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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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Did the Wayne Gretzky of general managers lay the groundwork to land The Great One some 44 years ago this weekend?

One long-time Canadiens scout believes Sam Pollock, the Montreal GM who won a record nine Stanley Cups, hatched a far-sighted scheme to draft Gretzky when he made an under-the-radar trade on Sept. 13, 1976. 

A deal that barely registered as a two-sentence blip in the following day’s Montreal Gazette could have changed the course of hockey history.​

That possibility bubbled to the surface more than four decades after Pollock traded nondescript forwards Sean Shanahan and Ron Andruff to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for cash and – more importantly – the right to swap first-round draft picks in 1980.

“I believe that Sam made that trade hoping to get Gretzky,” said Gerry O’Flaherty, who was hired in 1980 by the Canadiens as a west coast scout. “He was so ahead of his time on how the Canadiens thought about the draft and planned ahead.”

O’Flaherty, 70, continues to work for the Tampa Bay Lightning as a pro scout after a 23-year run with the Habs – but he never got confirmation from Shrewd Sam himself.

So, we will never know for sure precisely what the late legendary GM was thinking, but the man who famously arranged for a pick swap with the California Golden Seals that landed Guy Lafleur in 1971 a year before it happened, might have been working to duplicate that magic.

This much we know for sure:

- At the time of the trade, Gretzky was front and centre in the hockey world as a 15-year-old prodigy with the Seneca Nationals of the Toronto Metro Junior Hockey League.

- With the draft age then 20, Gretzky projected to be eligible for the NHL draft in 1981. But since Pollock had been deeply involved in both league expansion and amateur draft planning since the mid-1960s, it’s reasonable to think he foresaw the draft age dropping to 19 as it did in 1979. That would have made Gretzky eligible in 1980.

Corroborating O’Flaherty’s claim is difficult.

Doug Robinson, now retired after serving 30 years (1972-2002) as Montreal’s chief scout, said Pollock played his cards close to the vest – even keeping his own scouting staff in the dark.

“I can’t say I remember the thought of Gretzky being part of the deal or that kind of conversation, but nothing would surprise me,” the 79-year-old Robinson said from his home in St. Catharines, Ont. “We were regularly talking about players one or two years out from their draft class.

“[Pollock] never said a word to anyone, even me. He didn’t believe in it. He would simply say, ‘Tell me what you see. Can he play on our team ahead of this guy or this guy?’ And then you’d say yes or no, and he’d say thank you and that was it. He’d move on and make his moves. He always knew who he wanted.”

When everything remarkably fell into place for the Canadiens – with Colorado finishing last overall in 1979-80 on the final day of the regular season - Gretzky wasn’t on the board and Pollock had retired, leaving his successor, Irving Grundman, to infamously select Doug Wickenheiser first over hometown favourite Denis Savard.

At the time of the NHL merger with the World Hockey Association in 1979, Edmonton retained its rights to Gretzky, making the prospect of Montreal picking Gretzky a moot point.

By then, the 19-year-old Gretzky had already established himself as an NHL superstar, having tied for the scoring lead with Marcel Dionne in his first NHL season and winning the Hart Trophy.

But when told what might have been in a phone interview, No. 99 was surprised.

“Wow,” Gretzky said. “I never heard that.”

“It would have been an absolute thrill. Growing up a Maple Leafs fan, it might have been tough to switch my allegiance, but watching hockey every Saturday night, those were the two teams engrained in your mind. They were an immaculate franchise, not only visible but successful.”

The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 24 times. Pollock is listed in the NHL Guide and Record Book as an executive on half of those teams: nine as GM, two as personnel director and one as director for a total of 12.

Stocked with the likes of Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson - what would the Canadiens have looked like with Gretzky in the lineup?

“Those Canadiens stars were fading from the dynasty team of the late 1970s, but I bet with Gretzky added into the mix, they could’ve hung on for a few more Stanley Cups,” said O’Flaherty, who now lives in Vancouver.

Robinson recalled, “Sam was always building. He constantly had a list of players’ ages and had an idea on the optimum time to move a guy. He would trade established NHL players that could help teams immediately for future picks to keep his war chest stocked. Maybe it was a year earlier than you might have thought to trade a guy from your roster, but there was a plan behind it.”

Imagine, for a moment, The Great One draped in bleu, blanc et rouge instead of drenched in Oil. Or No. 99 setting up shop in his office behind the net in the Montreal Forum rather than Northlands Coliseum.

Even after he turned pro, Gretzky used to walk the concourse at the Forum, soaking in the surroundings. He said he remembered where every photo used to hang on each door near the dressing rooms.

“I don’t think I can even put into words what a thrill it would have been to play in a place like the Forum,” Gretzky said. “It’s fun to think about what would have been, but I’m thrilled with the way things worked out.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli ​