Gainey's Reputation Is Well-Deserved


The math just doesn't figure. He had 239 goals in 16 NHL seasons. That's fewer than 15 goals a year.

There's no way Bob Gainey could have been the superstar everyone says he is.

A sure Hockey Hall of Famer, they say. First ballot, they say.

How could that be? Would a starting pitcher, no matter how well-respected, even be considered for baseball's Hall of Fame if he averaged only 10 wins a season? Would a quarterback who passed for only 100 yards a game have any place in history at all?

What's the fascination with Bob Gainey, anyway?

Ask Bob Clarke, the man who hired him to coach the Minnesota North Stars last summer. Clarke, who had true Hall of Fame numbers as Philadelphia's franchise player for 15 years before becoming a general manager, first with the Flyers and then with the North Stars, speaks of Gainey almost reverently.

"Bob earned every bit of his reputation," Clarke says. "He was one guy you hated so much, you loved him, eh? I used to hate the guy.

"In Canada, we brag about Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, but deep down inside, the players we love are the Gaineys and the (Mark) Messiers, the guys who will say, 'If there's someone in my way, I'll go right over them.' There's a toughness to the Canadian people that we take pride in."

Players make a coach, Gainey says. Players beat the NHL's top two teams, Chicago and St. Louis, and players defeat defending champion Edmonton. Players get a team that finished 16th out of 21 teams into the Stanley Cup finals.

It can't be disputed that players win games. But a coach like Gainey -- who as a player won five Stanley Cups with Montreal, captained the Canadiens for eight years and was considered the best defensive forward of his era -- almost has the power to will a team to victory.

"I thought he was a good coach all year long. He just couldn't do what he's doing now back in November because we weren't ready," says Bobby Smith, Gainey's Montreal teammate for six seasons and now the North Stars' elder statesman.

"Maybe when it's all over, Bob Gainey's master stroke will be remembered as the way he picked us up off the floor after the third game of the Chicago series. We blew a 5-2 lead to go down two games to one. I remember thinking that we could lose a whole playoff series that one night.

"But Bob came into the room and was very calm. He just said, '(Chicago's Jeremy) Roenick was great but we had seven or eight forwards who were playing better.' We whipped them three straight. They scored two goals after that."

This has been a season of both triumph and dispair for Bob Gainey.

The North Stars were 5-15-5 on Nov. 24. There were rumors that Gainey might be fired.

"Ridiculous," Clarke says. "I just hired him."

Two weeks later, Gainey's wife, Cathy, needed surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor. Five weeks of radiation treatment followed. Though she has suffered some short-term memory loss, she's doing much better now.

"I wasn't very sharp at my job for a certain period of time after the incident," says Gainey, who rarely discusses his private life.

The players don't remember sensing whether Gainey coached any differently. But, coincidentally or not, it was just about the time Cathy finished her radiation therapy that the North Stars began winning regularly, going from contenders for the league's worst record to legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.

"I have learned a lot and I still have a lot to learn," Gainey says. "I did not expect to be a good coach after 20 games and I made that clear to Bob Clarke when we talked about the position."

Is he a good coach now?

"Well, on some nights."

He almost smiled. It was the same sorta-smile he wore after the Chicago series, when the Blackhawks' Mike Keenan admitted that he was outcoached. It was the same semi-smile he wore after he had outmaneuvered St. Louis coach Brian Sutter and Edmonton's John Muckler.

Gainey has been painted as emotionless. One of the Twin Cities' most popular advertisements of the spring depicted three stone-faced photos of Gainey -- one after a North Stars' goal, one after a North Stars' penalty and one after the North Stars were finished "kicking Chicago's butt."

He's Minnesota's favorite stoic, the Bud Grant of the '90s.

It's hard not to respect Bob Gainey, who as a Canadien was the perfect team player. The guy once went through the playoffs with two separated shoulders.

In the late 1970s, Soviet national coach Viktor Tikhonov called Gainey the best hockey player in the world. That's respect, especially for a guy who averages fewer than 15 goals a season.

No, it goes deeper than respect.

There's fear.

"He has always stayed calm," North Stars center Dave Gagner says. "He has never exploded. And I don't want to be around when he does."

There's appreciation.

"He has been so steady," says Brian Bellows, who has played for seven coaches -- including Glen Sonmor on three separate occasions -- in his nine years with the North Stars. "He brings stability to the organization. And he's very intelligent. He knows how and when to push the right buttons."

And there's admiration.

How much does Clarke admire his former adversary? So much that he's telling anyone who will listen that Gainey can be his coach forever.

Considering the average life span for a hockey coach ranks somewhere between that of a red ant and that of a decent pair of shoes, it's quite a commitment.

"I won't get the chance to fire him," Clarke says. "He has too much more to offer a club than just coaching. There's way more to Bob Gainey. I'm sure he wants to do more. If you wanted a GM, who would you pick? Bob Gainey. It doesn't take much to figure that out."

The 37-year-old Gainey is one season into a three-year contract.

"I'm going to be here for another year, anyway. Or another two," he says. "I've enjoyed this year. We've had some nights where we've enjoyed ourselves. And some other nights ...

"I don't look ahead and say, 'I'll be coaching hockey for another eight or nine years.' I just take each situation that presents itself and do the best I can with it."

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