Termed the world's best all-around player by Soviet national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, Bob Gainey brought many elements to the Montreal Canadiens during his 16-year NHL career. The burly left winger was a tenacious competitor, relentless checker, respected team leader and capable contributor on the offense. His presence on the Habs' roster helped the team win the Stanley Cup five times in the decade between 1976 and 1986.
Under Roger Neilson, he starred with the hometown Petes of the Ontario Hockey Association. Gainey was blessed with immense speed, but his numerous scoring chances often went for naught as he lacked the hands to be a sniper. His ability to shut down the best players on the opposition impressed many scouts. Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock knew a surefire NHLer when he saw one. He made sure the Habs chose Gainey in the first round of the NHL Amateur Draft in 1973.
As a rookie, Gainey demonstrated his commitment to defensive hockey and his clean but feared bodychecking. He showed even more poise as a sophomore in 1974-75, when he played on the team's second line with Jacques Lemaire and Yvan Cournoyer. Following his third NHL season, Gainey was picked to represent his country in the inaugural Canada Cup in 1976 and his combination of speed, tenacity and physical play enabled him to fill an important role on the victorious Canadian contingent. While helping Montreal win four consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1976 to 1979, Gainey became a star despite never being a flashy scorer. His name appeared in the game summary far less frequently than most of his teammates, but without him the Habs quite possibly wouldn't have won.
Gainey exploded for 16 points when the Habs won the Cup for the fourth straight time in 1979. In the finals, the Rangers won the first match and started strongly in the second. Gainey's winning goal in game two shifted the momentum in Montreal's favour and sent the Habs on their way to the Cup. For his immense contribution, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Gainey's style of play and ability to check and skate with the NHL's top forwards inspired the league to create a new post-season award. Beginning in 1978, the NHL presented the Frank J. Selke Trophy to the top defensive forward in the game. Fittingly, Gainey was the recipient in each of the first four years it was awarded.
Prior to the 1981-82 season, Gainey was named Serge Savard's successor as captain of the Canadiens. As one of the few remaining links to the glorious 1970s, he was expected to oversee the passing along of the organization's winning tradition to the younger players. The team remained a top-flight outfit in the regular season but experienced three straight first-round playoff losses from 1981 to 1983. In a reversal of the pattern, the team attained a disappointing 75 points in 1983-84 before embarking on a surprising run to the semifinals. Gainey and linemates Guy Carbonneau and Chris Nilan played a key role in shutting down the top guns on the heavily favored Bruins and Nordiques before giving the defending champion Islanders all they could handle in the semis.
The veteran captain hoisted the Stanley Cup for the fifth time in his career in 1986. Playing with the energy of a rookie, Gainey scored five goals and 10 points while patrolling his wing with customary efficiency. His poise and leadership helped the team register consecutive 100-point seasons in 1987-88 and 1988-89. In the latter of those, the Habs reached the finals, then succumbed to the Calgary Flames in six games. Following the series, Gainey announced his retirement.
After leaving the NHL, Gainey signed on for a year as player-coach of the Epinal franchise in French hockey's first division. He made a triumphant return to North America and was appointed general manager of the Minnesota North Stars in January 1992. In his first year behind the bench, he guided the team to the second Stanley Cup finals appearance in franchise history and he remained with the organization when it relocated to Dallas in 1993. In Texas, Gainey helped build the team into a league powerhouse. Unfortunately, this period in his life was marred by the tragic passing of his wife, Cathy, after a valiant battle with cancer.
Gainey stepped down as coach in 1995 to focus solely on the duties of general manager. He masterminded the acquisition of key performers such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Pat Verbeek, Brett Hull and Ed Belfour, who augmented homegrown U.S. talent like Derian Hatcher and Jamie Langenbrunner. The Stars won the Presidents' Trophy for having the most points in the NHL in 1998 and 1999. In the second of these seasons, Dallas won the first Stanley Cup in the history of the franchise. A year and a half after stepping down as club GM to became a consultant to the organization, Gainey was named GM of the Montreal Canadiens in May of 2003. An unqualified success since entering the NHL, Gainey was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.