Montreal Canadiens Say Au Revoir to Claude Ruel


The Montreal Canadiens family suffered another loss this past week, with the passing of former head coach Claude Ruel.

Considered by Habs Hall of Fame defenseman Serge Savard as the best assistant coach he ever had, passed away Monday at the age of 76. He had been battling illnesses for several years. The Canadiens had a moment of silence in his honour, prior to Tuesday’s game against the Flyers.

More from Habs News

Ruel, who was behind the Canadiens bench as head coach from 1969 to partway into the 1970-71 season, and returned between 1979 and 1981, was more significant in his developing of young players during his 20 years in the Canadiens organization.

Being the head coach of the Canadiens was never really Ruel’s idea, after a promising Junior  and Memorial Cup winning career as a defenseman  was cut short, due to an eye injury.

“I was getting set to take a shot from the point and the guy who was checking me hit my stick and it came right up and caught me in the eye,” Ruel said. He spent three months in hospital as doctors unsuccessfully tried to restore sight to his injured eye.

Ruel later took on a series of junior head coaching jobs with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, Brockville Candiens and later the Montreal Jr. Canadiens. At the same tim he worked with the Habs as one of their top scouts.

At just 29 years of age, Ruel reluctantly took the head coaching job in the 1969-70 season, when Toe Blake stepped down. Ruel’s hiring drew criticism of GM Sam Pollock as to why he chose a “company man,” rather than an experienced coach or even a former player.  The announcement, which was more like a somber wake, was made with Ruel, Blake, Pollock and David Molson in attendance. Once the announcement was made, Ruel, who struggled with the English language, was literally left to stand his own against the media on Day One by the other three.

The Canadiens would take the Cup that year, but the pressure of being a head coach was getting to Ruel already. The stress was catching up to him in his sophomore season, and he told the team his intentions to step down.

“I can’t take it anymore Jean,” the frustrated coach admitted to the late Jean Beliveau, as recalled in the Habs legend’s biography. “I want to go back to scouting. That’s where I’m happy.” Ruel spoke to Sam Pollock and the latter convinced him to stay on.

The season ended up a nightmare for the Canadiens.  Earlier in the day, the Rangers had beaten Detroit and were holding onto the last playoff spot. Montreal was in a situation to either get a tie or score at least five goals in their final game against Chicago to make the playoffs. The Blackhawks were up 4-2 in the third period, when Ruel, desperate now for goals, pulled Rogie Vachon five times, midway in to the final 20 minutes. Chicago answered with five empty net goals and the Canadiens would miss the playoffs.

Ruel stayed on until midway into the 1970-71 season, remaining as director of player development. It would be his defining roll in the organization.

During the 1971 NHL Draft, when all eyes were on who would be the Canadiens top pick between Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne, Ruel had his eyes on another name, a bit further down the list.

After the Canadiens took Lafleur, and then Chuck Arnason and Murray Wilson, with their first picks, the Habs selected a tall farm boy from Metcalfe, Ontario 20th overall. His name: Larry Robinson.

“I was at a game between Kitchener Rangers and Toronto Marlies, I watched this big fellow who skated well and who played a hell of a game, offensively and defensively,” Ruel recalled in a 2007 interview. The Canadiens had the 20th pick and Ruel was nervous that another team might snag his prize. “When Buffalo chose Craig Ramsay 19th, it was as if a ton of weight came off my shoulders. We all have our own faith. “God sure liked me that day!”

Live Feed

Should the NHL make referees give postgame interviews?
Should the NHL make referees give postgame interviews? /

Puck Prose

  • Why Carolina Hurricanes fans should be excited for the 2023-24 seasonPuck Prose
  • Betting Is Coming. Batten Down The Hatches and Bid Farewell.Cardiac Cane
  • Why any NHL team would be lucky to add Phil Kessel to their rosterPuck Prose
  • Toronto Maple Leafs: Key Dates for the 2023-24 NHL SeasonEditor In Leaf
  • The New Original Six Teams of the PWHL has been revealedPuck Prose
  • Robinson, who went on to a Hall of Fame career, would build a strong relationship with Ruel through his career, and attributes much of his on-ice success, and coaching influence to the man his teammates nicknamed “Piton.”

    Both Robinson and  Guy Lapointe both acknowledged Ruel at their sweater retirement ceremonies. For health reasons, Ruel watched from home.

    In the 1975 Draft, Ruel had another off the chart find in Bob Gainey. Even though Sam Pollock was skeptical of this choice out of Peterborough,  the decision led to another Hall of Fame gem.

    While working with the young Habs players, Ruel became an assistant coach to Scotty Bowman. He would run the practices, shouting his creed, “Skate!, Skate!, Skate!….,” drilling passes to the players like slapshots, while Bowman could observe from the stands.  He stayed after practice, or came in early,  to work with the younger players.

    Hockey historian Liam McGuire recently noted, “Ruel was absolutely beloved by the players he worked extra with, the 3rd and 4th liners, the black aces, late draft picks, free agents, he was an integral part of the success of numerous players who toiled in the shadow’s of the Lafleur’s and Co. yet were every bit as instrumental to multiple Stanley Cups.”

    “When we needed help, he was always there for us,” said Rejean Houle, when he spoke to the media on learning of Ruel’s passing.

    “Claude was a great teacher and he always wanted so much for you to make it,” said Yvan Cournoyer this past week. “You could feel that. Sometimes, a player hates a coach because he pushes you too much. But you knew that Claude loved you so much that he wanted his guys to make it.”

    Ruel had ways of finding the best in a player and to improve on it. From a top line forward to a fourth line tough guy like the late John Ferguson or Chris Nilan, “Le Professeur” seemed to make anyone score goals in the NHL.

    “He was a guy who actually got me called up and it was after (Bernie) Geoffrion got let go and he was the head coach (in the 1979-80 season),” said Chris Nilan, in a recent Montreal Gazette interview, on news of Ruel’s death. “He really had faith in me and he saw that I could play and I had some skill and wasn’t just a fighter. He tried to polish me up.”

    When Bernie Geoffrion stepped down as Canadiens coach in 1979, Ruel managed to right the ship and led them team to the Quarter-Finals, losing in seven games to Minnesota. Despite a successful 1980-81 regular season campaign, he was replaced by Bob Berry.

    Perhaps the only unsuccessful project for Ruel was the Habs 1980 first round pick, Doug Wickenheiser. Ruel had wanted Denis Savard, as did most of Quebec, but was overruled by new GM Irving Grundman and Ron Caron.

    “Claude Ruel didn’t like him,” said Larry Robinson, “Ruel didn’t think he was a quality NHL player, or a decent number one pick.” Wickenheiser spent several games of his first season as a healthy scratch, which drew some criticism as to whether or not Ruel sat him out of spite. Wickenheiser did show some promise under Berry, but was later traded to St. Louis.

    Despite this one notable hiccup among a mountain of success, Claude Ruel remained with the club for another five years. He would continue doing what he loved best, and made them believe in themselves.

    “He would never take any credit,” said Chris Nilan. “He would say ‘You did it.'”

    Did you know?: Both Claude Ruel and Scotty Bowman urged GM Sam Pollock to consider Mike Bossy for their selection in the 1977 NHL Draft. Pollock went against their request, relying on Ron Caron and the other scouts’ assessment that Bossy would not be tough enough for the NHL.