None of his NHL rivals would blame him—and most would be downright relieved—if Sam Pollock, the boss of the Montreal Canadiens, took life a little easier. It would be perfectly O.K. with them if Pollock, the Godfather of hockey, let a day pass without making the Atlanta Flames, say, or the Los Angeles Kings another of his too-good-to-refuse trade offers. And nobody would protest if, just once, Pollock went a whole weekend without combing the NHL bylaws for loopholes that might benefit the Canadiens. Go catch a trout, Sam. Play a round of golf. Enjoy yourself.
Alas, Sam Pollock is not cut that way. At 51, he remains what he has always been, a ham-fisted little man who simply cannot help brooding and fussing over his beloved hockey team. He finds no peace in the fact that Les Canadiens are a sports dynasty ranking right up there with the old New York Yankees and Boston Celtics. Or that the current team, which some people are calling the best in NHL history, opened its quarterfinal-round playoff series against St. Louis this week as a solid favorite to win a second straight Stanley Cup, and the eighth in Pollock's 13 years as general manager. Or that the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, Montreal's entry in the American Hockey League, are loaded with enough young talent to keep the parent club strong for years to come.
"You just can't relax," Pollock pleads, discounting these all-too-apparent riches. "You can't take anything for granted. People say we're the best, but the Stanley Cup is like a new season. In horse racing, 2-to-5 favorites don't always win, know what I mean?"
A gruff high school dropout who bears little resemblance to the sort of glad-handing boulevardier you might expect to be running the dashing Canadiens, Pollock is a paunchy 5'6�", with slitted eyes and a viselike mouth. Although he speaks French as well as English, he says so little for publication in either language that reporters invariably write about his mannerisms rather than his words. Thus it has been duly recorded that when he is not nervously pacing the floor, Pollock spends a lot of time clutching the bottom of one of his shoes, blowing his nose (he suffers from sinusitis) and mopping his monkish bald patch.
It is also well chronicled that Pollock seldom sets foot inside an airplane if he can possibly help it, journeying to such distant points as Minnesota and Chicago, and even Los Angeles, by chauffeur-driven limousine. He characteristically declines to say why—"It's nobody's damned business"—except to note that he can get a lot of paperwork done in the back seat of an automobile. So it was that Pollock set out the other day for a meeting of the NHL's Player-Owner Council in New York. As the driver wheeled Pollock's 1977 Lincoln Continental off on the start of the 750-mile round trip, the boss sat beneath a dim light, poring over the contents of the four briefcases that always accompany him. He arrived in New York at midnight and showed up at the meeting the next morning. The eight others in attendance flew in for the session, which was held, after all, at La Guardia Airport.
Despite his unorthodoxies, Pollock manages to stay a step ahead of everybody else. In New York he stayed in a $160-a-day suite at the Regency Hotel, where two jangling telephones kept him huffing and puffing. Boston's Harry Sinden would call on one phone, whereupon St. Louis' Emile Francis would ring on the other, and Pollock would no sooner hang up a receiver than somebody else would be on the line. During a lull, he slumped onto a couch, his ruddy features tightening into a faint smile. "Isn't this something?" he said, acting as though it were all out of the ordinary.
The fact is that Pollock built the present-day Canadiens with a succession of Byzantine deals (see box) that required phone calls—and plenty of them. But Pollock is unlike certain other wheeler-dealers you find in sports—George Allen, Jack Kent Cooke, F. Eugene Dixon Jr. and Mike Burke, to name a few. They traffic in big names and big bucks and expect quick results. Pollock prefers to build his juggernauts gradually. "There's a temptation in sports to try to buy instant success," he says. "You keep reading where teams make trades to help them this season. We hardly ever do that. We make deals that will help us three or four years from now."
Pollock concentrates on hoarding first-round draft choices, which have become his stock in trade. Drawing on Montreal's seemingly bottomless pool of talent, he deals surplus players, who are good enough to help most other teams, for first-round choices, the best of whom eventually become the Guy Lafleurs, Steve Shutts and Bob Gaineys that Montreal keeps turning up. Those who fall short of stardom become the surplus players he then trades, neatly enough, for more first-round choices. Pollock is so adroit at all this that he went into the NHL's amateur draft a few years back with five first-round picks, leaving the remaining 11 to be divvied up by the 15 other teams. In all, eight of the present Canadiens were first-round selections, with seven of the eight being claimed with other teams' picks. Nor is the end in sight; Pollock has options on at least four first-round picks in the next two years.
Simple though the procedure appears, it works only because Pollock is skilled at both judging and developing talent. For all his nervous mannerisms, he can be both patient and circumspect. An improbable organization man, he surrounds himself with sound hockey people like Coach Scotty Bowman and former Coach Claude Ruel, now the club's director of player development. It is a measure of Pollock's confidence in them—and, heaven knows, of his patience—that he does not listen to radio broadcasts of Montreal road games. Instead, he waits for Bowman or Ruel to telephone him with the results. "It's hard to follow something I can't see," he says. "When I get it from Scotty or Claude, then I know what's happened."
In an era of free agents, runaway salaries and general turmoil in sports, Pollock has been a bastion of common sense. "Sports is basically a business like any other," he preaches. "You've got to keep expenditures in line with revenues." When the rival WHA came along to bid up salaries, Pollock was flexible enough to increase his payroll and offer multi-year contracts. Unlike the wild-spending New York Rangers, however, he refused to go overboard, swallowing hard as R�jean Houle, J. C. Tremblay, Frank Mahovlich and Marc Tardif bolted to the WHA. Similarly, when Goaltender Ken Dryden asked to renegotiate his contract after leading the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1973, Pollock refused. Dryden sat out a year in protest, the Canadiens lost the Cup and Pollock wrung his hands even more than usual. But Dryden returned the next season ( Houle is now back, too), and while the goaltender does not admit he was wrong, he will not say Pollock was in error, either.