The sudden "retirement" of Ilya Kovalchuk to the KHL caught many off guard this past week, despite the fact it appears the Devils’ winger had made his plans awware to the organization months ahead.
Of course this is not the first time a player has left the NHL for another league, for one reason or another. It has happened many times in the seventies, when money lured players to the WHA, and more recently as Russian players return home to play in the KHL. Kovalchuk just adds to the list.
The Montreal Canadiens had a surprising retirement of their own, in the off-season of 1979, as the seventies dynasty began to dismantle.
Fresh off their 22nd Stanley Cup title, the Habs would see lot of moves in their organization. General Manager Sam Pollock had stepped down a season prior, with Irving Grundman named his successor. That was a trigger that would see coach Scotty Bowman, who felt jilted out of the GM job, leave for the Buffalo Sabres in the summer of ‘79. Al MacNeil, who stepped aside for Bowman and built up the farm team in Halifax, also left to take the head coach position with the Atlanta Flames.
On the ice, two players appeared certain for retirement. Back injuries had taken their toll on veteran Yvan Cournoyer, who missed most of the 1978-79 season. He came back for training camp but after a pair of exhibition games, the Road Runner decided it was time to hang up the skates.
Goaltender Ken Dryden was also certain to be retiring, as there had been well much speculation that he wished to pursue a law career. As described in his book "The Game," Dryden told the Canadiens it would be his last season as he pursued a legal career. Despite an offer by the team to remain as as a part-time goalie, Dryden and the team made it official on July 9, 1979.
But the surprising retirement announcement came from centre Jacques Lemaire. At age 33, and a dozen NHL seasons under his belt. Lemaire announced on June 15, 1979 that he was leaving for Switzerland to become a player coach with a Swiss B-Division team in Sierre. Lemaire had 55 points in 50 games in 1978-79 and had a career high in points (97) the season prior, so the decision came as quite a surprise to many.
At the time he was making $150,000 as season with the Canadiens, and was entering his option year with the club. The Swiss club's deal (three years) was for $75,000 per season, with a car, rent-free house and domestic aid provided.
Lemaire had been in talks with the Swiss club for some time and had just visited two weeks before his announcement. The Canadiens had reportedly been prepared to offer a new three-year deal, worth $225,000 a season, but for Lemaire it was more than just playing that he was thinking of.
"I want to continue in hockey after my playing days are over," Lemaire said at his announcement. "I think that this will give me some experience in coaching and managing." He also felt the experience of being able to live and travel in Europe would benefit his family, allowing them to experience life outside of North America.
The only concern that stood in the way was Lemaire's existing contract with the Canadiens. At the time International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) members in Europe had to honor NHL contracts, meaning a player under an existing NHL contract could not play for a European club. According to Lemaire's agent at the time, Switzerland was exempt from the agreement. Lemaire also stated that he had the support of the NHLPA when he made his decision.
Irving Grundman spoke to Lemaire on the situation the day before and did advise him that he would review his NHL contract with the league. The Canadiens GM also told Lemaire that there would always be a place for him in Montreal, if he wished to come back. There would be no issue with the NHL and Lemaire played in two seasons with Sierre.
Lemaire's decision would be summed up in Dick Irvin's book, "The Habs."
"I still wanted to play. But I never took chances in my life," Lemaire said later. "I was always very conservative and never did anything crazy.
"I had an offer from Europe. It came at the right time. I told myself that I was getting older, so why not take advantage of something that would help me enjoy life, take the kids overseas and go skiing with them. My wife had always been very close to her family, not the kind of life she had to lead when I was a hockey player. Now we could be together a lot more, so I went overseas to Sierrre.
“When I made the decision I felt I had done the right thing. I had no regrets.”
The Canadiens, even though Grundman had been let go, were true to their word. With former teammate Serge Savard as the club’s GM, Lemaire returned to the organization to start the 1983-84 season as an assistant coach and would be head coach by the time the season ended. He would coach one full season in Montreal before moving on to New Jersey and Minnesota.
Montreal Gazette, June 17, 1979, "Lemaire joining Canadiens exodus"
Dick Irvin , "The Habs: An Oral History of the Montreal Canadiens"