MONTREAL -- The circus finally left town.
With five games left in a season for a franchise that, with no sense of irony, still considers itself Les Glorieux, principal owner Geoff Molson announced on Thursday that he had fired general manager Pierre Gauthier, who, if we are going to beat this circus analogy like a rent-a-goalie, qualified as the mime in the 2011-12 Montreal Canadiens clown college.
Gauthier never seemed to speak much, although when he did, he had the annoying affectation of referring to a person by an honorific. Mr. Gionta. Mr. Gorges. In the story on its website, Radio-Canada, the French arm of the CBC, noted in its headline that "Monsieur" Gauthier had been sacked. Zing.
Bob Gainey, who initially drove the Canadiens into a ditch with the 2009 trade for Scott Gomez and who walked away from the GM job eight months later and left ownership no choice but to pass it on to Gauthier, also departed. His replacement as wise old man of the organization, in the short term and possibly beyond, is Serge Savard, the Hall of Fame defenseman. Savard, GM when Montreal won its 24th and last Stanley Cup, in 1993, will lead the search for Gauthier's successor.
Firing Gauthier must have been the relatively easy part of the equation for Molson. There has not been a Canadiens GM so widely disliked since Savard's predecessor in the early 1980s: Irving Grundman. But canning Gainey, who left in what Molson called "a parting of the ways," obviously was wrenching. Molson's family has owned the Canadiens, on and off, for much of his lifetime. He said he has known Gainey since he was five, back in the years when Anatoli Tarasov, the godfather of Soviet hockey, proclaimed the Montreal left winger the most technically perfect player in the world. At least Molson is staying in the family by placing his faith in the acumen of Savard, which might be a good thing.
Savard is conspicuously smart. He is extremely patient. He also has not been directly involved with the NHL since his firing here in 1995, when he was succeeded by the woefully unprepared Réjean Houle, triggering a slow, inexorable slide to mediocrity. Savard has ties to a junior hockey team -- he is co-owner of the PEI Rocket of the Quebec league -- and is one of 18 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, but he is not necessarily as current about the league as some other hockey men whom Molson might have called upon. A Canadiens executive told SI.com, however, that Savard would likely be open to suggestions, internally and otherwise.
Savard has certain convictions that could inform his recommendation. Privately he has grumbled often that the Canadiens have lost their way, and their identity, because they have not found enough French-speaking players -- especially those who grew up in Quebec and understand the magic of the CH brand. When Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin in December and replaced him with assistant Randy Cunneyworth, whose knowledge of the primary language of the province doesn't extend far beyond French toast, Savard absolutely lost his mind, publicly ripping the move. He was in lockstep with most of the rest of the hockey chattering class.
Molson, who is also the team president, continually stressed the importance of communication in the job description of the next GM, which means that there will never be anyone like Gauthier, who was nicknamed The Ghost and who used to say nothing in two languages. Combined with Savard's vision and Molson's stated preference, it is clear that the person who is entrusted to restore the "winning culture" in Montreal will also have to speak more than passable French. Get over it people. As difficult as this might be for many in the hockey world to grasp, sometimes the "best man" for the job also can talk to the fans in their own language. In Montreal, that goes with the territory, in the literal and figurative senses.
Molson fired Gauthier now rather than at the end of the season to give the Canadiens a 10-day head start on their search. He has no expectations that the new man will be in place by April 10, the night of the draft lottery in which Montreal figures to have the second or third best chance at securing the first overall pick. He does hope the search concludes before the start of the July 1 free agency period.
So now we come to the entertainment portion of the program, kids, when we engage is the thankless task of handicapping -- guessing, in other words -- the potential candidates for a job that is still among the most coveted in sports.