On the hot seat

Posted by ROY MacGREGOR Globe and Mail

Pressure? You think Bob Gainey’s feeling the pressure these days? Just listen a moment to his mother-in-law, Bea Collins.

She is 92 years old, hard of hearing and in a wheelchair. You’d be a bit worn out, too, if you’d raised 19 children, and yet her voice is as strong and clear as any of the professional performers here this special night as she works her way through all 19 verses of Somebody’s Mother without so much as a missed beat, a stumbled word or a cheat card.

Her recitation – a sadly lost art in the electronic age – brings the house down in a night that also includes performances by the likes of John McDermott, Sarah Harmer, Murray McLauchlan and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo.

She has offered to do it in memory of her daughter Cathy and granddaughter Laura – one lost to cancer, the other lost at sea – at a concert last week that raised $122,000 toward the family charity (http://www.gaineyfoundation.com) that is dedicated to helping children develop through the arts and outdoors studies.

Her son-in-law, the general manager and now coach of the Montreal Canadiens, is also on his feet, cheering, and now leaning over to shout over the crowd: “She also does The Face on the Barroom Floor.”

She could have done it twice later in the week, when first in Ottawa and then home in Montreal, her son-in-law wore just such a face as he spoke to the media about his team’s latest losses, 5-4 to the Senators and then 5-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, two teams that are essentially out of the playoff race that Gainey’s Canadiens are hanging onto by the skin of a hockey tooth.

With 10 games to go, and having now lost five straight games, the team that finished in first place in the east last year holds down the final playoff spot by a single point.

You want pressure? Try explaining that to the most rabid and knowledgeable fans in the country in what was supposed to be a season-long celebration of the Montreal Canadiens 100th anniversary.

It has been a remarkable stretch recently for Bob Gainey. The same week his first grandchild, Jackson Robert Pitfield, was born to daughter Anna, who runs the foundation, he felt obliged to fire his coach and close friend, Guy Carbonneau. His collapsing team, since then, has gotten worse, if anything, leading to sarcastic cries for Carbonneau’s return from the impatient experts at the Bell Centre. The Hockey News, in its special edition on general managers, has dared suggest “The bloom seems to be coming off the rose for Gainey.” In Canada, there may be no reputation in the national game held in such respect – at least until the bewildering tailspin began in Montreal.

Carbonneau went public, saying the firing by his close friend caught him completely by surprise. Gainey, trying not to make it personal, has only said his team had suddenly, and mysteriously, lost all confidence and he felt he had to act.

“You’re in a job where your job is to make decisions,” he says, “and you have a decision to make, a decision that you can’t turn away from. You can’t know whether it will be a good decision or a bad decision over time, but you’re paid to make it and you do.

“You could do nothing, that was an option. Well, I didn’t like that option. I’d rather be wrong than do nothing.”

While there were legions by this weekend willing to say he had done wrong, he wasn’t listening. In the evening, as he flicked through the television channels, he “just kept going” when he came to the French and English sports talk shows. “I don’t bother.”

He abides by advice once given to him by legendary Montreal coach Toe Blake: “When things are going well, you don’t need the outside help – and when things are going bad, the outside stuff won’t help you.”

Gainey’s calm under pressure is itself legendary in hockey. Nothing ever seemed to rattle his play, not even when Montreal’s hold on the Stanley Cup was on the line. He once calmly fired himself as coach when he managed the Dallas Stars and then, later, calmly resigned as GM when he thought a change necessary.

His stoicism through several difficult personal chapters – the brain tumour that took his wife, Cathy, in 1995; the turmoil her death caused his three children; the storm that swept 25-year-old Laura off the deck of the Picton Castle two years ago; the ongoing battle to bring better safety enforcement to sea-going vessels – has won him admiration from those who believe they could not possibly have borne up as well.

“Maybe I’m lucky,” he says, “that I can tune a lot of those things out in order to do what I need to do.” It is a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. When his 92-year-old mother-in-law was in the midst of reciting, it seemed as if every other thought had been barred at the door of this little theatre in Bob Gainey’s hometown.

“How do I stay calm?” he says to the obvious question. “I’m not as calm as the veneer suggests. But we’re playing games. We want to win – and our opponents want to win. We have to do our best and try and reach our potential. But not everybody’s going to get there. Somebody finishes 30th every year. “There’s no guarantees. That I know for sure, from a lot of different places. There’s no guarantees anywhere.

“But what’s the worst that could happen? I get fired?”

And, just for a moment, the veneer lifts briefly for a smile.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

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