Canadiens owner, president and chief executive officer Geoff Molson in his Bell Centre office on Monday, May 19 before Game 2 of his team’s Eastern Conference final vs. the New York Rangers.
John Mahoney, Gazette
The Gazette, Hockey Inside/Out
The Canadiens are skating on spring-thin ice against the New York Rangers, down 2-0 in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference final.
That’s not to say that all is lost for the team that very much is a part of the fabric of Montreal, Quebec, and has a huge following of fans – never bigger in this Internet and social-media world – across Canada and around the world.
Early Monday evening, an hour before faceoff of the Canadiens’ 3-1 loss in Game 2, I sat for 30 minutes in the Bell Centre office of Geoff Molson, the Canadiens owner, president and chief executive officer, and spoke of his team’s past, its playoff present and its future.
Five minutes from the end of our conversation, Canadiens chief operating officer Kevin Gilmore appeared at Molson’s door to announce that both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman were in the building, looking to say hello.
“Oh, (Harper) is here today?” Molson replied. “I thought he was here last game.”
You know you’re running a large business when the leader of your country is in your house and that surprises you.
We left Molson’s office at 7:35 p.m. and walked a labyrinth of corridors until we emerged up a few stairs into the Bell Centre’s media dining room. It was there that Molson and Bettman shook hands and chatted briefly before the commissioner was happy to be served his dinner alongside the media mob at the take-out counter: hot-dogs on a paper plate.
Here is my talk with Geoff Molson, edited only for clarity:
• Geoff, your deal to purchase the Canadiens with your partners from George Gillett Jr. closed on Dec. 1, 2009 and five months later your team went three rounds deep into the playoffs. Here you are again, in the conference final. Is this one different than the first?
A: Totally different because I really know the players now, I know the management. In fact, most of them are new from management down. The last time (in 2009-10), I felt I inherited the team, one with a lot of character that really came through. This time, I feel like I’ve participated in building a team that is thrilling Montrealers and Quebecers and Canadians every night. It’s really exciting. Whenever something goes wrong, they find a way to battle through.
• The Canadiens are the only team among Canada’s seven NHL franchises in the postseason. Do you consider the Canadiens “Canada’s team”?
A: All seven are “Canada’s team.” We were very proud to make the playoffs, it’s hard to do. The fact that six other Canadian teams didn’t make it doesn’t make us more proud. It’s just one of those things that happened this year.
Then again, I think, more than 10 million Canadians watched our Game 7 against Boston (on CBC and RDS). That’s a lot. When our team travels to the six other Canadian cities, you see that we have fans everywhere.
I get lots of notes from fans of other teams who, because their team is not in the playoffs, are rooting for our team. That makes me feel good, too. Temporarily, we are in a position to be highly visible and highly talked about from coast to coast. I’m very proud of that but I’d never be so bold as to say we’re Canada’s team. We’re a very popular team in the world, probably one of the most popular.
One of our next campaigns, something our COO (Gilmore) has talked about on a few occasions, is to get out there and discover how many fans we have around the world and open the dialogue with them to build a relationship with people who can’t come to our games.
• Much was made in the Canadiens dressing room and far beyond it about a lack of respect shown the Habs by the Bruins during the semifinals…
A: The emotions are so high in those games. All I can say, all I will say, is that I’m pretty proud of our players for taking the high road almost 100 per cent of the time no matter what happened on the ice. Those (players) are proud, too. It’s not easy to do and they did it and they won the series.
• There’s a clip on the Internet of Boston’s Brad Marchand punching Tomas Plekanec in the face awaiting a faceoff…
A: And Tomas doesn’t react. He just turns away. That’s class and character. … Our team is full of character. The last series there were a couple things that happened that motivated us. Hopefully, there will be a few things that happen in this series that motivate us as well.
• Such as Price being flattened in Game 1 and knocked out of this round, at least? How did you react to that?
A: My heart stops beating for a second. I see Carey get up and I’m relieved. But still, as an owner, I immediately ask Marc (GM Bergevin) to fill me in with details as he has them.
Obviously, we didn’t have them (Saturday) night. Carey had to spend the night resting to see where he stood the next day. He’s our best player and he’s the reason we’re in the third round right now. It’s really a big disappointment to lose him.
