Mario Tremblay has ruined it for every tape-watchin', system-installin', acronym-inventin', clich�-spoutin' fraud who has ever put chalk to blackboard. Coaching? Yeah, so? Tremblay is the coach of the Montreal Canadiens, which, other than managing for George Steinbrenner or being the public-relations director for the Los Angeles Clippers, is reputed to be the toughest job in sports. But as of Sunday he was 7-1 since taking over on Oct. 21 with precisely zero previous experience as a coach.
Changing lines? Sure. Tremblay did that at Montreal radio station CKAC, where he cohosted a sports talk show and would hang up on Robert from Ville St. Pierre on Line 1 and go to Gilles from Laval on Line 3. "I love this job. I'm really getting into it," the hockey player turned broadcaster turned coach said between sips of beer in his office last Saturday night after the Canadiens had thumped the Boston Bruins 4-1. "I always loved being in the middle of the action, and this is where the action is."
Blessedly there is a discernible pulse again at the Forum. The Canadiens, after missing the playoffs last spring for the first time in a quarter of a century, were outscored 22-4 in losing their first five games this season, and the only appropriate accompaniment for the grim events at hockey's shrine was a dirge. Or a laugh track. But in a giddy, logic-defying and wildly successful makeover that began with the Oct. 17 firing of general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers, the Canadiens, under Tremblay and new G.M. R�jean Houle, have rekindled the passion that makes hockey in Montreal distinct.
The Canadiens had grown musty after their 1993 Stanley Cup victory, and following their abysmal start this year there was an outcry for team president Ronald Corey to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, to air out the franchise before the move to the new Forum in March. Instead, Corey looked in his backyard and snubbed experience in favor of genetics. He reached out for two men who were part of Montreal's powerhouse teams of the 1970s.
Corey's hiring Houle was about as close as you can get to marrying your cousin. Houle was the public-relations director at Molson Brewery, which owns the team, and president of the Canadiens' Old-Timers Association. He had been out of the NHL since retiring in 1983. He knew the Canadiens well enough, but he didn't know the league. "I'd be lying if I told you I knew the 15th guy on Anaheim's team," Houle said. In the press gallery they all agreed he ran a great beer tent at the Formula One Grand Prix race in Montreal every June, but they didn't know if he could be the caretaker of the NHLs most storied team.
"It's a different kind of work, but it all boils down to managing human resources," Houle said. "In beer, you have to get the right product on the table. Here you have to get the right product on the ice."
After Houle was hired and charged with finding a coach, he immediately thought of Tremblay, a close friend from their playing days. Tremblay also thought of Tremblay, though he didn't tell CKAC listeners that. (On the air, he was mentioning Alain Vigneault, an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators, as a candidate to coach the Canadiens.) "Ronald Corey challenged me, asking me if I was sure I wanted a coach with no experience," Houle said. "But Mario's been around the game all his life. And he has a presence, a big character. I really believe if you have the right person, he can learn the job as he goes."
Tremblay was a wild-eyed, wildly popular third-line winger who was a big part of Forum lore for 12 seasons. He assisted on the Game 7 overtime winner in the 1979 semifinals against Boston that kept Montreal's streak of four straight Stanley Cups alive, and he broke Peter Stastny's nose with a punch in the infamous Good Friday playoff game against the Quebec Nordiques in '84. Tremblay was brought in as coach to instill emotion into the mopes wearing bleu, blanc el rouge this season.
After eight games, in which the Canadiens zoomed out of the dressing room and outscored opponents 18-3 in the first period, it's obvious that Tremblay can locate an adrenal gland. But he was not expected to tinker so extensively with personnel, shuffling players with such abandon you would think he was one of his old talk-show callers offering a quick fix for the team.
Tremblay dropped winger Vincent Damphousse from the first line and put third-line center Brian Savage on left wing with Pierre Turgeon and Mark Recchi. The result? Savage was tied with Mario Lemieux with a league-high 12 goals through Sunday. "I should pinch myself," Savage said after Saturday's win, in which he scored a goal. "Mario and me. The odds must have been pretty high on that."