Faded Glory

The Montreal Canadiens are battered on the ice, bruised as a business and about to be sold. It didn’t have to come to this.

James Deacon February 5 2001

Faded Glory

The Montreal Canadiens are battered on the ice, bruised as a business and about to be sold. It didn’t have to come to this.

James Deacon February 5 2001

It’s not natural to feel sorry for the Montreal Canadiens. In fact, rival fans have every right to revel in the woes of the hated Habs. There are 24 Stanley Cup banners hanging in the rafters at the Molson Centre, 11 more than the National Hockey Leagues next most prolific Cupwinning team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But feel sorry anyway. Les Glorieux have become les misérables, and they are so far down that it would be unCanadian to kick them. Facing off against the visiting New York Rangers on Jan. 20, for instance, the Canadiens had 10 players—half their regular roster—out of action due to injuries. So when veteran sniper Brian Savage scored only 20 seconds into the game, it gave a huge boost to a team fighting desperately for victories. But with these Canadiens, no good deed goes unpunished. Against the flow of the play, the Rangers scored two quick goals. And Rangers defenceman Rich Pilon crosschecked Savage face-first into the boards so violently that when Savage put up his hands to break the fall and protect his face, he broke his thumb and is lost for the season. In a gritty performance, Montreal came back to claim a tie against New York, but the dressing room afterward was sombre. “When is it going to end?” asked injured centre Trevor Linden, who had watched the carnage from the press box. “We just can’t keep losing key guys every night.”

It is unseemly to see hockey royalty, the successors to Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard and Guy Lafleur, in such a sorry state. Their two dozen championships make them the winningest team in North American pro sports, ahead of even the New York Yankees. Yet the Habs spent a few days in December mired in the NHL basement, no small achievement in a 30-team league with two expansion franchises unsteadily trying to find their feet and stocked with players recently deemed expendable by previous employers.

But the sorriest news out of Montreal is that no one there seems to want the team. Molson Inc., the longtime owner of the Canadiens, has been losing money on the franchise and put it up for sale last summer. The most obvious white knight was thought to be BCE Inc., since it is based in Montreal and could use telecasts of : the 82 regular-season games as programming for its various media holdings, including CTV and TSN. But in a cold reminder of one city’s decline and a rival’s gain,

BCE is rumoured to be more interested in purchasing a chunk of Toronto’s Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Inc., owners of the Leafs, the NBA Raptors and the plush Air Canada Centre. Perhaps BCE simply did the math: both teams suffer from paying skyrocketing U.S.-dollar salaries with 66-cent Canadian dollars, and both shoulder massive municipal tax bills. But the Leafs have a wealthier populace, more corporate sponsors and richer local broadcasting deals than the Habs.

As a result, Molson was negotiating last week to sell up to 80 per cent of the Montreal franchise and its arena for a reported $200 million. League sources say the head of the leading bid group is George Gillett Jr., a Colorado-based high-flyer with interests in ski resorts and meat packing. And if it goes through—league officials are expected to vote on the sale when they meet at the all-star weekend in Denver on Feb. 3 and 4—the deal would leave controlling interest in one of Canadas most admired institutions in foreign hands. Why? Because no Montrealer or Quebecer or Canadian thought the once-mighty Fiabs were worth the risk.

New York’s Theoren Fleury battles Stephane Robidas in front of José Theodore: Les Glorieux have become les misérables

Feeling the intensity of the fans at the Molson Centre, and looking at the dozens of pages of Habs stories every day in the local papers, it is difficult to understand how the fabled franchise could decline so precipitously as a business in Montreal. The simple answer is bad management. Granted, the injuries have hurt, not just this season but last season, too, when the Canadiens were similarly decimated. And the economic forces that are working against other Canadian teams (page 43) also hurt the Canadiens. But the problems didn’t have to be this severe.

The Habs are talking to American investors because no Canadian thought they were worth the risk

