Thursday, 29 March 2012

Régime change in Brossard

Big big news from Montréal today, and welcome news, in that Mr. Pierre Gauthier has been relieved of his duties as the Canadiens General Manager. Also, Bob Gainey, who was working as an advisor to the GM, was informed that his contract which expires this summer will not be renewed.

Not that these gentlemen were bad people or incompetent, but the results speak for themselves, both when using the 'Parcells test' while looking at the standings, and also in the erosion of talent from the roster over the last year, and of prestige from the organization. Mr. Gainey's gambit to go for a small skilled team that would skate the opposition into the ground was ultimately undone by the CABAL of Jeremy Jacobs, Colin Campbell and Don Cherry, who are steering the game back to the dark days of the brawling seventies and the clutch and grab nineties.

The relationship between the team and its managers was no longer beneficial or workable, so it was time to part ways with these two gentlemen and go in a new direction. A paradoxical angle is that many commentors today applauded the move, but also pined for organizational stability, and lauded the Buffalos and Nashvilles of the league who stick with their GM-Coach combinations year after year, through thick and thin.

One encouraging aspect of today's announcement was the performance of Geoff Molson. I had a favourable opinion of him since his interview at the start of the season on RDS, during which he said all the right things: his love of the Canadiens, the fact that he plays hockey himself and his sons do, how he spent time in the Canadiens online ticket-buying system so he could find out what the experience is like for the fans and how it could be improved. The fact that he was eloquent and spoke flawless French was a big plus. The clincher was his assertion that he would be an arms-length owner, and that while he would serve as President, he wouldn't meddle in day-to-day operations, which was great news to those of us who don't want a George Steibrenner or Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones in charge of the Canadiens.

Despite this great start, he was splattered by the rotten season the team endured. He was ridiculed when he gave the team and its staff a vote of confidence. He was derided by a number of fans as over his head, or vilified as a beer salesman who didn't care about winning, but only for profits. It seemed he was cut little slack in having taken over a team that was having a measure of success in the playoffs and deciding to let the current managers continue their seeming good work. He also wasn't given any credit for the fact that he had only been in the President's office for less than a year.

Thankfully, his press conference today allayed a lot of fears and he seems to have bought himself some time and regained some credibility in the eyes of his critics. He again spoke of the history and tradition of the Canadiens, of how squeaking into the playoffs was not an indicator of success. He was honest on a number of topics, in both languages.

His main coup was the announcement that he had hired Serge Savard as his advisor for the candidate selection process. While Mr. Savard has been out of the NHL for a while, he still brings a lot of good judgment, connections and experience to the table. It speaks highly of Mr. Molson that he has the humility to share the spotlight and admit he needs help. This comes on the heels of reports that he has been seeking advice from pretty much anyone he could in the last few weeks, so he is genuine in asking for help, it's not a publicity stunt.

There's not much to add to the torrent of positive comments with respect to Mr. Savard. It is a great indication that Mr. Molson understands that the Canadiens have a few advantages that other organizations don't, one of which is a deep pool of qualified, talented men to build an organization with. One of the talking heads spoke in contrast and unflatteringly of the Leafs and quipped: "I wonder if Brian Burke is calling Bill Derlago for advice?"

To have resources like Serge Savard and not use them is borderline sabotage. It seems that Geoff Molson 'gets it', and he will capitalize on the strengths of his team.

Another advantage the Canadiens have is this hereditary, generational, visceral attachment that the team has with its fans. Mr. Molson again shows that he gets it by stating clearly that having a GM who can speak French is important, if not a mandatory qualification. While this is grist for the mill for those who reflexively repeat that the Canadiens should hire 'the best qualified candidate', this can be addressed in two ways.

One is the veritable plethora of candidates who are rattled off when the speculation begins as to who will replace Mr. Gauthier. There are at least half a dozen very qualified candidates who are bilingual and can step into the role, some holding Assistant GM positions currently and being considered as ready by hockey people to take the next step. Vincent Damphousse is a smart guy who owns businesses and who in his time on the NHLPA bargaining committee got to know the Collective Bargaining Agreement exhaustively. Pat Brisson is a very respected player agent who is touted by analysts as the next one to go to the other side of the table and become a GM. If anything, there may be too many candidates to interview.

It is clear to see that the requirement to speak French will not prevent the team from interviewing many qualified candidates. The 'best qualified' candidate is an elusive beast. It's not always clear who is the best candidate. There's no objective test. If there was, there wouldn't be so many subsequent dismissals, in the hockey world and in the real world.

In reality, the person that tends to get hired is the person that has a strong enough résumé to get on a short list, and then impresses the hiring committee with their personal qualities, the force of their ideas and the fit with the organization. It's not like the World's Strongest Man or a cage brawl where there is an objective, indisputable champion. Out of the short list, you usually feel good about two or three candidates, and then you hope to choose the right one.

There is no unemployed Sam Pollock out there without any warts who will be denied a chance at employment because he doesn't speak French. All those mythical 'best qualified' candidates, those who have talent and experience, are either currently employed or were let go from somewhere else because they were found wanting. When the analysts on TSN were asked, after providing the exhaustive list of bilingual potential candidates, to provide a few names of candidates who don't speak French, they could only muster a couple of unmemorable suggestions.

Which brings us to the other way we can address the 'best candidate'. If Mr. Molson understands that the attachment between the fans and the team is a strength we can capitalize on, then he knows he has to nurture that bond, feed it. To do so, he has to, as we did in the past by design and by accident, ensure that there is local representation on the team, that Québec boys are stars and heroes and win the Cup and create another generation of boys who want to grow up and be a Canadien too. This kind of attachment is priceless. Or rather, we may find out the price or the advantage if we are able to sign P.A. Parenteau this summer at a hometeam discount. We need to have more generations of little hockey players who identify with the team and would give anything to play here, instead of the deplorable Daniel Brière situation, where a homeboy chose for various reasons to stay away.

We need our managers to understand this, and to do everything in their power that more David Desharnais and Alexandre Burrows are discovered instead of slipping through the cracks. Serge Savard has spoken ably on the subject, and it is reassuring that he will recommend we hire a GM who shares this philosophy.

It should be an exciting end of season now, as opposed to what we thought as recently as yesterday, that the remaining five games would be a Bataan Death March. Instead they'll be the background action to the main players. Let's hope that we end up with a young, talented, bright GM who quickly hires Patrick Roy, uh, I mean our next coach, and sets us up well in anticipation of the draft in June.

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