“Berry didn’t work under the best circumstances last season,” new General Manager Serge Savard said, alluding to the relationship that Bob Berry had with Savard’s predecessor, Irving Grundman, when announcing the composition of his coaching staff for the upcoming season.
“Two people is no longer enough to coach 24 to 25 players,” theorized Berry when it was announced he was returning to his duty as head coach. “We had three in Los Angeles, most teams now have success with three. I asked for it last year, but Mr. Grundman refused without really giving me a reason.”
First, Savard and Berry confirmed that Jacques Laperrière would return as assistant coach for the third season (if you count that first year with Claude Ruel under a different job title).
Secondly, the first-ever second assistant coach was named. The newcomer to the coaching staff was Jacques Lemaire who had just recently been nominated Quebec Major Junior coach of the year.
“It’s a completely different feeling and totally fresh,” said Berry after the hires. “I’m surrounded with competence, to the point where I don’t call them assistants but rather associates. It is a very positive start.” Indeed, during training camp, Berry and Lemaire would constantly be in communication, analyzing, theorizing, and discussing. Laperrière, more reserved of the two assistants, would give more thorough feedback on a higher level.
In addition to Lemaire and Laperrière, Jacques Plante was also hired on a part-time basis as an assistant coach focused on goaltender development, making it “The Three Jacques”. Plante’s hire was a second attempt at having a goaltending consultant on staff after a negative experience with Ken Dryden in the role for the 1981-82 season. Although Rick Wamsley, Richard Sévigny, and Denis Herron won the Vezina trophy that year, they did not get along with Dryden who tried to change their style, which caused friction between the two parties. Plante came with more experience, having worked with the Philadelphia Flyers’ goalies for several years prior.
During the preseason, Berry alternated between Laperrière and Lemaire to see which assistant coach worked best on the bench next to him and which worked better looking at the game from the press box. Whichever one found himself in the press box had a direct communication to the bench via a wireless headset that would be worn by the assistant on the bench. This ‘eye in the sky’ real-time perspective was previously attempted by Bowman and Ruel but was never fully implemented and was abandoned for several years afterwards.
When the 1983-84 season started, Laperrière watched the inaugural game of the season against the Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, from Savard’s new personal press box, while Lemaire stayed ice level, running warm-ups prior to the game. It would be Laperriere’s turn to second Berry behind the bench later in the season when Lemaire found himself on crutches after a jogging accident.
Despite all the right moves being made by Savard to give his team a good start, he soured on Berry quickly. By February 1984 Berry was gone, and Lemaire found himself quickly nominated to head coach. In that role, Lemaire decided that Laperrière would join him behind the bench full time to manage the defencemen during the game.
“We have a game plan to follow,” said Lemaire, “and to execute it fully I need to put my focus exclusively on the forwards. For example, against the Rangers we found ourselves with just two right wingers, so that required all of my attention. You have to be quick in this league if you don’t want to watch the game pass by you.”
Lemaire guided the Canadiens to the conference finals where they lost to the New York Islanders in six games, which was the best result for the team since they last won the Stanley Cup in 1979.
The following season Lemaire returned to the two-assistant model established by Berry, a now accepted standard practice for the Montreal Canadiens, and added Jean Perron to his staff. Perron was considered quite the coup for the Canadiens organization. The Quebec Nordiques were also after Perron, but he chose Montreal after several months of considerations. When talks began with Savard, he had requested a head coaching job with the Sherbrooke Canadiens, but Savard made his choice on Pierre Creamer for that particular role.
“Jacques Lemaire promised me a lot of work, and he’s true to his word,” said Perron. “My job consists of evaluating the work of the players during the games and practices. I give my thoughts to Jacques Lemaire and Laperriere, and they do with those what they want.” Laperrière would remain the lone assistant coach behind the bench.
One important innovation that Perron introduced to the Canadiens was group stretching prior to and after practices. Beforehand, players would warm up by skating around lightly. Perron brought with him his experience he gained under Dave King and Team Canada, and this was one of the standards. The goal being to reduce the number of injuries on players by increasing their flexibility and suppleness.
By the end of the 1984-85 season, Lemaire resigned from the head coaching job to take a position as Director of Player Personnel. Perron was promoted to the role of head coach, setting him up for a historic season ahead, but a step backwards for the coaching philosophy of the team.