But we have a team full of character. I believe in everyone in the organization. I think they’re capable of overcoming this.
I sent Carey him a note, I didn’t call him, and he replied that he’s going to do everything he can to get back as soon as possible. He’s a winner.
• There’s a better feeling in this city about the Canadiens than there has been in some time. A feeling that there’s a plan, that the organization isn’t grasping at straws, that Bergevin and his hockey-operations people have a vision…
A: One of the reasons I liked Marc so much when I interviewed him (to be hired May 2, 2012) is that his two main platforms are stability and development. He brought in people who make our fans feel that there’s stability. It starts with me but he’s a high-quality GM and everyone around him is also high-quality support to him.
Then, we’ve got a whole bunch of 20- to 25-year-old kids who make you believe we’re going to be on a good ride here for a while. Fans see that. When kids see a young player on our team come in and excel, and we’ve had five or six who have really stepped it up in the past two years, when you see a lot more T-shirts and jerseys around town, that’s because they’ve fallen in love with the team. …
We’ve had a tough couple of years in Montreal that started with the lockout (laughs). Whether you like it or not, whether you’re supportive of it or not, there’s a bunch of things that happened in Montreal that just brought people down.
So many people have written me, called me, talked to me in the streets, and expressed how proud they are of this city, and it’s a direct result of how the Canadiens are playing.
There seems to be a new energy in this city that I can’t really explain but it’s powerful and I hope it continues beyond hockey. Having the Canadiens performing just makes everyone happy and proud to be a Montrealer.
• And with the Canadiens’ success come higher expectations…
A: Yes, they’re higher. Fans have seen some of our guys step up. They hadn’t seen that before, fully. Carey, our defencemen, P.K., Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Pacioretty, these are the guys we’ve been building for three or four years. They’ve taken a character step, a leadership step. It’s impressive. Touch wood, they stay healthy and stay with this organization. They’re young and that gives you something to hope for.
• Is the Molson name, and its generations of involvement with and ownership of the Canadiens, always in the back of your mind? Or do you largely forget it given the work involved in running the business of the team?
A: Our family has always been very committed to Montreal and the province and the country. I’m managing – I don’t want to overstep my grounds here – the most important asset that this province has from an emotional perspective. I have to represent something that is extremely important to people. Whether my name is Molson or Smith or O’Doul, it doesn’t matter. I have to honour the tradition, build for the future. I have to respect every step of the way and really almost never deviate from that.
The Molson “pressure” for me is much more about honouring and developing and nourishing something that is extremely important to so many people. I hope you’ll never hear me say something that doesn’t represent the quality of our brand.
• Do you view the Canadiens as a public trust?
A: My great uncle (Senator) Hartland used to say that: “At the end of the day, this team belongs to the people.” I think that I’ve probably learned that through the generations as well. Certainly no one is bigger than this organization, no one individual. It’s a group, a family that needs to be nourished and developed. You can only market your way through so much. It has to be genuine. It has to be real. I try to be that.
• You’re on Twitter, Geoff. How do you manage it? How do you stop yourself from hitting the Tweet button when you or someone in your organization is being flamed?
A: (Laughs) It takes enormous discipline. I take it all very seriously. I know that the Canadiens are serious business for people. They’re highly emotional and they care deeply. I think they know that I care deeply, too. When I get their feedback, I can feel their passion speaking. Whether it’s mean or nice or neutral, it’s because they care deeply and I appreciate that. …
For fans, it’s great that they have a direct access to me or the Canadiens or maybe Carey or P.K. or our players on Twitter. I think it’s really cool. In the modern world, for our players, it’s different than it ever was. These guys are superstars, they can’t walk down the street or stop in a restaurant.
It isn’t the same as it used to be. People want to take a selfie, get an autograph. With 24CH, our website, all the clips we have on the website, all the journalists who bring everything to life like this (snaps his fingers). I used to read what was being written about the Canadiens the next morning. Now I can get at night at least a sneak peek at what’s being said. There’s no such thing as patience any more.
• Even Montreal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, is active on Twitter about the Canadiens. Famously this season, the poke at David Desharnais…
A: Denis is a proud fan. He has every right to say what he wants but at the same time he’s got a lot of followers and he has to be responsible as well. I think he understands that.
