‘Sad’ Sam Pollock
Montreal Canadiens, 1964-1978
Prince of Wales Trophy, 1965-1966
East Division Titles, 1967-1969, 1972-1973
Norris Division Titles, 1974-1978
Playoff Appearances: 1965-1969, 1971-1978
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1965-1969, 1971, 1973, 1975-1978
Stanley Cup Victories: 1965-1966, 1968-1969, 1971, 1973. 1976-1978
It’s a pity Sam Pollock didn’t remain as GM of the Montreal Canadiens during the 1978/79 NHL season because if he had then I would be sitting here writing about how Pollock became the greatest NHL general manager of all time but I can’t do that because according to my rating system; in terms of career value, Sam Pollock is not the greatest NHL GM of all time.
This will shock and surprise many hockey experts. (It certainly shocked and surprised me) but my system doesn’t lie. There is one more GM out there who possesses a higher career value than Sam Pollock (and that person’s name will be revealed in my next column).
The only reason why Pollock’s value is not the greatest is simply because of the brevity of his magnificent managerial career: only 14 seasons.
Still, despite the fact that Pollock is only ranked number two in terms of career value he is an astonishing number one in terms of average season rating (which measures the quality of a general manager’s career). Pollock’s career ASR of +15.07 (out of a possible +21.00) stands as powerful evidence of his greatness, his managerial genius, his ability to keep the Habs operating at a constant, unstoppable pace.
If I had to create a dream hockey team for a contest that would decide the fate of the free world, the man I would choose to manage that team would be Sam Pollock: no contest. In terms of pure quality of effort no other NHL GM came close to what Pollock achieved in only 14 seasons of team management.
Pollock was the second best GM of the 1960s (one point behind Punch Imlach and if Montreal had won the 1967 Stanley Cup then Pollock would have been number one for the decade).
He was the greatest GM of the 1970s (leading Harry Sinden by a 52 point margin). His decade score of a +126 is tied with Frank Selke’s +126 for the 1950s as the greatest decade performance by an NHL GM according to my rating system.
Sam Pollock was the greatest general manager of the first expansion era of the NHL (1967-1979) leading Harry Sinden by a 94 point margin.
Pollock was a Montreal native and at the age of 22 (1947) he joined the Habs as a talent scout. It didn’t take long for Pollock to make an impression with then Canadiens GM Frank Selke. Selke tapped Pollock to serve as director of personnel in 1950 which meant that Pollock oversaw the vast array of minor-league the Habs possessed. He also coached some of the Hab’s junior and minor-league affiliates where he did quite well.
It was great to be young and to be working for the Montreal Canadiens. Pollock not only nurtured playing talent but also coaxed others into coaching careers that would one day bear fruit for the franchise: Scotty Bowman and Claude Ruel are two prime examples of this. Both men owe their coaching careers to Pollock.
When it became time for Frank Selke to step down as Canadiens GM he looked no further than Sam Pollock.
A lesser manager would have been overwhelmed to fill the shoes of someone as sterling as Frank Selke; to succeed a living legend is a daunting task. The possibility of equaling let alone surpassing a managerial record like Selke’s was an even more remote; to surpass Selke’s ledger of hockey management looked well nigh impossible.
And yet, amazingly, stupendously, unbelievably, Sam Pollock did so. He surpassed his master, his mentor, the man who taught him everything he knew.
Pollock became a Stanley Cup champion GM in his rookie season. What followed was glory.
The talent was there but with the institution of the NHL amateur draft, Pollock’s challenge was to be able to get the top draft picks even though the Canadiens had resumed their dominance of the NHL.
It was Pollock who found the solution by picking the pockets of the six new expansion teams that began operations in the NHL in 1967. Since the expansion teams were composed of cast-offs from the Original Six teams, he knew they needed an instant transfusion of talent to attract fans and improve their place in the West Division standings.
Pollock, who commandeered such a stockpile of talent that the Habs had players who had to wait years before they could earn an NHL playing slot used this ingenious solution. He could trade his highly talented reserve players who could be instant stars on other teams in exchange for the number one draft picks from the expansion franchises. The ill-fated Seals franchise and the L.A. Kings were Pollock’s favorite targets. When the Seals or the Kings finished in the basement then that meant Montreal could draft very high.
Guy Lafleur is a prime example of this quid pro quo. So, too, was Doug Risebrough, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey
He tried to steal Denis Potvin away from the New York Islanders but Pollock met his match in Bill Torrey.
Pollock’s greatest coup may have been the trade with the Colorado Rockies in 1976 that netted the option to acquire the Rockies’ number one draft pick in 1980. Pollock had the prescience to place himself in a position where hypothetically the Habs could have drafted Wayne Gretzky in 1980 were it not for the existence of the World Hockey Association that stole the Great One away in 1978.
And yet Pollock was not infallible either. His decision to draft Mark Napier instead of Mike Bossy in 1977 was a rare clunker for Sad Sam.
But what Pollock couldn’t draft, he usually lifted from other team’s rosters with causal pleasure. He sent two young prospects to the Boston Bruins and got Ken Dryden in return. In 1969 and 1971, Pollock got the Mahovlich brothers, Pete and Frank, respectively from the Detroit Red Wings. Both men brought firepower to the Habs forward lines. In 1975 Pollock acquired Doug Jarvis from Toronto. Jarvis was a superb defensive forward who bolstered the Habs’ defence.
In the end Pollock manufactured one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history: a team that won four consecutive Stanley Cups but midway through it all, Pollock decided to step down as general manager in 1978. He didn’t have to wait long for immortality to knock on his door. He was inducted into the HHOF in 1978 as a builder.
Later on, Pollock served as a vice-president of the Toronto Blue Jays in Major League Baseball before he died in 2008.
It is interesting that the NHL has not yet given a name to the NHL General Manager of the Year award. Personally, I feel that the award should be named after Sam Pollock because when it came to building and maintaining an NHL dynasty: no one did it better than Sam Pollock. Naming the award after Pollock would be the supreme tribute to his genius.
(Next week’s column will feature the greatest NHL general manager of all-time.)