Ron “Le Prof” Caron
St. Louis Blues, 1983-1994, 1996-1997
Norris Division Titles, 1984-1985, 1986-1987
Playoff Appearances: 1984-1994, 1997
The late Ron Caron was one of many bright pupils who learned at the knee of Sam Pollock. In twelve seasons of NHL general managing, Caron led the St. Louis Blues to eight winning seasons, two divisional titles, and twelve playoff appearances.
It is the latter stat that demands greater interest. In my profile on Doug Risebrough I unveiled a new sports term called “Heartbreak GM” which is a GM (or head coach) who has the ability to take his team to the playoffs but is incapable of reaching the Stanley Cup finals let alone winning the Stanley Cup.
Since 1917 only sixteen NHL GMs have managed teams to at least five or more Stanley Cup playoff appearances without ever reaching the Stanley Cup finals. Ron Caron was one of the sixteen and his twelve playoff appearances without the honor of being a Stanley Cup finalist placed him third in the Heartbreak GM stakes. Only two NHL GMs earned more playoff appearances without reaching the finals (their names will be revealed in the weeks and months to come) than Ron did.
The closest Caron ever came to making the big dance came during the 1986 playoffs when the Blues (led by Jacques Demers) took the Calgary Flames to a full seven games in the conference finals. After 1986 it was nothing but futility for Caron and the Blues.
Caron’s background is rather unique and it speaks volume about where hockey finds its great talents. Caron was born in 1929 in Hull, Quebec and went to the University of Ottawa where he majored in arts and philosophy. After graduating he became a schoolteacher. (It was Caron’s academic background that got him his nicknames “Le Prof” or the “Old Professor”).
And yet underneath his academic background lurked a hockey enthusiast. In 1959 Caron approached the Montreal Junior Canadians and offered to work as a part time scout. It was here he attracted the key, penetrating eye of Sam Pollock.
By 1969 Caron became a full time scout and by 1970 had become head coach and GM of the Montreal Voyageurs.
In 1973 Pollock tapped Caron to serve as director of recruitment and player personnel during the dynasty years when Montreal ruled the NHL. He remained at that post for ten years before being fired by the Habs.
Caron wasn’t unemployed for long. He succeeded Emile Francis as GM of the St. Louis Blues in 1983. The Blues had just withstood the Valley Forge of their existence. Ron Caron was given the keys to the Blues kingdom, a realm that operated on an extremely tight budget.
For the next eleven years Caron ran the Blues on a shoestring; making due with the talents he had on hand. The Blues were hard-working, mostly successful, and entertaining but they would never be championship caliber. Caron made a name for himself with his emotional outbursts and his willingness to mix it up with anyone who attacked his Blues teams. He could be the terror of the press room in any NHL arena he visited; throwing telephones, furniture, and tantrums at the drop of the puck.
In terms of having an eye for amateur talent, Caron’s greatest draft pick came in 1988 when he selected Rod Brind’Amour in 1988. Another diamond pick didn’t come from the entry draft but through the college ranks. It took Caron’s keen eye for talent to see the potential in an undrafted and unappreciated college freshman goal-tender named Curtis Joseph. By 1991 Cujo became a bulwark between the pipes for the Blues and many other NHL teams.
Ron Caron was a trader’s trader: building not through the draft but via the trading block. Caron is best remembered for bringing Brett Hull to St. Louis from Calgary in 1988. Hull was treading water in Calgary and not getting along with head coach Terry Crisp. Caron brought Hull to St. Louis and for the next eleven years Hull became the top gun for the Blues; their offensive heart and soul; their marquee talent.
In 1989 Caron added Adam Oates to the Blues. Oates play-making abilities perfectly complemented Brett Hull’s bronco scoring talent.
Caron’ eye for talent was not solely reserved for players but for head coaches too. It was Ron Caron, who restored Jacques Demers’ NHL coaching career in 1983; who gave Jacques Martin his first NHL head coaching gig in 1986.
When Jacques Martin failed to pass muster, Caron approached Blues playing legend Brian Sutter and offered him the head coaching job even though Sutter had just completed his playing career and had never coached before. From 1988 to 1995 Brian Sutter was a solid and successful head coach in the NHL (and according to my rating system once ranked among the top fifty hockey coaches of all time until 2003).
When Caron was doing interim management work for St. Louis, he tapped another talented coaching unknown named Joel Quenneville to serve as head coach of the Blues and thus began one of the finest head coaching careers in NHL history; a career that does honor to the game.
Ron Caron left the game 1997 and never returned to NHL management again. He passed away in January 2012.
(My next column will feature former Bruins and Caps GM Milt Schmidt.)