Montreal Canadiens, 1978-1983
Norris Division Titles, 1978-1981
Adams Division Title, 1981-1982
Playoff Appearances: 1979-1983
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1979
Stanley Cup Victory: 1979
Irving Grundman’s presence among the top 50 managerial elite may surprise and shock Canadiens fans. Grundman is a curious figure in Canadiens franchise history. He was the man who succeeded the late Sam Pollock as general manager of what was then the most powerful franchise in the NHL. He presided over the Habs fourth straight Stanley Cup win and then watched as the once mighty franchise slowly slid down into ordinariness—supplanted by other powerful franchises along the way.
His gray presence drained the bright colors from what would later prove to be the final glorious era in Montreal Canadiens franchise history.
The question is how did he get to rank among the top 25 general managers in NHL history? The answer is through sheer team performance alone; and not by his doing.
The Habs as a team earned 57 plus points during the five seasons that Grundman managed the team. Since Grundman was GM during that time period he must be awarded those points even though he did not create the team that earned those points. He inherited the team instead.
One must liken Grundman’s managerial stint to the following nautical metaphor: imagine that the Canadiens teams from 1975 to 1978 as a mighty battleship bristling with a dazzling array of offensive and defensive weaponry which could constantly sail at flank speed, destroying all opposing ships in its wake. The captain of that ship was Sam Pollock.
Imagine further that Pollock turned over command of that ship to his successor Irving Grundman, a man not really qualified to run such an amazing ship. Imagine further that through inexperience and bad luck the mighty battleship could no longer run at flank speed but instead lost all power and was cruising forward solely on inertia alone—which, over time would cause the mighty ship to go slower and slower until it came to a dead halt; thus becoming easy prey for all opposing ships?
That metaphor best describes Grundman’s five year tenure as Canadiens GM. On paper (and in the eyes of my rating system) it looks solid and worthy of superlative praise but in the eyes of Habs fans (who know and expected better) it doesn’t wash.
According to my rating method, Grundman was the seventh best GM in the NHL during the 1980s (between Bobby Clarke and David Poile) and he was the eighth best general manager—between David Poile and Bob Pulford during the Second Expansion era of the NHL (1979-1991).
But who is Irving Grundman? How did he become general manager of what was then the flagship franchise of the NHL? And how did he allow the once mighty Habs dynasty fade into obscurity?
He was a native Montrealer who worked at his father’s butcher shop before branching out into local city politics (he became a city councilor) and the business world (he was a co-founder of Laurentian Lanes—a highly profitable chain of bowling alleys. His business dealings brought him into contact with the Bronfman brothers: Edgar and Peter who became owners of the Montreal Canadiens in 1971.
Grundman was named President of the Montreal Forum and oversaw the business side of its operations but, as Habs historian D’Arcy Jenish writes, “Grundman became Pollock’s protégé and devoted himself to learning how to manage a hockey team.”
When it came time for Sam Pollock to step down as Canadiens GM most people assumed that Scotty Bowman would inherit the job but as Jean Beliveau writes in his memoirs, “Another candidate was Irving Grundman who had learned a great deal about hockey and hockey management during seven years under Sam’s tutelage. He was a quiet, reflective man who carefully weighed every option before rendering an opinion.”
In the end it was Grundman who got the nod.
On the surface everything was under control but even as the Habs had finished winning their third straight Stanley Cup cracks were spreading below the waterline.
In 1977 the Habs had a chance to draft Mike Bossy but chose Mark Napier instead; then came the exodus: the retirements of stalwarts Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, and Jacques Lemaire in 1979; and the team’s ensuing failure to properly replace these men.
That was followed by Scotty Bowman’s departure as head coach. According to Jean Beliveau Grundman dithered for months before choosing Boom-Boom Geoffrion as his successor; a choice that ended badly when Geoffrion resigned abruptly during the 1979/80 season. Claude Ruel replaced Geoffrion but all he did was preside over the end of the Habs dynasty when they were eliminated in the 1980 playoffs.
And then there was the 1980 entry draft. The Canadiens had the very first pick. The choice was either big, tall Center Doug Wickenheiser or the smaller, swifter, tenacious Montreal native center Denis Savard.
Grundman played it safe and chose Wickenheiser—who never fulfilled his promise; whereas Savard became the sparkplug for the Chicago Blackhawks and earn HHOF induction in 2000.
(Talk about a great hockey what-if? Imagine a line of Mike Bossy and Denis Savard for the Habs during the 1980s?)
In his defense, Grundman did draft Guy Carbonneau and Mats Naslund in 1979; Craig Ludwig in 1980; and Chris Chelios in 1981. He engineered the 1982 blockbuster trade that sent Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis, and Craig Laughlin to Washington in exchange for Ryan Walter and Rick Green.
And the Habs still won but appearances can be tricky. Yes, Montreal won four straight divisional titles for Irving Grundman but the Norris division was a weak division and the Habs never faced significant opposition.
Steve Shutt later told Dick Irvin Jr., “You could see it coming. There was an accumulation of bad draft picks, and I don’t mean it started with Doug Wickenheiser….It was an accumulation. We were on the downside, guys like me and Flower (Guy Lafleur) and Serge [Savard], and they didn’t draft a group of young players who were able to come in and take over the leadership of the team.”
If Irving Grundman had managed any other hockey team he probably would not have been fired; indeed his stay would have been prolonged but it was Grundman’s misfortune to manage a team that had a fan-base that had been weaned on perfection from 1951 to 1979. Anything short of perfection (no matter how well you played) is deemed a failure.
After 1979 the Canadiens never reached the conference finals under Grundman. Finally, in 1983, the team’s owners lost patience with Grundman and pulled the trigger.
Grundman resumed his career as a city councilor and businessman until 2004 when he (along with another man) was convicted of accepting bribes.
He remains a reviled figure in the eyes of some Canadiens fans; a man who presided over the dismantling of one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history.
(My next column will feature Nashville Predators GM David Poile.)