Sports

Les Canadiens— in name only?

Ownership of Montreal’s fabled NHL franchise may soon pass to an American

Brenda Branswell January 29 2001
Sports

Les Canadiens— in name only?

Ownership of Montreal’s fabled NHL franchise may soon pass to an American

Brenda Branswell January 29 2001

Les Canadiens— in name only?

Sports

Ownership of Montreal’s fabled NHL franchise may soon pass to an American

Brenda Branswell

When Senator Hartland Molson bought the Montreal Canadiens with his brother in 1957, he insisted: “We don’t own the Canadiens, really. The public of Montreal, in fact the entire province of Quebec, owns the Canadiens.” That may still ring true. But on paper, les Glorieux will soon belong to someone else—quite likely American interests. It’s an unsettling notion for fan René Carpentier, who fears an American owner might move the legendary club to another city. Like many Quebecers, he grew up watching La soirée du hockey on television every Saturday night. “The Canadiens are part of the furniture in Quebec,” he said, sipping a drink between periods at the Canadiens’ game against the Tampa Bay Lightning last week. Carpentier, 36, has three sons who play hockey and “identify a lot with the Canadiens.” For their sake, he said, “I hope it stays a Quebec property.”

Although the prospect of a domestic owner seems increasingly remote, Molson Inc.—and NHL commissioner Gary Betunan—have sent out reassuring signals that the team will stay in Montreal. Molson has instituted a gag order until a deal is signed, and maintained its silence on a weekend report suggesting George Gillett Jr., a U.S. ski-resort owner and developer, had reached an agreement in principle to buy the team. The former Harlem Globetrotters owner has been part of several failed bids to buy U.S. sports franchises. He visited the Molson Centre last week with financial advisers in tow. Another report before Christmas suggested Molson was selling an 80-

per-cent stake to a group headed by Jonathan Ledecky, part-owner of the Washington Capitals. But Ledecky later said he withdrew from the bidding.

Negotiations have clearly been going more slowly than Molson hoped. When the brewing giant announced plans last June to sell its controlling interest in the Habs, it hoped to ink a deal by Dec. 31. But David Hardey, an analyst with First Associates Investments in Toronto, believes the money-losing Canadiens’ high municipal taxes are a big obstacle. Molson, which is contesting the tax bill, pays $10 million a year—higher than the total paid by the

five other Canadian NHL franchises.

Molson has pledged that the sale will include a proviso that the new owner keep the team in Montreal. Some fans, though, are ambivalent about the nationality of a future owner. “What’s important is the players, the coach and the spectacle,” said Michel Jacob, 31, an engineer. Why such a muted public response? “I think the example of the Alouettes eased a lot of apprehension,” said Réjean Tremblay, veteran sports

columnist at La Presse. Since buying the team in 1997, U.S. businessman Robert Wetenhall has been lauded for helping revive football in Montreal. (The Expos’ managing partner Jeffrey Loria is also an American, although he has been pilloried by the media for his handling of the club.) Still, Tremblay finds the prospect of a U.S.-owned Canadiens team sad, albeit part of a trend: “From the moment the Canadian dollar is worth 66 cents, you have to expect Americans will lay their hands on some of our jewels.” But the Canadiens have lost some of their lustre. They missed the playoff's the past two seasons and are stuck in the cellar of their division. Some observers blame Molson, which is expected to remain a minority owner, for the team’s woes both on and oif the ice. At last Thursday’s game, the 21,273seat arena was peppered with empty seats, despite a high paid attendance. Many ticket holders, it seems, simply did not show up. Canadiens officials are quick to point out that their attendance is among the top five in the league—but they do not deny the team needs fixing. Impatient fans can only hope the remedy works quickly.

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