a verdict.
The sudden amicable ending only served to fuel the rumour machine.
“This was the most unpleasant experience of my life and I regret it to this day,” reminisced Laperrière in 1997. “Alan Eagleson and the Players’ Association took advantage of me. It wasn’t right. I got a $50,000 settlement but there wasn’t much left after everyone got paid.”
Come August, and with training camp fast approaching, Ruel began having a change of heart. Maybe he didn’t need an assistant after all. With all the talk of splitting coaching tasks and handing off some practice duties, Ruel began back-peddling.
“I still have not approached anyone for the role, and I’m keeping my options open. If I decide to name an assistant, it will be my choice and on my terms. Nobody else’s. I have a lot of things to consider, and that’s why I want to give myself a few more days to think about it. I need to do what’s best for the team, but also for me.”
The possibility existed that changing from tradition in an organization such as the Montreal Canadiens and hiring an assistant could be perceived as a weakness, as it did the first time around for Ruel. Maintaining a firm grip on the players required a practically autocratic approach, and Ruel was concerned about how a dilution of responsibility would be perceived by everyone. To say that the head coaching position was his least favourite role on the Canadiens, and the one that caused him the most mental anguish, would be an understatement.
On August 15, over three months after Ruel gave his conditions to remain as head coach, Laperrière was officially hired by the Canadiens on a one-year contract, but not as assistant coach.
“Jacques will back me up on a bunch of tasks, as much during practice as on trips,” said a decisive Ruel. “Although it’s absolutely out of the question that he join me behind the bench. This is my team and I intend to run it during the games, as I did previously.”
Laperrière was given the title of Director of Special Assignments, and his role would include seconding Ruel in player evaluations, helping with on-ice for practices where he would be expected to occasionally take the lead, and also some potential scouting duties.
“I have tremendous respect for Claude,” said Laperrière in his address to the media on his first day on the job. “More so, I consider him a friend. He gave me my first shot with the Juniors and we have followed each other other since then. I know that we will get along.”
Officially, Laperrière was only contacted by Ruel the day previous, after an in-person interview with Ruel, followed by one with Grundman. Things came together quickly it was said, but given that his name began circulating back in May, some informal conversations must have taken place prior, as Ruel had to make sure that his assistant had no ambition to dethrone him.
As before, Ruel did not enjoy being coach, even with the added help of Laperrière who would watch games from the stands just like all the predecessors.
In March of 1981, Ruel fell severely ill, said to be stress-related, and Laperrière coached the Canadiens for several games. The stress was potentially related to the tumultuous relationship Ruel had with Grundman, notably finding out about trades from the media rather than from his boss. By the playoffs, Laperrière was behind the bench working alongside Ruel, becoming the first assistant coach to do so in the organization’s history.
The Canadiens lost in the first round of the playoffs that year, swept by the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers. Ruel resigned soon after, coinciding with Laperrière’s contract coming to an end and the late 70s dynasty of the Canadiens was showing signs of decline as the team was headed into the new decade. Laperrière’s name came up as a potential successor to Ruel, but Grundman had some other ideas.