By Stu Hackel
For all their triumphant history and tradition, which are unmatched in hockey and rivaled by very few in all of sports worldwide, the Montreal Canadiens are at a low point. All teams have their cycles, so perhaps this is the downside of the glory decades that is catching up with them. For those who envy, even hate, the Habs, that's happy news, although it's never really good for any sport when a marquee franchise struggles.
Not all of Montreal's struggles are on the ice, although they start there. We've chronicled them at various points this season as events transpired (here, here and here) and things looked to be unraveling.
A little more yarn came off the spool this week when -- after two encouraging victories that kept the playoff candle burning -- the true limitations of this edition of les Canadiens became apparent on Tuesday night as they were shut out on home ice by a much superior St. Louis Blues team with the Habs' former playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak, in goal.
The next day, a frustrated Mike Cammalleri -- who was co-hero of those 2010 playoffs along with Halak, but a target of the Bell Centre boo birds this season -- remarked to a pair of reporters that the team had "a losing mentality" and strongly hinted that he was unhappy with his reduced ice time under new coach Randy Cunneyworth. One of those reporters, NHL.com's Arpon Basu, framed the entire episode quite well in this article. The other, Francois Gagnon, wrote about it in La Presse (and discussed it all on TSN Radio 990 Friday morning -- audio). Needless to say, Montreal's fans and media exploded.
Bright and articulate, Cammalleri's reputation among some as a me-first guy was only reinforced by his comments. Dave Stubbs of The Montreal Gazette reasoned that the winger may have been right about the teams' mindset. But "calling out his entire team for a 'losing mentality' was a mistake. Cammalleri used much too wide a criticism brush in a dressing room that includes veterans like Carey Price, Josh Gorges, Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty and Travis Moen, all of whom not once shortchange a dollar in the effort department.
"Cammalleri’s healthy ego, more than the hard statistics that don’t reflect well on him this season, were a large part of the reason for the heated reaction to his opinion. It’s unlikely that Price, Gorges or Cole would be similarly torched had those players uttered the same sentiments."
Cammalleri was a pricey (five-year, $30-million) part of the Habs' 2009 rebuild into a fast, but small, highly-skilled club. A 39-goal, 82-point man for the Flames right before signing with the Habs as a free agent, Cammalleri's 13 tallies the next spring led all playoff goal scorers. But before and after, his regular season numbers slid as he battled injury and had trouble finding the net. A smaller forward, he was often victimized by the NHL's defensive trend that sees so many outside shooters denied. He's racked up a mere nine goals this season.
If Cammalleri's size and drop in production made GM Pierre Gauthier consider him expendable, it seemed that his comments made him more so. So Cammalleri was shipped back from whence he came, Calgary, with an unsigned prospect and a fifth round pick for a bigger forward, Rene Bourque, plus an unsigned prospect and a second round pick.
Gauthier, who has already been under fire for any number of things he's done, took more heat for this deal, considering that Cammalleri has, at times, been a sniper of some renown while Bourque's inconsistency and sometimes lackadaisical play have already driven both the Flames and the Blackhawks nuts. On TSN, televising Thursday's Habs-Bruins game to Canada and the US (on NHL Network), the intermission panel unanimously applauded Flames GM Jay Feaster for the trade (video). In the light of day, however, Bob McKenzie reassessed the transaction on the TSN website and found it more equal, and presented some good arguments supporting his view (and reviewed the whole thing on TSN Radio 990 Friday morning).
Whatever reservations the Canadiens have about Cammalleri as a player, the Flames don't share them and seemed very happy to have him back. The price doesn't seem too high and Yahoo hockey columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika, among other, wonders how much shopping of Cammalleri Gauthier did around the league. "Some GMs reportedly didn’t know Cammalleri was on the market," he writes.
But that aside, the highly unusual manner in which this trade went down set tongues wagging around the hockey world.
First, it certainly looked like Cammalleri was dispatched as punishment for his remarks, which Gauthier denied in a postgame press conference (video). Gauthier insisted the deal had been in the works for a while, and that was confirmed by Feaster in his press conference (video). But Feaster added that the talks had been on hold recently while Bourque was serving a five-game suspension for a very unnecessary elbow to the elbow to the jaw of the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom, and there's still a game left on that ban. Feaster said that he didn't think the trade talks would restart until Bourque was eligible to play again, but Gauthier phoned him Wednesday to ask if the Flames were still interested and, Feaster said he was. Rather than waiting one more game until Bourque was back, the deal was completed. He'll now sit for one game as a Hab. Gauthier reasoned that when a deal is there, you have to pull the trigger, but obviously, something suddenly made this trade more urgent for him.
