Claude “Piton” Ruel: Rank #43 – 17 points
Coaching Experience: Montreal Canadiens, 1968-1970, 1979-81
Regular Season W-L-T: 172-82-51; Playoff W-L: 18-9
East Division Title: 1968-69; Norris Division Titles: 1979-81
Playoff Appearances: 1969, 1980-81
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1969; Stanley Cup Victory: 1969
Claude Ruel was the ultimate company man who devoted his entire career to the Habs; serving in all capacities: minor-league coach, head coach, scout, and director of player development. He was selfless, dedicated, with a keen eye for hockey talent.
It was Ruel who convinced a skeptical Sam Pollock to draft Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey in the 1971 and 1973 NHL Drafts, respectively. At the time both draft picks looked like risky gambles but in the end they both paid off handsomely.
Robinson and Gainey played vital roles in the Habs dynasty teams of 1976-79. Indeed Ruel almost pulled off the tri-fecta when in 1977 he tried to convince Pollock to draft future New York Islanders immortal Mike Bossy. Unfortunately Pollock took a pass on Bossy and chose Mark Napier instead.
Ruel (along with Al MacNeil) was part of the three year interregnum that separated the Toe Blake era from the Scotty Bowman era. Both men coached the Habs during that span. Both men won Stanley Cups yet in the end both men gave way to Bowman, who would take the Canadiens further than they had ever gone before.
Of the two, it was Ruel who fared better, earning 17 success points in only five seasons of coaching (and two of them were partial seasons). Furthermore Ruel’s debut season as an NHL coach was the third best in league history—only Blake and David Gill exceeded him. Today Ruel still has the second best winning percentage of any NHL coach who has coached a minimum of five seasons or more.
Ruel was a player who came out of the vast Canadiens’ farm system only to have to his career cut short by a freak eye injury. He turned to coaching and during the early 1960s led the Montreal Junior Canadiens (which had future Habs greats Jacques Laperriere and Yvan Cournoyer on their roster).
After 1963, Ruel left coaching and became a scout, working for Sam Pollock who succeeded the late Frank Selke, Sr. as Montreal’s general manager. In time Ruel became director of player development. When Blake stepped down as head coach of the Canadiens in 1968, Pollock (to the surprise of many including Ruel himself) chose Claude to replace him.
At first there was nothing wrong with the move. The Habs continued their domination of the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup handily in a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues. Then the following season the bottom fell out (at least in the eyes of Canadiens fans). The team, despite a winning season and a .605% point percentage, finished in fifth place in the East Division—edged out by the New York Rangers—thus failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 1948.
If it were any other team no fuss would have been made about this but in Montreal it was heresy. When the Canadiens got off to a slow start in the 1970-71 season, Ruel stepped down as coach and went back to being director of player development while Al MacNeil replaced him.
What did in Ruel? A variety of factors played a hand in his brief reign. His previous lack of experience as an NHL coach was one reason. This lack of experience was compounded by Ruel’s personality.
Douglas Hunter writes, “Ruel was an excitable yeller by nature, and at the beginning of the 69/70 season he had begun to holler at defensemen like [Terry] Harper, [J.C.] Tremblay, and [Serge] Savard, who he felt weren’t doing their jobs behind the blueline.”
Another factor was that Ruel had a Falstaffian quality to him which did not engender much respect or fear from the veteran players. In his book The Game Ken Dryden describes him as “a squat, dwarf-like figure” and likened him to a substitute teacher whom no one paid any attention to. Cournoyer would later tell Dick Irvin Jr. “Don’t tell me Claude Ruel was a good coach. He was a good teacher but he was not a good coach. But we managed to win the Stanley Cup just the same.”
Jean Beliveau (who respected Ruel) in his memoirs writes, “Claude’s major problem was communication. We were a veteran team and we understood that he knew the game, but sometimes he’d go to the blackboard and simply fail to make his intentions clear. It took a while for us to realize that Claude was equally frustrated by his poor delivery and lack of presence, and that he wanted to do something about these shortcomings.”
A fourth factor was that Ruel was a francophone in a bilingual team. This worsened communications between him and the Anglophone contingent of the Canadiens (MacNeil had the same problem in reverse in that he was an Anglophone who was at odds with the Francophone contingent of the team. The problem was resolved when Bowman—who was bilingual—took over).
But the biggest factor which tipped the scales against Ruel was the simple fact that he was never happy at all serving as head coach of the Canadiens. The pressure-cooker atmosphere that existed leading the Canadiens; the onerous and insatiable minimal acceptable standard that he consistently produce Stanley Cup champions (like Blake did) consumed and crushed Ruel. Throughout his first coaching term with the team he repeatedly asked Pollock to replace him as head coach only to be talked out of it by Pollock.
Ruel remained as director of player development until 1979 when the Habs, struggling under Bernie Geoffrion, asked Ruel to take over a coach. And so it was Ruel who presided over the ending of the Canadiens dynastic reign on April 27, 1980 when they were eliminated by the Minnesota North Stars in the second round of the playoffs.
Ruel remained as coach for another season and another early elimination before giving way to Bob Berry thus returning once more as director of player development. Today he lives in quiet retirement, battling ill health but Claude Ruel will always remain an unsung hero of a time when the Canadiens were the most dominant hockey franchise in the NHL during the 1970s.