The NHL Entry Draft is one of the most important annual events for every team, as it is an opportunity to ensure a successful transition from a current roster to a future, hopefully more successful, version of their franchise. For that reason, being prepared, scouting high and low, and taking risks are a necessity.
Over the years, as competition grew fiercer, the scouting radius became bigger, scouting staffs grew, and eventually coordinating the whole operation and making final decisions became too much for a general manager to handle.
This series will look at the people responsible behind the scenes who were directly responsible for drafting for the Canadiens, and what their luck was at the draft table.
Claude Ruel — Responsible for drafting 1972-1975, 1983
Claude Ruel, a Sherbrooke native, was a lifelong soldier for the Montreal Canadiens organization, taking on any role required of him. He actually started as a defensive prospect in the organization with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, however his playing career was cut short in 1958 when he was struck, and partially blinded by a puck. A mere three years later, Ruel was coaching the Montreal Junior Canadiens, the organization’s top junior team, before earning a promotion to Director of Scouting in 1963, responsible for coordinating scouting activities.
Ten years after the accident that ended his playing career, he coached the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup, despite the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Toe Blake behind the bench. He was never comfortable in that role, but he did whatever was asked of him. A few games into the 1970-71 season Ruel resigned from the head coaching position to return to his previous post of Director of Scouting.
It was at this point that his influence began to grow. He proved his mettle, fighting to convince Managing Director Sam Pollock to draft Larry Robinson in 1971. Afterwards, his responsibilities began to include the additional pressure of making the final call for the draft. Traditionally it was Pollock who chose picks for the Canadiens, as did the General Managers before him, but starting with the 1972 Amateur Draft, Claude Ruel was assigned the role of selecting the player.
“Sam will not interfere in the selection of players. The selection of players will rest solely on the shoulders of the Head Scout. It’s hard for Sam to pass any judgement because he rarely had a chance to see any of these young players during the hockey season,” said Ruel to La Presse when interviewed ahead of his first draft. Pollock's involvement in the process began and ended with the reading of the selection.
Ruel’s very first selection was used to take Steve Shutt fourth overall. It was a home run selection. Shutt would end up outscoring the entire draft class, and finishing second in points overall. Between 1972 and 1975, Ruel drafted 67 players, as NHL teams teams would take turns picking until there they had no more names on their list.
Three years later, for the 1975-76 season, Ruel was promoted to Director of Player Development, temporarily moving him away from scouting for new prospects, and more into developing existing ones. Ruel was called for duty behind the Canadiens’ bench for a second time in 1979-80 to replace firebrand Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion.
Ruel coached out the season and one more before once again relinquishing a role that weighed too heavily on him. He returned once again to Director of Player Development. Though he was uncomfortable behind the bench, many of his players credit Ruel’s work in this role for bringing the best out of them.
“The Canadiens weren’t satisfied with me just being a fighter, and that started from day one,” pugnacious forward Chris Nilan once told the Montreal Gazette. “Claude Ruel worked with me day in and day out. I loved the man. I mean, I absolutely love Claude Ruel.”
In April of 1983 Canadiens President Ronald Corey cleaned house and fired Managing Director Irving Grundman, along with Head Coach Bob Berry and Director of Recruitment and Player Personnel Ronald Caron.
Corey named Ruel as the Head of Scouting and his right hand man until further notice. Ruel was heavily involved in the 1983 draft, along with Caron who would complete his duties at the draft before being officially let go. This would be the final time Ruel occupied the position. Ruel once again became the Director of Player Personnel on June 13, 1984. Serge Savard would be responsible for all scouting and recruiting matters, but Ruel will be his assistant. Doug Robinson was confirmed as Director of Scouting at the same time.
Ruel remained in the Canadiens’ organization until the end of the 1994-95 season, after almost 30 years of involvement in the organization. He passed away in February 2015 leaving behind a massive legacy of drafting, developing, and coaching for the Canadiens.
CLAUDE RUEL’S DRAFT TRACK RECORD (1972-1975, 1983)
- Total players drafted: 81
- Total players who attained the NHL: 36
- Success rate: 44%
- Best draft: 1974, 13 out 18 players made the NHL
- Top five players: Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt, Claude Lemieux, Mario Tremblay, Pierre Mondou
- Fun fact: In 1983, Ruel picked veteran superstar Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak in the seventh round, 138th overall. Tretiak was famous in Montreal for the New Year’s Eve game in 1975 between the Soviet Union and the Canadiens (and also the 1972 Summit Series), and when his name was called, there was a roar of joy in the Montreal Forum where the draft was held. However, Tretiak never crossed the Atlantic to play in the NHL.