Quiet Gainey has North Stars making noise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- There is this look Bob Gainey gets when he is thinking hard about something or carefully choosing his next words. He presses his lips together, raises his chin and focuses his eyes on a point far away.

The marketing department of the Minnesota North Stars, the team Gainey has coached to a 4-1 victory in the Campbell Conference final series against Edmonton, has captured Gainey's look in a new poster and television commercial aimed at selling tickets for next season. In frame one, Gainey is staring, tight-lipped, and the ad explains that this is "Coach Gainey after a penalty."

Frame two, the same shot, is captioned, "Coach Gainey, after a )) goal." In frame three, the camera angle is slightly different, but the expression is the same. This is "Coach Gainey, after kicking Chicago's butt in the playoffs." The ad concludes: "when your coach is Bob Gainey, you come to depend on excitable fans."

Gainey doesn't seem offended by the ad, but neither does he revel in his growing image as the stone-faced author of the North Stars' unlikely playoff success. He notes that last fall, when the North Stars began the season 3-9-3 under their rookie head coach, being unemotional wasn't seen as a particularly good thing. One Twin Cities columnist compared Gainey to a corpse.

"Initially, it was seen as a negative," Gainey, 37, said after a recent practice, leaning against a cinder-block wall in a Met Center corridor. It's hard to look totally relaxed and comfortable leaning on a wall, but Gainey did. "I remember after we won our first game, I noticed the Minnesota media watching me, waiting for me to be overjoyed with my first win as an NHL coach. It was good, but I wasn't going to do somersaults."

Back then, the conventional wisdom held that the North Stars had to do something to get their turned-off fans back into the Met Center, and that it would help if the coach were more of an outgoing, dynamic type.

Now that the Stars, the 15th-seeded team in the playoffs, have become one of 1991's biggest sports stories by knocking off the NHL's No. 1 and No. 2 regular-season teams and the defending Stanley Cup champions, it is easy to see that Gainey's quiet dignity suits the team and the area very well.

The players praise Gainey's patience through the early struggles.

"He's been very patient and very positive," said winger Brian Propp, who rejuvenated his career this season at age 32. "He sort of let the players work it out among themselves."

The fans also have responded -- mostly to winning, certainly, but nonetheless, this is a place that historically has embraced blandness. Humorist Garrison Keillor has made a nice living off Minnesota stoicism. There also is a local sports parallel, as North Stars assistant coach Andy Murray was explaining Tuesday.

Murray said the Gainey poster and commercial are "an image that we're trying to portray. [The marketing department] is trying to compare him to [former Vikings coach] Bud Grant. Bud Grant is considered the ultimate coach around here, and he had that image."

Murray thinks it is more accurate to compare Gainey to two hockey figures Murray has worked with -- Bob Clarke, the North Stars general manager, who brought Murray here after both were dismissed by the Flyers last year, and Flyers head coach Paul Holmgren, who is a Minnesota native.

"Like 'Homer,' he delegates authority really well, in terms of his assistant coaches," Murray said. "Everybody's got a role on our team, and he defines the roles so that everyone knows what's expected of them."

Like Holmgren, Gainey came to his job without much of a coaching background, but with a reputation as a character player and the trust and respect of Clarke. Clarke, after all, was something of a character player himself, and he went straight from the ice to the GM's job in Philadelphia.

Gainey, who coached a year in France after ending his 16-year Montreal Canadiens career after the 1988-89 season, was a four-time Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward. He was the Canadiens' captain for eight years and he played on five Stanley Cup champions, exuding what goalie-turned-author Ken Dryden has called "an enormous will to win and a powerful playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo."

Clarke played with Gainey in All-Star games and international competitions, and when Clarke became the North Stars' GM, Gainey was one of two men he contacted about the coaching job. The other was John Paddock, Clarke's assistant GM in Philadelphia, a former Flyer who coached the American Hockey League Hershey Bears to the 1988 Calder Cup title. Paddock had more coaching experience and much more history with Clarke, but, ultimately, Gainey was Clarke's choice.

"Bob Gainey totally understands the team game," Clarke said. "There's a lot of people like that, but he's able to get it across to the players, which I don't think is a very easy thing to accomplish. I think John Paddock is a similar guy, but in the situation we were in, we needed somebody who would bring instant respect right away. He would have instant respect from the players [because of his distinguished playing career]. He wouldn't have to prove himself."

Associates laud Gainey's mental toughness, and he displayed it through a chaotic training camp, which the North Stars spent touring the Soviet Union instead of just practicing and learning the new coach's system.

He displayed it again during the team's horrible start, during which the fans showed their displeasure with the turmoil over the sale of the team by leaving the Met Center two-thirds empty most nights. He stayed focused through the controversy over the sale agreement, which at one time seemed to call for sending many of Minnesota's best young players to the expansion San Jose Sharks, owned by ex-North Stars owners George and Gordon Gund. Players felt uncertainty over the agreement, which since has been revised, contributed to their poor start.

Gainey's answer to the team's complex problems was simple -- winning.

"There was nothing we could do about all the past errors," Gainey said. "The best response was to give them something people will want to see. If your team is competitive, can win some games, people will respond."

In the middle of all the team's problems late last year came Gainey's toughest challenge. His 35-year-old wife, Cathy, underwent surgery Dec. 5, followed by radiation treatment, for a brain tumor. Gainey chooses not to discuss his wife's illness with reporters, but in an April interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he described calling home Nov. 30 from Winnipeg and reaching his 6-year-old daughter, Colleen, who was crying because she couldn't awaken her mother.

Gainey calmed down his daughter and phoned a neighbor, who came over and revived Cathy Gainey. She told her husband she must have fainted from the flu and that he should go on to the Winnipeg Arena for the Stars' game against the Jets. She would go to the doctor and get checked out.

Late that night, Clarke met Gainey at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. "Cathy is sick, and it's serious," Clarke told Gainey, who guessed right away that the problem was a brain tumor, since brain tumors had killed her father and an older brother.

Gainey took three games off while Cathy had surgery, then returned and seemed to focus just as intently on hockey as he ever had, while the Gaineys reorganized their life away from the ice.

"There had to be some nights in December when he had to wonder what was happening with his life," Murray said. "The team's struggling, now this on him. But he never let it show. He's a really strong person."

Cathy Gainey, who also seems to be a really strong person, has recovered enough to attend playoff games. She reportedly has some memory loss and has lost some organizational skills, though doctors have said she might recover fully in a year.

"I think she's doing fine, and I believe she's going to do well," Gainey said, in the same interview. "I don't sit and mope about it. I don't think it's going to make her feel any better, and I honestly don't feel like sitting and moping."

Gainey's quiet strength through all the crises of the past year hasn't surprised North Stars center Bobby Smith. Smith, 33, returned this season to finish his career in Minnesota, where he started out in 1978-79 before a 1983 trade took him to Montreal.

"We dressed beside each other for six years, and our wives were and are very close," Smith said. "I expected him to be this good a coach. He gave more to the Montreal Canadiens than good play on the ice. He took it upon himself to help out in the locker room as well. Not everyone is as strong mentally as Bob Gainey or Bob Clarke, and he always tried to help people who weren't."

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