In Mikhail Grabovski, the Montreal Canadiens knew they had a diminutive forward with exceptional skill, speed and hockey sense. The problem of course is that the team was stocked with players that fit that very mold; small, gritty, offensive-minded forwards who would have a harder time finding the open ice in May. But the Habs’ lack of size up front was not the main reason that propelled GM Bob Gainey to trade Grabovski to the Maple Leafs this summer. What really enticed Gainey to pull the trigger on the deal was how Grabovski blew away 30 000 air miles on George Gillette’s card after refusing to accompany the team on the flight to Los Angeles during their west coast swing last season.
“Yeah, I’d been saving those miles for a cool trip, someplace far maybe Australia, Fiji. I was even thinking about an African Safari”, Gillette said looking back on that dark day.
“You know, it’s hard. They only give you, like 10 000 points when you fly anywhere in North America, if you want to rack up the points, you’ve gotta get on that plane and get around, or you buy something big”, said Gillette.
When Gillette bought the team, it was said that the American millionaire with very little hockey knowledge was far more interested in the prospect of rapidly accumulating points on his corporate card.
“I’ve got the private jet, and, yes, that has its advantages, but if you’ve got a job that requires you to travel a lot, better find a way to do it for free. So I got one of those Aerogold cards and, basically I bought the team with it, and it gave me like 5 million points, and I was like, this is so sweet.”
But Gillette says he’s had the team for a while now and those points are starting to run out. “It’s funny, my portfolio has taken a 30% hit since the credit crisis, and I don’t lose much sleep over it, but you know what really makes me sweat? It’s watching those Air Miles plummet. It’s like you win that prize where you get to watch movies for free for a year, and you go to the movies like 400 times that year, and you’ve seen everything, Rush Hour 3, whatever Sandra Bullock’s in, just anything, and then it’s December 31 and you realize that this is the last free film you’ll be watching. And it hits you: we’re all mortal.”
Gillette’s sobering thoughts reflect his free spirit and generous ways. When Grabovski was called up last winter, the team had already purchased most of its tickets for the rest of the season, so his air fare was an unforeseen expense. The team had already spent a lot of money and was trying to keep some aside in preparing to land Marian Hossa from Atlanta. That’s when Gillette, the team player that his is, stepped up to the plate and said that we would use his flailing air miles account to cover Grabovski’s ticket. He gave the team instructions to get him a seat with the rest of the players.
But Grabovski refused. He said that if he was going to board these long flights, he would want the extra leg room and better movie selection. “Mikhail’s agent basically calls us and says, look, the guy supports his entire family, he feeds them and they’re like 22, maybe more, all living in this small house. If they see the kid fly coach, it’s gonna crush them, they’ll think he was treated like second class, and he won’t have it. You want to give that family some hope, you fly the guy in first class”, recounts Gainey. That’s how Grabovski demanded to fly in executive. Gillette fell off his chair, because flying in economy is one thing, but flying in business on points is like booking a ticket to Asia.
“I couldn’t believe it, all those potential holidays, gone. Thailand, gone. The safari, gone. Why did I buy the team in the first place? But I acquiesced because they said the kid had what it took to make us a contender. We got him like 4 first class tickets, and the guys said they could hear him kicking and giggling to his heart’s content on that first flight, downing martinis and watching Mean Girls”.
The fun would soon end. On March 7, 2008, Guy Carbonneau changed everything. He benched Grabovski against the Phoenix Coyotes. Grabovski went ballistic and refused to get on the team bus after the game. When his teammates pleaded with him to get on for fear of missing their flight, Grabovski walked past Carbonneau and gave him a nasty stare, then suddenly turned sharply towards team president Pierre Boivin and told him “This was my last flight with the Canadiens.” And with that, Grabovski missed the flight, forever changing Canadiens’ history.
Habs’ management dealt with the bombshell throughout the night. Former GM Réjean Houle even called Gainey to advise him that “you can trade him for the rights to Andrei Kovalenko. He’s making shoes somewhere in Babayevo, Russia, but I’m sure he can still play this game”. A Canadiens’ staffer was then seen working feverishly on updating the team’s blocked callers list.
Gillette ultimately called the shot and said that wasting those Air Miles was “like spitting on the banner with the number 10, that Cornoyer guy”. But he wouldn’t give in to the player’s demands. “Keep him on the team but play him sporadically, then this summer trade his ass to the Leafs”.
On Saturday, Saku Koivu was seen delivering a sermon over Grabovski as the Byelorussian lay on the ice. “You know when you flaked out on that flight? I asked them to seat you next to me. But you weren’t there. So you know what happened? I had to sit next to this woman and her crying baby. That kid wailed during the whole flight, then he barfed on me. All over this new sweater Hanna bought me. That barf is your fault. Remember that”, Koivu said as he skated away.
This has the makings of a rivalry for years to come.