The Molsons have certainly been benevolent and tradition-honouring owners. “They are great fans of the game,” former Habs great Dickie Moore says of the family. “And if you want an example, Senator [Hartland] Molson is at every game and he’s in his 90s.” Still, the club failed to keep up with the changing demands of pro sports and did not operate like the $ 100-million-a-year business it is. Critics claim they hired poorly, particularly their general managers and coaches. Stunningly, it wasn’t until last year, after current president Pierre Boivin took over, that the team created a marketing department and hired a ticket-sales staff. “The Montreal Canadiens have lived a nice life in the past, but sports have changed,” says Pierre Ladouceur, the vice-president of marketing. “And unfortunately the Canadiens did not change fast enough. Now we’re doing a bit of catch-up.” Then there’s the $250-million Molson Centre. Under then-Habs president Ron Corey, a former beer salesman, the team funded the construction of the project privately, without any government money. But in retrospect, insiders close to the arena deal say it was a massive and risky undertaking without the safety net of any kind of public funding. From its opening in 1996, it was clear the building had significant design shortcomings. With a vast capacity of21,273, it is difficult to fill even in hockey-mad Montreal. “If it was a white sheet of paper and we had to redo it, it would be 2,000 seats less for sure,” says Ladouceur. “It’s just too big.” And its concourses are too narrow to absorb the heavy intermission traffic, making it difficult for thirsty consumers to get to concessions. That frustrates ticket-holders, and worse, it reduces possible revenues.

Then there are the costs. The Habs are currently contesting what is undeniably a debilitating tax burden on the Molson Centre, and a judgment is expected soon. The 2001 local property and business-tax bill, totalling $ 11 million, is more than three times the amount of municipal taxes paid by all 24 American NHL teams combined, and $1 million more than Toronto, where the Leafs can at least split the cost with the NBA Raptors. Cameron Charlebois, head of the Urban Development Institute, an association of Montreal developers, says the time to contest tax bills is before a project begins. Taxes are based on property valuations, so Molson would have been able to accurately calculate what they were going to owe the city before putting a shovel in the ground.

The economics have not scared off American investors—at least three groups have pursued the franchise in recent months. They are at an advantage because the exchange rate gives them a 40-per-cent discount on the team. And even > peripheral fans understand the value of the f Canadiens brand. The CH confers success at | the highest levels, prestige and a storied history going back to the NHL’s roots in Montreal. For that reason, many NHL insiders are nervous that Gillett’s name has risen to the top of the bidders’ list. He does have previous sports-ownership experience, although his holdings in football’s Miami Dolphins, hockey’s California Golden Seals and basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters were all brief and hardly illustrious.

The nervousness comes from Gillett’s financial misfortunes. In the 1980s, Gillett added 17 U.S. TV stations to his Wisconsin-based meat-packing firm, Packerland Packing Co., and his ski resorts, including Vail in Colorado. With North America in a recession by 1992, his company, Gillett Holdings, defaulted on more than $1 billion of junk-bond debt, and he declared bankruptcy on nearly $100 million of personal debt. That financial meltdown not only cost him control of Vail, the TV stations and his meat-packing company, but also his home in Vail and a ranch in Oregon. To fans hoping for deep pockets and long-range planning for their hockey team, that is a worrisome résumé.

Supporters say that while Gillett may be a gambler, he is no dilettante. They claim he learned the hard lessons from those spectacular failures, and that his gregarious, cheerleading management style is just what the down-in-the-dumps Canadiens need right now. “What he did in Vail borders on the miraculous,” says business associate Murray Merkley, president of Toronto-based Merkley Headgear. “He’s a real team builder—he got everybody going there and turned that place around.”

The public response to a foreign buyer, meanwhile, has been strangely mute. Perhaps fans are used to outside investment in local teams: the baseball Expos and football Alouettes are both owned by New Yorkers. Whatever the case, shoppers in the teams store at the Molson Centre, browsing through memorabilia and logoed apparel, seemed resigned to foreign ownership. Dave Bean, an oil company executive, was helping his four-year-old son, Matthew, try on coats while Matthew extolled the virtues of his favourite players, injured goalie Jeff Hackett and the brilliant but often brittle captain, Saku Koivu. “I think that, like a lot of people, Id like to see a better team on the ice,” Bean said after Matt settled on a nice red jacket with white sleeves. “If they are prepared to inject some capital into the team and make it more competitive, then that’s great.” League officials are simply looking for stability. “In terms of the health of the franchise, I hope the strongest financial group possible can buy it,” says Brian Burke, president of the Vancouver Canucks. “I don’t care if they’re from Paraguay.”

Optimists say there is huge potential in the Canadiens. The team has never fully exploited the power of its popularity across the country. In every Canadian NHL city where the Habs visit, there are hundreds of fans who turn out in bleu, blanc et rouge. To marketing and broadcasting executives, that indicates a huge appetite for everything from licensed apparel to pay-TV telecasts of Montreal games, particularly if the onice performance improves. That would produce higher revenues, and if the new owners can reach a deal with the city and province to relieve the tax burden, it would offer immediate cost reductions. But that’s a big “if.”

