Canadiens hope to reverse course with new GM Marc Bergevin
MONTREAL -- In the coaching realm, when an organization hits the reset button, invariably it hires what it hasn't had: a players' coach is succeeded by a disciplinarian; a prison warden replaces a country club social director; Mr. Yin yields to Mr. Yang. But the storied Montreal Canadiens, who sashay down Ste. Catherine St. to a beat sometimes only they can hear, have extended one of sport's governing principles to the front office.
Marc Bergevin is taking over from Pierre Gauthier as general manager of a franchise that has won a record 24 Stanley Cups. The most amazing thing is not that Bergevin will occupy the same seventh floor office that Gauthier -- nicknamed The Ghost -- once haunted, but that the two of them even occupy the same planet.
Gauthier is dour. Bergevin loves to laugh. Gauthier is secretive. Bergevin is gregarious. They are both committed hockey men, true, but then you could also say that Meryl Streep and Kim Kardashian are both actresses.
A Bergevin story: When he was an NHL defenseman -- he played 1,191 games for eight teams during 20 NHL seasons -- he would register in hotels under the name "Denis Lemieux." Lemieux was the Charlestown Chiefs goaltender in the classic comedy
A Gauthier story: When Gauthier abruptly decided to trade winger Mike Cammalleri this season -- a day earlier Cammalleri had observed that there was a "loser" mentality suffusing the team -- he quickly made a deal with Calgary, actually having the player pulled out of uniform and sent back to the team's hotel during the second intermission of a game. (The whole goofy deal, for the laconic Rene Bourque, was terrible -- in terms of optics, at the very least.)
Later, a Western Conference GM asked Gauthier why he had not made more of an effort to shop Cammalleri. "I'm not saying I would have been offering ..." and the GM named one of his prized young players to SI.com. "But I might have been able to put something together that would have been attractive, maybe better than what Montreal got back. Pierre told me that he had to do it like this because he didn't want the press to find out."
At the press conference in which the Canadiens' principal owner, Geoff Molson, announced Gauthier's firing in late March, he mentioned several times the need for the next GM to be a strong communicator. On the laundry list of issues facing Montreal, this was below only restoring luster to a franchise that once virtually ran the NHL and now seems content with making the playoffs and occasionally winning a round or two. Under Bob Gainey and then Gauthier, the Canadiens had grown distant from their passionate fan base. The bond never had been severed, but it had been frayed. Yes, there were still 21,273 filling the arena and a long list of corporate partners, but since the Centennial celebrations in 2009 and the out-of-nowhere run to the Eastern Conference final in 2010, the civic mood had been decidedly glum.
With the looming possibility of the NHL's return to Quebec City, the Canadiens had become vulnerable in the nebulous area of hearts and minds in the province. Now, hockey is not a popularity contest, of course, but the 30 NHL franchises are businesses and Montreal seemed to go out of its way to alienate its customers. The sacking of coach Jacques Martin and the promotion of unilingual English-speaking assistant Randy Cunneyworth was precisely the type of tin-ear move that underlined how far removed from the reality of the marketplace the Canadiens now were.
Bergevin, a bilingual Montreal native with a trick up his sleeve and a perpetual glimmer in his eye, can repair some of the superficial damage, but this franchise needs something more than cosmetic surgery.
Bergevin's introductory press conference on Wednesday afternoon was all about platitudes and attitudes. He generally was shy on specifics, although he did say that he told Cunneyworth he was being reassigned as an assistant coach, subject to the new bench boss's approval, that Trevor Timmins would run the draft, and that assistant GM Larry Carriére will remain in the front office.
At times appearing overwhelmed by emotion, Bergevin often fell back on "It's my first day" when asked about who might become the new head coach or the thorny contract issues that await. (Maybe building a team is like building a house, but Montreal wants a new foundation laid, well, yesterday.) For a day at least, none of it seemed to matter because, like Killer Carlson chasing that $100 bounty on the head of Tim McCracken, Syracuse's chief punk in Bergevin's favorite movie, his attitude was right. When he entered the press conference room at the Canadiens' suburban practice facility, he smiled and nodded at a few acquaintances. A voice from the back of the room said, in French, "That's the first smile we've seen in here for three years."
If you had drawn up a list of the best assistant GMs in the NHL five weeks ago, the ones who would be most likely to succeed at running their own teams -- regardless of an ability to speak French -- you might have started with Detroit's Jim Nill. You then would have included Toronto's Dave Nonis (who previously had done a capable job as Vancouver's GM), Nashville's Paul Fenton, and Los Angeles' Ron Hextall. Bergevin wouldn't have been in the top five or 10 or maybe 20, if for no other reason than he was still new to the job.
The 46-year-old Bergevin, who retired before the 2004-05 lockout, had been a scout, briefly an assistant coach, and then director of player personnel with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was promoted to assistant GM last summer, when Kevin Cheveldayoff left to become GM of the Winnipeg Jets. There simply is not a comprehensive body of work that can serve as signposts to Bergevin's future. Perhaps it means nothing, but Chicago's sage advisor, Scotty Bowman, publicly lobbied not for Bergevin, whom he knows from the Hawks organization, but for TV analyst Pierre McGuire, who received a call around 7:15 a.m. Wednesday telling him he was out of the running.
You can listen to McGuire on Ottawa's The Team 1200 radio show discussing the hiring process
Clearly Bergevin did something right to emerge as Montreal's choice. Maybe he interviewed well. Maybe his plan met the vision of the interviewers, including Molson, fellow owner Michael Andlauer, COO Kevin Gilmore, and Hall of Fame defenseman Serge Savard, who Molson had picked to be his point man on the search committee. Certainly the search was thorough. Montreal inquired about Nill -- he is tethered to Detroit -- and also Hextall (although it never followed up) and Los Angeles executive Luc Robitaille. The Canadiens interviewed Toronto assistant GM Claude Loiselle, former Avalanche GM François Giguère, Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois, and Minnesota director of player personnel Blair Mackasey, among others.
More than most places, Montreal embraces its own. Bergevin grew up in Point St. Charles, a rough part of town, and played his minor hockey in Ville Emard, a southwest working class district best known as Mario Lemieux's old neighborhood. Although Bergevin has been out of Quebec since 1984, it truly felt like a homecoming. Maybe Molson oversold someone who never has managed a team when he described his new GM as a "natural and credible leader," but certainly Bergevin, who has a five-year contract, figures to be a popular one. Until he makes his first bad trade.
In any event, Montreal has settled on its bilingual communicator, who was known as a prankster back in his playing days.
Wait until Bergevin gets a load of the Scott Gomez contract he's stuck with -- now that's a prank.