Just as Maurice Richard, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, was more than just another hockey player to the population of Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens are more than simply another hockey team. The most resonant cultural touchstone in the province, the Habs have long both represented and reflected the aspirations of the French-speaking majority, a not insignificant portion of which sees itself as historically oppressed by a colonizing Anglo culture from the midpoint of the 18th century to the very recent past.
In this unique social setting the sale of the team is more than just another business transaction and much more hotly debated. The last time the team changed hands their fans were disappointed to learn that no local investors were willing to step up and dismayed when they learned that an American with a checkered financial track record ended up buying 80% of the Habs and their arena with $275 million of borrowed money.
Eight years later, the apprehensions have proved to be unfounded. George Gillett may not have known what Bernard Geoffrion was all about when The Boomer commandeered the Bell Centre press conference announcing that his number was going to be retired later in the season and probably doesn’t speak anything more than wine list French but during his term as owner the team’s fortunes, both on the ice and on the balance sheet, showed a significant improvement.
Remarkably accessible for a sports team owner, Gillett came to gain an appreciation of just how close the ties that bound Le Club de Hockey Canadien to their faithful followers and when it came time for him to sell, there was no shortage of local bidders.
$525 million later, the Montreal Canadiens, Bell Centre and event promotion concern Gillett Entertainment Group passed into new hands with a familiar imprint as Geoffrey, Andrew, and Justin Molson beat out a number of other aspirants.
Among the suitors who went away empty-handed were media conglomerate Quebecor, who hope to get permission for a new French television network devoted exclusively to sports content. Reported partners in their bid was René Angelil, the éminence très grise behind Céline Dion, and the Fonds de Solidarité, a labour union sponsored investment fund.
Stephen Bronfman, from the Seagrams distilling family that once owned the Expos and local cheese baron Joey Saputo, who owns both the ASL Montreal Impact and their home field, Saputo Stadium, were also cited as interested in acquiring the Canadiens. Hall of Fame defenceman and former GM Serge Savard was also in the running but pulled himself from the race once the Molsons entered.
The Molsons, while not a Francophone family, have roots two centuries deep in Montreal. An early leading family involved in banking and commerce, they are best known today for the brewery that began operation six years before the Canadiens skated for the first time.
It is not the first time the Molson name has been linked to the team in an ownership role. In 1957 Senator Hartland Molson and his brother, Thomas bought the club and their home, the Forum and held it for the next 11 years, taking part in six Stanley Cup parades before turning the keys over to the next generation, cousins David, William and Peter Molson as the 1968-69 campaign got underway.
They, in turn, sold the Canadiens in 1971 to a concern run by Peter and Edward Bronfman. The Canadiens returned to Molson hands in 1978, when the brewery bought it. Now part of a larger company, Molson-Coors retained almost 20% of the team’s stock when it relinquished the balance to Gillett in 2001.
Geoffrey, an executive with Molson-Coors as well as a member of the Canadiens Board of Directors is the point man for the new triumvirate. He’s also appeared regularly on Bell Centre ice, presenting the Molson Cup to the Habs player who has accumulated the largest number of points through Three Star mentions each season.
In a society often divided along linguistic lines, the release of the news that the Canadiens were once again passing into the hands of the Molson family was greeted with virtually unanimous approval.
Jean Béliveau has as high an opinion of the Molson name as the hockey world has of his. In a radio interview the ten-time Stanley Cup winner and long-time Habs captain, spoke of the family’s seven generation-long history in the city, saying that he had no idea how things would have worked out under another ownership group but that he had no reservations about the team reverting to Molson hands for the fourth time.
He also mentioned that one of the six men who financed the 1924 construction of the Forum was yet another member of the Molson clan, Herbert.
Callers to French phone-in shows echoed Mr. Béliveau’s opinion, with the consensus being unconditional support for the new ownership group and the perception that it is nothing but positive to have people who know, understand and love what the team means to Quebec and Quebecers with their hand on the chequebook.
A definite sense of relief that the Quebecor/Angelil/Solidarity Fund bid didn’t emerge triumphant came through as one caller succeeded another in declaring just how important the venerable Molson family was, both to Montreal and to the Habs.
While many felt that Angelil could make a go of the concert end of things, taking over the reins of a building among the top grossing concert venues on the continent, more than a few were of the opinion that if the team fell into the hands of a broadcast concern, it meant pay-per-view games rather than being able to catch the entire schedule, home and away on regular cable.
“Jamais deux sans trois.” goes the local equivalent of “things happen in threes”. A few weeks ago the nomination of Jacques Martin, a bilingual French-Canadian who has actually run NHL benches before signing on with Montreal, met with a generally positive reaction. Saturday’s news on the upcoming ownership change, one that should not raise any hackles around the NHL, is also a popular one.
The NHL is coming to town this week for the 2009 Amateur Draft. More than a few folks have speculated that the Canadiens might complete their trifecta at that time, picking up a tall center with a sun tan who would have to be willing to choose a new number if he came back to town.