The Godfather of picks and the NHL draft

Once upon a slapshot, the National Hockey League draft was regarded as the private domain of the Montreal Canadiens. From its roots they grew enough Stanley Cups to reach 24, still far more than any other team. Of the first 30 cups since the inaugural draft, the Canadiens won 12…and none in the last 30 years.

Sam Pollock, then the Habs’ general manager, was considered the Godfather of the draft, and with good reason. There is a lengthy list of Hall of Fame Canadiens drafted by Pollock, the GM from 1964 to 1978.

However, the draft will always be hit-and-miss, and Pollock’s best skill was acquiring enough hits — the right hits — to absorb the misses, because predicting the future of 18-year-olds rarely includes a guarantee. Perhaps his philosophy emanated from Pollock’s first draft. Picking sixth in each of the four rounds, he took four players who never skated in the NHL. To be fair, those were transitional times. Teams were loosening their grips on the serfdom of pro sponsorship that essentially tied teenagers to lifetime contracts.

For the first six Pollock drafts, the Canadiens had the right to pick when it was their turn, or choose two French-Canadian players as the draft’s top two choices. In his first four drafts, Pollock didn’t exercise that option and, looking back, it’s easy to see why — the only French-Canadian of significance he’d have missed was Serge Bernier (302 NHL games).

The last two drafts before this one-sided option disappeared were 1968 and 1969. In them, Pollock picked his four francophones: Michel Plasse, Roger Bedard, Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif. Houle and Tardif became jewels in Pollock’s draft crown, along with Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, Mario Tremblay, Pierre Mondou and Doug Risebrough. He had inherited Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe from the pro sponsorship days.

Pollock specialized in stock-piling draft picks. In 1971, when he manipulated California neophytes into giving him Lafleur, the Canadiens had three of the first 11 picks. The next year, they had three of the first eight, four of the first 14, and two years later, five of the first 15. In his nine drafts of the 1970s, Pollock had 23 first-round picks.

“You have to remember,” he cautioned me one day, “you’re giving up a player for what you MIGHT get back.”

Some of his misses were significant. In his rookie draft year, Pollock took Claude Chagnon and Guy Allen (???) in the first two rounds, while Ken Dryden went to Boston in the third. Don’t feel badly if you think Pollock drafted him…Dryden also thought so, until many years later.

The Lafleur draft was also when Pollock picked Larry Robinson — after twice passing on him for Chuck Arnason and Murray Wilson. A year earlier, Montreal’s fifth overall choice was goalie Ray Martyniuk — he never faced a shot in the NHL — rather than two who became much better, Dan Bouchard and Billy Smith, or centre Darryl Sittler. Another high Habs pick who never made it was defenceman Jim Pritchard, third overall.

It’s true that the Canadiens haven’t been draft dominant since Pollock left the team. It’s also true he was more adept at acquiring draft choices than using them.