Assessing the Montreal Canadiens—the purportedly new, improved, rededicated Canadiens—is like assessing the proverbial glass of water. Is it half empty or half full? Is Bob Berry, who coaches the Canadiens or psychoanalyzes them or something, a genuine chain-smoking genius or merely a local boy making good, a guy who got lucky when he split last May from Dr. Jerry Buss and Buss's atrophying Los Angeles Kings? Is Montreal a true contender for the Stanley Cup or, once again, just another tomato can that will head straight for Palookaville once the playoffs begin?
On one hand, these Canadiens are essentially the same bunch that took an early postseason powder in both 1980 and '81. On the other hand, at the end of last week they had lost only once in their preceding 27 games, in the process running away from Buffalo and Boston in the Adams Division and overtaking Edmonton for the second-best record in the NHL, 42-12-17. Unlike the last couple of seasons, Montreal is clearly skating toward the playoffs with that old Esprit du Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
True, the Canadiens came on strong at the end of 1980-81 as well, going 18-4-7 in their final 29 regular-season games, only to perform so wretchedly in an opening-round sweep by Edmonton that at least one fan wearing one of those world-famous red Canadien sweaters sat in the Montreal Forum with a paper bag over his head. Ah, but wait till this season's playoffs. The 1981-82 Canadiens have some added ingredients, the most important of which are a hot rookie who may stop the club from playing musical goalies and a tough, innovative coach who's at least as good as he is lucky.
The Canadiens couldn't be happier about working for Berry. Under his predecessor, Claude Ruel, who was the coach from December 1980 through the end of last season, the Flying Frenchmen were more on the order of the Crying Frenchmen. They lamented mostly over Ruel's style of play—to check, to defend, to bore. "A skater like me needs the puck," said Guy Lafleur, the six-time all-star wing, last fall, "but Claude kept saying, 'Stick with your check! Get back!' I started hesitating. My game fell apart." By playoff time last year, the mood was grim. Says Goaltender Rick Wamsley, "You wouldn't crack a joke for fear they'd send you to Siberia." Worst of all were Ruel's practices. "It was the same routine every day," says another Canadien. "Always the same drills, and always Claude yelling, 'Lug the middle! Lug the sides!' Even today I have no idea what that's supposed to mean."
Berry, 38, brought his three-pack-a-day habit and a fresh outlook. He uses videotape to scout upcoming opponents and draws up a game plan for each one. He keeps copious stats, spots tendencies and lets the numbers determine which players will dress for games. In short, Berry is modern. Heck, even his practices are enjoyable. Sometimes he orders a scrimmage in which the lefthanded shooters shoot righthanded, righties left. Other days it might be his "Chinese fire drill"—a game of 10-on-10 with no checking, icing or whistles. Berry's silliest routine follows three-on-three mini-games: Each loser must roll over on his back and bark twice like a dog. "In an 80-game season, know what's a lot worse than silly?" says Berry. "Monotony."
A bona fide townie, Berry grew up on Mount Royal, starred at wing for Montreal's Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University and can't remember not knowing the way to the Forum. A few days before Irving Grundman, the Canadiens' managing director, offered him the job, Berry spoke with Montreal Gazette sports editor Red Fisher.
"What are they looking for up there?" Berry asked.
"A bastard," Fisher replied. "Do you qualify?"
He does. At Sir George, Berry sat at the knee of Coach Paul Arsenault, who once had his players do pushups on the Forum ice minutes before a championship game. At preseason camp Berry established his authority when he fined Lafleur, whose birthday happened to be that day, for missing an 8:30 a.m. practice. Unlike Ruel, Berry plays no favorites. Citing their lack of spark, in December he benched the team's top two plus-minus leaders, defensemen Brian Engblom and Rod Langway, for most of a game. He also sat down Steve Shutt for three games. Shutt, the NHL's single-season record holder for goals by a left wing (60), had never missed a game while healthy in his 10-year career. Of Berry, Wing Rejean Houle told Al Strachan of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, "When a guy tells you there are six players too many on a team and that you keep your job only if you keep earning it, you get serious fast." Shutt did. In his first 14 games after the benching, he scored nine goals and had six assists.