Second, Cammalleri was very strangely pulled out of the lineup during the game -- a one-goal game in which he might have helped the Habs get a point or two -- and told he had been moved, presumably because Gauthier didn't want to risk his being injured and scuttling the deal or want him around the team any longer.
Late in the TSN's telecast, as word of the deal leaked out, play-by-play man Gord Miller reported that Cammalleri had been told to shower, dress and return to the team's hotel as the game went on while between-the-bench analyst Mike Johnson reported that Canadiens players seated nearby were asking him if Cammalleri had indeed been moved and where he was headed.
Gauthier called it, "the right thing to do for all parties" and said it wasn't the first time that such a thing had happened. We're having a tough time remembering when it might have occurred before in the NHL. In Feb. 1980, the Maple Leafs acquired Mike Kaszicki from Washington while the Caps were on an Alberta road trip; he arrived the next day at Madison Square Garden after the start of Toronto's game against the Rangers, dressed in a uniform that had no name on its back, and played. That was pretty strange, but those were Harold Ballard's Leafs and strange was the norm. This is perhaps stranger (and woe to the franchise that draws any comparisons to Harold Ballard's outfit).
"Until Thursday night, we thought the Canadiens were living a surreal season. Goofy, ridiculous, disappointing," wrote Dave Stubbs. "There were injuries, players not coming back who were supposed to be back. Head coach Jacques Martin and assistant coach Perry Pearn fired in separate sackings, Pearn turfed just before a game, general manager Pierre Gauthier discussing the dismissal while the Habs were on the ice warming up. Players tussling on the ice during practice. Language debates raging. Underachievement everywhere, both on the ice and in the executive suites.
"It’s all been a dog’s breakfast that no self-respecting mutt would touch. But the Canadiens topped (bottomed?) it all Thursday night."
The view from further away was no more charitable. "The Canadiens, who have prided themselves on doing everything the right way, have long been considered the classiest organization in the NHL, if not all professional sports," wrote Ken Campbell on The Hockey News website. "But their behavior this season, starting with new owner Geoff Molson on down, gives one the impression they’re trying to become the newest expansion team in the Federal League."
Of course, there might be other, less sensational reasons that Cammalleri was in, then out of the game. Darren Dreger explained some of that on TSN (video and on his blog), referencing various league trade technicalities that were not complete when the Canadiens-Bruins game began. Montreal decided to dress Cammalleri and then pull him out when the Flames finished their paperwork; the league won't proceed with the trade of a player who is in a game. That begs the question why the Habs didn't scratch Cammalleri before the game regardless of how far along the Flames' paperwork had gotten.
If you've ever worked inside a hockey organization -- or any public organization -- you probably know the way things are perceived and reported from the outside can be wildly different from the way they actually happen. The problem for the Canadiens is that, regardless of what the true stories from this turbulent season may be, they sure look bad. Messages have not been communicated correctly, and consequences don't seem to have been thought through. It's been damaging to an organization that has, in our lifetimes, almost always projected a decorous image.
Well, everyone screws up now and then. The Habs were able to recover in 1971 after coach Al MacNeil ran afoul of his players en route to the Stanley Cup. Sam Pollock, the game's' best-ever GM, brought in Scotty Bowman. That turned out pretty well.
It's uncertain, however, if they've ever fully recovered from inexperienced GM Rejean Houle's blundering trade of Patrick Roy in the Canadiens' last major public relations crisis. With Cammalleri now gone along with Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek, and with Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez both injured and even less effective than when they arrived, this most recent and expensive attempt at the post-Roy rebuilding of the Canadiens seems to have run its course. On The Montreal Gazette Hockey Inside/Out blog, Mike Boone suggests that Gauthier has already started a new rebuild.
Meanwhile, it's looking more and more like there will be no playoffs this coming spring in Montreal. A postseason there is something everyone who loves hockey should experience, as the whole city bursts with extra life and every pore opens to take in the thrill of the Stanley Cup chase. It will give owner Geoff Molson a little extra time to think about the direction he wants his team to go and decide just who might be the right people to restore its faded glory.
At the moment, his legendarily passionate fans are taking this calamitous season pretty hard.
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