- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

You think Montreal and you think Old World charm in North America and hockey. Well, that was the way it used to be, before newspaper headlines told almost daily stories of deadly turf and drug battles between rival motorcycle gangs and hockey … well, let's get back to the bikers.

The Montreal Canadiens had won more professional championships, 24, than any team in any sport until baseball's Yankees passed them last fall. Their home for 72 years, the Forum, was called hockey's shrine. They were in the Stanley Cup finals 24 times in 36 years and won it 15 times in less than a quarter century before 1979.

But at some juncture 1978 is a good year to single out the most storied, successful hockey franchise in the world began turning sour. It wasn't that noticeable at first, but soon the slide became hard to disguise.

And now this: A franchise born to appeal to the Francophile market in Quebec in 1909 is being purchased by an American who can't even speak French and has said that, at 62, it may be too late for him to learn.

There is no one reason why the Canadiens have fallen on very hard times. There may be dozens of causes that have left the team this morning in 12th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference, more than a dozen points behind the last team currently holding a playoff spot. If Montreal misses postseason this spring, it will be for the third year in a row and the fourth time in seven seasons. To give those figures proper meaning, consider that the Canadiens failed to qualify only three times between 1940 and 1995.

But in the late '70s, things started to change. The Canadian dollar was rapidly falling behind the U.S. dollar in value, taxes in the province of Quebec and city of Montreal began rising rapidly, and federal taxes also increased. Also going up were player salaries and, like taxes, they are still rising.

On Aug. 4, 1978, Le Club de Hockey Canadien was sold to Molson Breweries, and the fabled team was now just another piece of a corporate pie, albeit a Canadian corporation. But general manager Sam Pollock left that year, and one season later coach Scotty Bowman also left after winning his fourth straight Cup with Montreal, and the descent was under way.

Montreal has won only two Cups in the 22 years since Bowman left town; the coach has gone on to win titles in Pittsburgh and Detroit.

"For years, the one constant with the Montreal Canadiens was terrific management, first under Frank Selke [1946-1964] and then Sam Pollock [1964-78]," said sportswriter Red Fisher, who has chronicled the Canadiens in English language dailies in Montreal for more than a half-century. Now former star defenseman Serge Savard was hired to piece things back together after Irving Grundman's ill-fated tour at the helm following Pollock, but Savard was fired in 1994 and the decline became free fall.

"Since then there have been bad trades, bad decisions, bad drafts, tight budgets just plain bad management," Fisher said. "Patrick Roy, Pierre Turgeon, Chris Chelios you can't continue to lose players like that and get nothing in return."

He shook his head, wondering what might be on the horizon with George Gillett of Vail, Colo., needing only NHL approval to become the Canadiens' owner.

"You know," Fisher continued, "it was only three or four years ago when the question even came up about the possibility of missing the playoffs. Hell, I remember one year [1969-70] when we had 92 points, 92 points, and missed the playoffs on [tiebreaking] goal differential. It was mind boggling, even the thought of the Canadiens not going to the playoffs."

How far have the Canadiens slid? Molson announced last June that the team and the brand new arena which bears the company name were for sale. The brewery searched for a Canadian buyer and did not get a single offer. There were two offers: One made and later withdrawn by Jonathan Ledecky, minority owner of the Washington Capitals, according to Molson, and then Gillett's on Christmas Day. Gillett bought 80 percent of the team, itself valued at $191 million by Forbes magazine, and the $200 million arena, for about $165 million total.

Gillett and the Canadiens could be a perfect match. He made a fortune in Colorado real estate, including Vail Mountain; lost everything in bankruptcy; then rebuilt his financial worth through meat packing and more ski holdings. He once owned a piece of the NFL's Miami Dolphins and for 11 years owned the Harlem Globetrotters, claiming a lifetime record of 3,499-1 with the latter.

But it's not Gillett or the fact that he's not French-Canadian, that worries Montreal fans so much; it's the state of the team and how long it will take to rebuild it.

"I never gave it any thought," Fisher said when asked about foreign ownership. "I thought either the Molson family or some other Canadian family would come through. But I don't think it's such a big deal. The fact the Canadiens are in danger of missing the playoffs for three straight years is a big deal. I never thought that would happen, ever.

"If an American can make it work, fine, I don't have a problem with that. The team will never move the new owner promised that. He said they are the Montreal Canadiens, not some other Canadiens."

So where does the rebuilding start? Not in the big-name free agent market, most observers seem to agree, but in the front office. Gillett should hire an astute hockey person to run the franchise, someone who won't let personal likes or dislikes dictate personnel moves such as the disastrous one that sent Roy, a future Hall of Fame goalie, to Colorado, as well as a host of other mindless decisions. The person should be knowledgeable in drafting or hire the best person available in that area to avoid horrible blunders like when the team passed on Philadelphia Flyers All-Star Simon Gagne in 1998, or a year earlier when Montreal ignored Marian Hossa, now Ottawa's leading scorer.

The Canadiens also should send somebody to spend some time with Caps trainer Greg Smith and team physician Ben Shaffer, who turned a near catastrophic injury situation into one of the league's medical showcases. Montreal had more than 500 man-games lost last season and will surpass 400 tonight with a quarter of the season left.

Meanwhile, much of the Old World charm remains, and the bikers only fight among themselves. The Forum still stands and is worth a visit.

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