By Stu Hackel
The Montreal Canadiens will set a franchise record for most losses this season and could finish last in the Eastern Conference for the first time, so it was expected that GM Pierre Gauthier would be out of a job. The timing is curious, though, with five games left in the regular campaign. But during a season when Gauthier fired an assistant coach minutes before a game, traded a player during a game, and dismissed the head coach on a game day, it is perhaps fitting that the GM himself was relieved of his duties when he was.
So Gauthier has followed assistant Perry Pearn, winger Mike Cammalleri and bench boss Jacques Martin out of the Bell Centre. The Montreal Gazette's Dave Stubbs speculated on Twitter that Gauthier actually resigned, jumping before he was pushed. That's certainly plausible. Timing is everything, it is said, and Gauthier sometimes appeared to operate in his own private time zone.
This change was inevitable regardless of when it happened. The man who called all of his players and coaches "Mr." in press conferences and was long ago nicknamed "the Ghost" by the media and "the Goat" by the fans, Gauthier was perhaps the most disliked executive in Montreal hockey history. That's judging by the comments fans have made on radio talk shows and blog posts. Shortly after the club announced Gauthier's dismissal via Twitter, Conor McKenna, the substitute host of the "Montreal Forum" show over TSN Radio 990, played Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" and callers expressed a sense of joy and relief akin to a country being freed from the yoke of a repressive dictator. Some even sang "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Whether Gauthier decided himself or Molson did it for him, he's now gone. So is Bob Gainey, the great Canadiens defensive forward and captain who became GM nine years ago amidst great promise. Gainey had some success, engineered the Summer of '09 "chemistry experiment" rebuild, and then stepped away to become an advisor and allow his assistant, Gauthier, to take his place. It was his trade for Scott Gomez from the Rangers in exchange for Chris Higgins and Ryan McDonagh that symbolized all that has gone wrong for the Canadiens and likely made him leave the GM post. But Gainey remained the organization's eminence gris, quite involved in the hockey decisions.
During his press conference on Thursday, team president Geoff Molson spoke about how difficult it was to have that conversation with Gainey, someone he had known -- and considered a hero -- since Molson was five years old. He said his talk with Gauthier was not easy, either. "He's a builder," Molson said, "but what he built wasn't working."
Brought in to help Molson identify and select the candidates for the next GM is another former Habs captain, Serge Savard. He's has been a friend of the Molson family since the late '60s. As GM for the Canadiens in the '80s and '90s, Savard led the club to their last two Stanley Cup championships and has since been a successful businessman, especially in real estate. Despite a few bad trades toward the end of his tenure, Savard remains greatly respected in Montreal, especially in light of all that transpired after he left in 1995 as the Habs slipped competitively and have now plunged into irrelevancy, which is the Maple Leafs' neighborhood.
It's been bad enough for Montrealers and fans of the team that the most storied franchise in the game is now approaching two decades without a Cup. But the highly secretive manner in which this club had been run under Gauthier was irksome to many, especially because it's an organization that so prides itself on being one with the people of Quebec and its passionate supporters world-wide. Make no mistake: The Canadiens have built a worldwide brand, not unlike what the Yankees are to baseball and Manchester United is to soccer. The severed connection between the Habs and their fans cries out for repair with the choice that Molson will make to be the next managing director of the club.
Molson -- whose family has been involved in the ownership of the Habs at various times over the last six decades -- made it a point on Thursday to stress that the Canadiens not only had to fix problems on the ice, but that rupture with fans who were embarrassed by this season's episodes of instability, including the uproar surrounding the hiring of unilingual Randy Cunneyworth as coach. "This organization has values that run deep," Molson said. "We have every intention of maintaining the highest standards." He acknowledged that while management's decisions were made in an effort to improve the club, the timing of some moves didn't always work. "But, it's important to have respect for everyone."
He also made it a point to emphasize how much he appreciated the thousands of letters, emails and tweets he'd gotten from fans offering their advice and opinions on what the team should do. "I wish I could reply to each one," he said, "I do listen and absorb what you say."
Molson, whose group has owned the club for two years, stressed that this lousy season gives the team a chance to make itself over, and that his main goals for the Canadiens going forward were broadly laid out. They are to improve the team at every level, reestablish a winning culture long-term, give fans the best possible product on the ice, and to provide stability in all levels of the organization. Now, there's not a team owner in pro sports who wouldn't say the same thing, but Molson also said that the best organizations in the NHL have some things in common: consistency and stability. The Canadiens have lacked both, so he gets high marks for not being blind to his team's weaknesses.
"It's my responsibility to identify solutions and rebuild the winning culture that the history and traditions of this club demand," Molson said. "We need to remember: The fans want us to win. Period." And winning for this club is not just making the playoffs, Molson added, but contending for the Stanley Cup.
Asked by a media questioner afterward if he was prepared to make some painful decisions on players like Gomez and, perhaps, Tomas Kaberle who have inflated salaries and diminished skills -- meaning, no doubt, would he be comfortable with a decision to send big ticket underachievers to the AHL and eat the salary -- Molson answered that he'd leave the player evaluations to the next GM, but was quick to say, "We'll do whatever is required to win." Gomez has two more years left on a contract that pays him $5.5 million and $4.5 million (with a cap hit of $7,357,143); Kaberle has two years left at $4.25 million and $4.5 million. It would make for a very expensive meal.
That leaves the biggest question open: who will Molson and Savard select to run the Canadiens? Molson mentioned some of the qualities they'd seek in a new GM, obviously an excellent working knowledge of the league and "undying desire to win at all costs." He also said the next GM must be a superb communicator within the organization and with media and fans. He also said they'd prefer a GM who speaks French, because it is a very important consideration given the realities of the Montreal/Quebec market, but if the best candidate is not a Francophone, he wouldn't let that stand in the way.
The names in the firmament are a mixture of the familiar and the not so. Patrick Roy has been linked to this job recently. Another who is frequently mentioned is SI and NBC's Pierre McGuire, who is in the media now, but has also been an NHL coach, scout and assistant GM during his career.
Mike Boone of The Gazette mentioned former Habs captain Vincent Damphousse, who spent time with the NHLPA and is now on RDS TV, as well as other former players such as Claude Loiselle and Marc Bergevin, who work for the GMs in Toronto and Chicago, respectively. He also included Julien BriseBois, a former Canadiens front office guy who works for Tampa Bay as Steve Yzerman's salary capologist and contract negotiator, agent Pat Brisson, and scout Blair Mackasey.
Although Molson and Savard will do their best to keep the process secret, more names will almost certainly emerge, some legitimate, others bogus. But for all the uncertainty ahead, Molson did one thing that seemed to resonate with fans and media alike: he took control of a deteriorating situation and, by the end of his press conference, sounded and appeared quite confident and passionate in doing so. The Gazette's Stubbs encapsulated the two-pronged sentiment that many fans, singers or not, echoed. "Molson has sparkled in this news conference," tweeted Stubbs. "We'll see how this now translates into action."
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