The Canadiens used to keep their best and brightest. Toe Blake finished his hall-of-fame playing career in Montreal and became a hall-of-fame coach behind the Montreal bench. Jean Béliveau stayed on in the front office, too. But in the last decade or more, many of the best have gone away, as witnessed by the plaques that adorn the walls in the Habs’ dressing room. On polished granite, under portraits of past greats and the famed inscription “To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high,” the names of Montreal winners of various league trophies are etched.

One list of names tells a particularly damning story. Under the Conn Smythe Trophy, given annually since 1965 to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are nine entries. The most recent three names are: Larry Robinson, the former defenceman who last spring

coached New Jersey to the Cup; Bob Gainey, the great two-way winger who is general manager of the Dallas Stars, who won the Cup the year before; and goaltender Patrick Roy, who captured the Conn Smythe in both 1986 and 1993, and who now backstops Colorado, the team widely regarded as the favourite to win the Cup this season.

Just as on the business side, the Canadiens have suffered through years of dubious hockey decisions—ill-conceived trades and ill-considered selections in the junior draft—that denied the club so much talent. Many fans trace the current decline to former general manager Réjean Houles decision to trade Roy to Colorado in 1995, but La Presse columnist Réjean Tremblay traces it to the departure of the previous general manager, Serge Savard. “The day they fired Savard to replace him with Houle, they assassinated the team,” Tremblay says, adding: “After that, it was an organization that got rid of Patrick Roy, Pierre Turgeon, Vincent Damphousse and Mike Keene. It was senseless.”

To shake things up last fall, Boivin replaced the much-criticized Houle last November with André Savard, whose job is nothing less than to fix the hockey team. Unlike past team executives, Savard spent his playing days with some of the Habs’ biggest rivals. He skated 12 seasons in Boston, Buffalo and Quebec City, and before that was a Leafs fan, of all things—he grew up near the Ontario border in Témiscaming, Que., where the Leafs signal was the only one available. Savard, 47, may fare better than his predecessor, particularly with the rabid press corps. Unlike Houle, Savard paid his front-office dues as an assistant coach and scout before getting the big job. He’s an all-business kind of guy, and reputedly a keen judge of shinny talent.

He has already shown a little of that. Shortly after arriving, he traded for tough winger Gino Odjick and the swift Chad Kilger, both of whom stepped right in and helped the team until they, like so many others, were injured. But even though the team has played better recendy, it remains a miracle-anda-half out of a playoff spot. And the Canadiens would have trouble making the playoffs even if they weren’t missing their top scorer (Savage), No. 1 goalie (Hackett), a key defenceman (Craig Rivet) and the No. 2 centre (Linden).

Early exposure to NHL play has sped the development of some younger players

Therrien at the Montreal bench, backed by Senator Molson: benevolent owners

Still, Savard sees a big upside with this team, and not too far in the future. Watching the warm-up before the Rangers game from the coaches’ booth high above centre ice, Savard says the early exposure to NHL play has sped the development of some younger players in the system. And after the all-star break, Savard says, injured forwards Linden, Dainius Zubrus and Martin Rucinsky ought to be fit enough to play. That won’t make the Canadiens instant contenders, but they might be better than doubters think. So Savard isn’t planning a major trade until he finds out what kind of team he actually has. “You can’t overreact just because you’re in a tough situation,” he says. “It’s too easy to downgrade your team—you have to be patient.” Supporting his rosy view, the Canadiens have played through the injury plague with great passion. They are tenacious on defence and frequently out-hustle opponents, even if they don’t outscore them. It doesn’t hurt to have the scarred countenance of Guy Carbonneau at practice every day, helping head coach Michel Therrien. Carbonneau, a longtime Hab whom Houle traded in 1994 because the GM thought the gritty centre was washed up, played a season in St. Louis and the last five in Dallas, helping the Stars reach the finals in 1999 and 2000. So much for washed up. Now, he is back in the fold as an assistant coach, and serving as the ideal example to the young players. For 20 years in the NHL, Carbonneau scored key goals, blocked shots, killed penalties and sacrificed statistics to help his teams win. He was also a key member of the Habs’ last two Cup-winning teams.

Sitting in the dressing room, Carbonneau says all the portraits and plaques are more than just artifacts. Sure, it adds some pressure, he says. But the connection to past champions, he says, is a useful reminder of the talent and commitment it takes to achieve greatness. “Me, I think we can get back to where we were before,” Carbonneau says. “Will we win another 24 Cups? That would be hard. But if we do the right things in the next little while, and if we are patient, we can win again.” If Carbonneau is right, then the new owner will be getting a real bargain. And old rivals will feel comfortable hating the Habs again.

With Brenda Branswell in Montreal and Ken MacQueen in Vancouver

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