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The story of Montreal Canadiens assistant coaches: Part lll — Bob Berry doubles up on assistants

The league evolves as does the coaching job, leaving the Canadiens behind.

Denis Brodeur Collection Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

By the end of the 1980-81 season, Claude Ruel resigned from his head coach position to return to the more familiar surroundings of talent evaluation, and the search was on for his replacement. Rumoured names included Ruel’s assistant coach, Jacques Laperrière, freshly-retired Serge Savard, Jacques Demers, and, yes, even Don Cherry who coached Team Canada at the World Championships that summer that included Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson. Earlier in the season, Cherry famously said, “I would have my own hand cut off to coach the Canadiens.” But whoever was selected as head coach, they would certainly need an assistant.

Laperrière believed that the days of a single coach were over and that the increasing demands and the evolution of the game made it imperative that a head coach have at least two assistants to delegate specific tasks to. “Hockey has not changed. It’s still the same sport. But it’s the approach that is different, and it is much more specialized. Especially in Montreal, it’s even harder, because the pressure to win is that much higher and I do not think it will get any easier, either.

“Hockey continues to evolve. Gone are the days where the players are tossing pucks into the zone and chasing after it. Today, with the European influence, players will have to be more creative and will need set plays ahead of time.

“But in order to do that, you need a team of coaches to lead them. You need coaches to prep video for practice like they did in Vancouver and Edmonton this year. Long-term preparation has become key and not last minute planning. You have to be able to show your players how to play against certain opponents with film, for instance.”

In the end, Irving Grundman hired former Los Angeles Kings head coach Bob Berry to coach the Canadiens for the 1981-82 season. Far from a popular choice with the media for being purely anglophone, Berry was a known disciplinarian, which was needed for a roster of players who may have taken advantage of the fragile Ruel the previous year.

With his contract expiring, and uncertain of his future, Laperrière admitted that Berry should have the liberty to choose his own assistant, “I can probably go and assist Ruel in his scouting duties.”

Los Angeles Kings
Bob Berry
Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

Berry had two assistants in Los Angeles, Ralph Backstrom and Parker MacDonald, with the latter eventually joining Berry behind the bench towards the end of the season. The question arose — how many assistants would Berry request in Montreal. Two? Three? Most importantly, would Berry have them behind the bench with him?

The answer was one, and as it turned out, Laperrière would remain with the organization, signing an extension, and receiving the title of Assistant Coach that eluded him under Ruel. “Jacques was the best person for the job,” said Berry in an interview with La Presse. “He represents a continuity between the coaching staff and the players. It was important for me to have someone who knew the strengths and weaknesses of all the players.”

Another thing that Berry liked about Laperrière was the latter’s lack of ambition for the former’s job. “I would turn down any head coaching offers if they came tomorrow,” said Laperrière as part of a frequent message to douse any potential controversies surrounding the unpopular choice for coach. “Ten years from now? Maybe. But not right now.”

Laperrière would, for now, be expected to watch games from up in the stands. “It’s possible that I will eventually do like in Los Angeles, and hand off certain responsibilities like the power play or penalty kill. We will see how things go”. By the early 80s, having an assistant behind the bench started becoming more and more the norm in the National Hockey League. The Québec Nordiques had assistant Simon Nolet join Michel Bergeron on the bench. Even Scotty Bowman began offloading more responsibilities to his two bench deputies in Buffalo, in stark contrast to his time in Montreal. Berry decided to go the traditional route.

But even the deeply tradition-rooted Canadiens couldn’t fight off progress, and towards the latter end of the 1982-83 season, Laperrière did eventually work his way down to the bench to continue the trailblazing work he began with Ruel. Continuing his work as the first assistant coach to stand beside the head coach on the bench during a game.

The evolution came, not from a point of view of coaching strategy, but at the request of the players themselves who had a very good relationship with Laperrière, especially 19-year-old defenceman Gilbert Delorme who really saw the benefits of having the assistant coach behind the bench. “Yes, I think it’s a great decision,” Delorme said in an interview at the time. “Jacques can’t do everything and see everything when he’s behind the bench, that’s certain, but he helps us a lot. It’s a positive development.”

The Canadiens were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs once again that spring, and in one of the more infamous dates in Montreal Canadiens history, April 13, 1983, new team president Ronald Corey fired General Manager Irving Grundman and head of scouting Ronald Caron in the biggest organizational purge in franchise history.

It was confirmed that Berry and Laperrière, although still under contract, were re-assigned in the organization so the new general manager could pick his head coach, and for the new head coach to pick his assistants. A few days later, Savard was named the new general manager of the team, and after a brief search period, he re-confirmed Berry in his duties as head coach.

Savard would also grant one of Berry’s wishes that fell onto deaf ears under the previous administration. Berry had requested two assistant coaches from Grundman, but Grundman did not believe in hiring more than one person to shoulder Berry. Perhaps sardonically, Grundman offered that his son Howard, who was the Director of Hockey Administration, “could do a good a job as any hockey person”, but Berry declined the offer.

Now under new management, Berry would be able to grow his coaching staff as he had initially desired to meet the challenges and needs of an evolving league.