Sunday, 28 June 2020

A Year In France

Today's hockey stars often have homes in warm climates where they retreat to during the off-season and when their playing days are over. Most times, these warm-climate places are where families are raised and roots are put down as NHL stars settle into normal life. It's not often you find NHL stars leaving North America to continue playing elsewhere once their storied careers are over, but Bob Gainey retired from the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens after being beaten by the Calgary Flames in the 1989 Stanley Cup Final only to find himself as the player-coach in the 1989-90 season for the Épinal Écureuils of the National 1B League in France! How did Gainey land in France? Why did he take the position of player-coach for a relatively obscure team? Let's find out as we explore Gainey's lone season playing in northeastern France!

Gainey had no need to go play in France for one season after winning five Stanley Cups, four Selke trophies, and a Conn Smythe Trophy with Les Glorieux in a career that needed no additional hockey accomplishments. It seems that Épinal bringing Gainey to the French city was identical to how Bobby Hull was wooed to join the WHA - a collection of various sources of money.

Following the conclusion of the 1988-89 season that saw the Calgary Flames emerge victorious over the Montreal Canadiens in six games, Bob Gainey announced his retirement after the series ended. It was at this time where Épinal's hockey team - mired in unstable ownership - saw Épinal mayor Philippe Séguin and Écureuils president Michel Latour made the pitch to Gainey to join the club for the 1989-90 season as player-coach after having first discussing the idea with Gainey nearly one year earlier.

Gainey was touted in Épinal as the biggest hockey star to ever suit up for a hockey game in France, but there was still work to be done. To compensate their new star, Séguin and Latour rallied sponsors, supporters, and the city to the tune of $1 million for Gainey to join the club. Gainey accepted the deal, and, on July 12, 1989, French newspaper La Liberté de l'Est announced the signing of Bob Gainey by Les Écureuils!

Again, you might be asking why Gainey would make this jump from the NHL at the age of 35 to a second-tier French team, and Gainey told David Winch of The Gazette on October 21, 1989, "I know I needed a change. This gives me a taste of something new."

The Gaineys would arrive in August as they began their new life in the city of 30000 people. There was a lot of work to do with Les Écureuils to have them play the style of game that Gainey was used to playing with the Canadiens while assessing the squad that he was given for their first season in the National 1B League.

"It took a while to get used to the players," Gainey told Winch. "We had about five days’ preparation. We were moved up to the second division, where the season begins earlier, while we'd been expecting an October season opener. We've got a group of young players. Some fit in while others didn't, and as coach I had to make some changes."

Gainey's experience as a player was easily seen in comparison to his teammates' experiences, but the season started with two lopsided losses as Gainey opted to set up teammates while playing more defensively.

"He had all sorts of chances to score in those two games the team lost," Pascal Balland, hockey writer for the daily L'Est Republicain, told Winch. "He had open shots on net he passed up. Instead, he held back, feeding passes, playing defensively, setting everything up. He played for the team."

For Les Écureuils, regular-season crowds of 600-700 fans doubled in size as Gainey's legend in the city grew. In their third game of the season, 1600 fans packed La Patinoire to witness Gainey put the team on his shoulders as he logged somewhere near forty minutes of ice time to help Épinal beat the previously-undefeated Anglet by an 11-6 score. Gainey, who started the season as a defender - a position he hadn't played since prior to joining the OHL's Peterborough Petes - moved himself back to his usual forward position he was seen playing in the NHL, and the results saw Gainey choose to remain as a forward for Épinal for the remainder of the season.

Gainey played on a line with Eric Lamoureux and Frédéric Favre which saw him rediscover some of his offensive flair. Favre was a solid linemate who came in from playing in the top-tier Ligue Magnus with Bordeaux while the young Lamoureux brought speed and skill after spending a season in the third-tier French league with Deuil-la-Barre. Combined with a defensively-minded forward in Gainey, the two saw a ton of success while flanking the former Canadiens star as Lamoureux would finish fourth in league scoring in 1989-90 with 35 goals and 60 points in 28 games while Favre, as the captain, has no stats listed online, but he seems to have had a career year as well based on articles written. For the record, Gainey finished the season in 21st-place in overall scoring with 14 goals and 26 points.

While Les Écureuils d'Épinal didn't win the National 1B League in 1989-90, Gainey's influence on the team and region saw the team's stature in European hockey rise. Gainey would leave following that single season in France to become the head coach of the Minnesota North Stars in 1990-91, but Épinal saw other European players of prominence join the squad in the following years.

It didn't end with a championship, but that's a quick summary of Bob Gainey's one season with the second-tier French squad known as the Épinal Squirrels. Of course, Gainey would return to work with North Stars and Dallas Stars, earning himself another Stanley Cup ring in 1999 as the general manager of the Dallas Stars. He would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992, and his #23 was retired by the Montreal Canadiens on February 23, 2008.

That's a pretty solid career for a Squirrel, I'd say.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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