The Montreal Canadiens had the first pick of the 1980 draft and the top prospect, according to everyone ranging from the Central Scouting Bureau to The Hockey News, was a big center from the Regina Pats named Doug Wickenheiser.
Claude Ruel disagreed. Vehemently. Even though he had stepped in for Boom-Boom Geoffrion as the team’s coach 30 games into that season, he had seen enough of Denis Savard to know that the Montreal-born star of the Montreal Juniors, who had put up 181 points in an inferior Quebec League, was destined for NHL stardom.
But Ruel was overruled by then Canadiens GM Irving Grumman and assistant GM Ron Caron, who both thought the Canadiens were too small at forward and needed a large presence down the middle.
History tells us, of course, that Ruel was right. Because when it came to identifying and developing young players, Ruel was always right.
Ruel, who died Monday morning at his condominium in suburban Montreal at the age of 76, has his name engraved on the Stanley Cup six times. But he’ll hardly go down in history with the likes of Sam Pollock, Frank Selke, Scotty Bowman, Dick Irvin or Toe Blake as an off-ice architect of the Canadiens dynasties. Unlike the previously mentioned five men, Ruel is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, which should probably change.
Because Ruel made a lot of those builders look good with his eye for talent and his ability to nurture it. From the forgotten dynasty of the 1960s until the 1990s, there was not a homegrown player for the Canadiens who does not have Ruel’s fingerprints all over his blueprint for success. Ruel didn’t just see talent, he was able to bring out the most in it.
Larry Robinson is a great example of that. The Canadiens, at Ruel’s urging, took Robinson in the second round of the 1971 draft, after they had already taken Guy Lafleur, Chuck Arnason and Murray Wilson with their three first-round picks. Ruel worked with Robinson off the ice in the off-season and groomed him into an NHLer, who starred alongside Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard on the Big Three, the lynchpin of one of the most dominant defense corps to ever play the game.
Ruel did much of his best work behind the scenes where he preferred to be. In many ways, Ruel was the reluctant coach of the Canadiens and was never cut out for the stress standing behind an NHL bench put on his life. He resigned midway through the 1970-71 season, a year in which the Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup under Al MacNeil. The season before, with the Canadiens out of a playoff spot in the final game of the season and down 5-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks in the third period, Ruel pulled his goalie for the last 10 minutes of the game and watched his team give up five empty-net goals.
It’s fitting that Ruel did much of his best coaching work as a trailblazing assistant for Scotty Bowman, devising defensive systems and strategies that would become vogue in later years. But it was his work as a talent identifier and developer that will be his enduring legacy on the game. For every Canadiens player from the 1960s to ‘90s who made it to the Hall of Fame, there were a number of people that helped get him there. Claude Ruel should take a backseat to no one when it comes to receiving some of the credit for it.
The Canadiens lost icon Jean Beliveau a little more than two months ago and the outpouring of affection was intense, very public and on an enormous scale. As it should have been for an icon of Beliveau’s stature. Chances are, Ruel’s passing will be marked in a much more understated way, just as the man himself lived.
But make no mistake. The hockey world has lost one of the greatest, underrated hockey minds it has ever had.