• In your four-plus years as owner of this team, has there been a single “wow” moment for you? One moment that drove home just what it means to be in the position you’re in?
There have been so many occasions. You have to be so humble with all these opportunities because our team is extremely popular. You can just show up somewhere and people go, “Wow…”
My kids wouldn’t go “wow” (laughs), they’d want to know, “Why does everyone always say hello to you?” It’s a pleasure for me to say hello to people. The big wow that’s ongoing is how popular this team is. You can see it in the airport, the Dominican Republic… you bump into Quebecers: “Hé, Mons. Molson!” Every airport in North America, there will be someone from Quebec or Canada who will recognize you. It’s special as long as you don’t take advantage of it.
Wow moments have been good and bad. This series against Boston was pretty impressive. The defeat of the Capitals and Penguins (in 2010) was pretty impressive. This time around, I won’t say it was probable (that Habs would beat the Bruins) but it was possible, and we did it.
• How much advice do you get from the man and woman in the street?
A: A lot. Especially when we lose (laughs). Some of it is really useful. Some of it is related to our game show or opportunities to do things a little differently. I flip that over to the marketing department. If someone gives me feedback on a player, it’s not really my role to pass on that information but I find it interesting because I’m a fan, too. I can’t express my opinions the way fans do to me but it’s fun to hear.
• It’s a busy summer ahead for your GM. Contracts for Subban, Andrei Markov and your captain, Brian Gionta, come to mind. How involved will you be with hockey personnel matters?
A: I always know what’s going on. Marc and I talk almost every day about something. I know, I follow his files, all those you mention and then some, I talk to him about those at the right moment on a regular basis. If Marc he pulls the trigger on something, I’m never surprised. He knows that he has my support. We work really well together, it’s very honest. He’s a very straight-forward guy. He doesn’t bull—-.
• And he’s got an interesting happy dance, as he showed when Dale Weise scored the overtime winner against Tampa Bay in Game 1 of that series…
A: That’s Marc (laughs). He’s not afraid of being himself. He’ll run things by me. It won’t be, ‘Do you think this guy is a good left-winger?’ He and his hockey people all know that. But he will call me and say something about further developing the organization, adding an element that will allow us to play at a higher level.
He’ll ask for my advice on things but it’s usually related to the business of hockey. He knows that I’m quite well versed in hockey. I ask him those 20 questions if it’s a big move.
Marc has lines into every GM. Everyone slams their fist down on Twitter when we don’t get a player, but it’s not easy. What Marc did there with Thomas Vanek (acquired at the trade deadline) was very impressive. That’s from persistence.
Marc is a quality guy. Other GMs respect him and he respects them as well. You get further in life when you do things the right way.
• George Gillett was an American businessman who loved this team, not the bogeyman whom many fans feared would strip this institution for parts when he bought the club. He largely let his hockey operations people run the team. You’re much more a hands-on owner and one whose roots are here. Does your lifelong background in hockey help you in this office?
A: As long as I don’t overstep my bounds. The fact that I grew up in this stuff has for sure helped me to be a better owner. But that doesn’t mean I’m an expert in hockey. I can’t overstep the bounds. I liked George a lot. I was on the board of directors here before we bought the team.
George was an American and a good owner, but I think to our fans, having someone from here, someone who is part of the culture and always has been, makes a big difference. They appreciate the fact that a gars de chez nous is actually representing them.
• If your team’s season ends in the next few days, after three rounds in the playoffs, would you classify it as a success?
A: Success comes in phases. During the regular season, there are periods when you want to be successful so you can make the playoffs. That’s Step 1. Once you make the playoffs, well, two of the four teams still playing had fewer points than us.
If we get to the Stanley Cup final, and if L.A. gets to the final, we’d have home-ice advantage. Once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. I’ve seen it twice in my short tenure here.
The way Marc is building this organization gives me more confidence. My definition of success is the confidence that we’re building one heck of an organization here. Building is the key word. Building and developing. (Three rounds in) 2010 was awesome. It was a great ride. People were falling in love with the team.
But we all sort of knew deep down inside that, even though it was amazing, it wasn’t really meant to happen. Our organization, the way it’s being built now, we’re going to be a team that’s going to be able to make the playoffs every year and it’s going to be less amazing if they do really well because it’s going to be a strong organization, strong with the people who are building it.