Geoff Molson Opens Up On Delicate Topics

A couple of days ago, Montreal Canadiens’ owner and President Geoff Molson gave Martin Lemay an exclusive interview, in French. He did have some pretty interesting information that he shared, about the timing of firing Marc Bergevin, and the changes that followed. Because not everyone understands French, I’ve decided to translate it for you. Hope you enjoy. In some instances, I’ve paraphrased, particularly the questions, which were often long-winded.

Why not speak before today?

I am spoiled, I have hired four people, five if I include France Margaret Bélanger who are able to speak publicly and we share roles. It puts a little less pressure on me to always talk. Between Jeff (Gorton), Kent (Hughes), Martin (St-Louis), Chantal (Machabée) and France, we are well represented.

With everything that’s going on, the team is not in the best position in the standings but at the same time, I see that fans in and out of the Bell Centre are behind us. That’s because our fans understand that the road ahead and they support as it’s been a while that some are asking for it. I’m really proud of the work done by Jeff and Kent so far and I’m looking forward to see what’s coming up as we’re in a good spot and the future is promising.

Have you been hurting for the team?

It’s been an unbelievable summer, and I think I speak for all fans when saying that. It was an unexpected run, spectacular and it brought us all to a very good place during a very somber period of pandemic. When things didn’t go well at the beginning of the season, something was telling me to wait to see how the season progressed before making important decisions about who will be the GM, contract extension and so on. Did it hurt? Yes, we never want to start a season that way. But it allow me to observe, listen, talk to people to see what I could do to turn the page and start over. As I’ve stated several times since hiring Jeff Gorton on November 29th, it’s a new beginning and I’m confident that between the two, it will be a good start.

The Habs compete with Gamers and it has affected the media. They were disinterested. Were you afraid?

No, I wasn’t afraid. What I saw during June and July is thousands of young people who got on board and fell back in love and that’s what gives me a lot of confidence. Of course when things aren’t going well, particularly at the beginning, you must reflect on if you have the right strategy or not. But I’m confident, whether it’s younger fans or fans with more experience, they will continue to have love for the team when we win and that’s the goal.

Seeing fans’ interest return after the changes, even with the team being 32nd, did you expect that?

Not at all and I’m impressed by fans who support us during this period of transition. There have been many moments since the arrival of Martin St-Louis but just in the last home game, there were two extraordinary moments. One was Barron’s first goal and Caufield’s goal. It’s clear that fans want to see young players contribute to our success. It reminded me of when P.K. Subban started and when he scored a goal. The crowd was electric.

You couldn’t come out and talk publicly as people would have asked why Bergevin was not extended. Looking back, would you have done things differently?

Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins

No, I don’t think so. It would have been very difficult to take a decision after making the Stanley Cup finals. There was a year left to Marc’s contract and I wasn’t ready to make the decision to extend him or not. We had a talk and were in agreement. Then one thing led to another and I finally made a decision a bit sooner than I would have expected.

The arrival of Chantal Machabée within the organization was a steal from the media but her convincing players that media are not the enemy, suggesting they be themselves not be afraid, what robbery was that?

We’re very happy and she’s been someone we’ve been wanting to bring into the organization for a while, France and I. Finally, when we made the decision to change GM and other decisions as well and it was our opportunity to get off the beaten path and ask ourselves what else we can change in the organization to address communications.

Did Chantal have to convince you about transparency?

I think it was one of the reasons why Chantal accepted to join us. We explained to her what our vision was, our new challenges and new opportunities to do things differently. It was exciting for her. And we thought that Chantal was the best person to help us accomplish this vision.

How did you come to the decision to split the Hockey Ops and GM jobs?

The process never stops. As soon as I think that I’m reading to make a decision, then I really start thinking on how I will replace Marc Bergevin if I have to do it one day. One of the things I strongly believe is that the Montreal Canadiens is a huge enterprise or team to manage. It’s the only team amongst the biggest teams in major league sports and it’s a role so important, that perhaps it’s a two-men job.

When I met Jeff, I was really impressed, we spent a lot of time talking about having a consistently competitive team. I wanted someone with a lot of experience to take over from Marc but it’s also important to me to be able to communicate with the fans in both languages. The fact that Jeff is an excellent candidate but doesn’t speak French opened another door to be creative and think of who could work with Jeff and could talk to our fans in French. And that’s when we started the second process. So I had decided, even before talking to Jeff, that perhaps the best option was to split the roles.

So you’re the one who suggested it first?

Yes, it’s an important role with a lot of responsibilities and being able to communicate in both French and English is important to me.

What was your first reaction when Gorton and Hughes told you that they were thinking of hiring Martin St-Louis?

Jeff Gorton

It wasn’t really a surprise to me because I had spent a lot of time with Jeff at the beginning and asked him who in hockey he wanted to rely on and Martin St-Louis’ name came up, but never talked coaching. Later on, I asked Kent the same question and he too mentioned Martin. So I knew that Martin was someone well respected by both men. You can’t be afraid to take risks from time to time. I took one when I hired Marc with little experience and this time with two people at the top of the organization, and here’s another one with Martin. And we’re very happy with the results so far.

Do you regret not daring to rebuilding before today, fearing disappointing your fans?

Listen, we have just reached the Stanley Cup finals. The only regret is to not have been able to win the Cup. I see the Marc’s process in the 9 ½ years he worked for us, at first we had a good team and halfway, Marc felt the need to make major changes and stack up the draft picks in a reset. That’s when names like Subban, Galchenyuk, Pacioretty and we piled up the picks. We’re amongst the three teams with the most picks and we’re seeing the prospects starting to join. This was part of the strategy. So no, I believed in the strategy at the time and we’re now at a point, four years later, where we had to take another direction.

Did the pandemic hurt the Canadiens?

It was extremely difficult. It’s a league where the success of each team starts with tickets and corporate box sales. When that’s zero for a full season, it’s very difficult. We tightened our belt and addressed the situation at the time and we’re very happy it’s behind us now.

It will be more fun selling season’s tickets with Martin St-Louis than when we spoke in January?

It’s not just Martin. It the new breeze on the team. It’s the players working hard, the young players performing. It’s the other coaches who are motivate again because Martin is behind the bench, it’s Jeff and Kent, Chantal. It’s the Draft picks, being in Montreal this year and we’ll certainly have a very good pick in the first round. There are many things contributing to the fans’ excitement and I’m really proud of them and happy that they’re behind us.

Interview in French

More reading…

Organizational Analysis

By Bob Trask – The stage was set for changes in the Montreal Canadiens organization shortly after the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs last summer.

Marc Bergevin’s contract extension was put on hold, Logan Mailloux was drafted, Phil Danault opted for free agency, Jesperi Kotkaniemi signed the infamous offer sheet from Carolina, Shea Weber went on the LTIR and Carey Price had surgery.

The disaster continued into training camp where Joel Edmundson injured his back and Carey Price opted into the player assistance program. All teams were dealing with Covid issues but it seemed to hit Montreal harder than most.

Before the first puck was dropped for the 2021-22 season the team was in disarray and it became an ongoing PR nightmare. Something had to be done.

The Reorganization

To his credit Geoff Molson took a hard look at the structure of the entire organization and made some key decisions. He carefully made his way through the minefield of culture, language and hockey that exists in Montreal in a way that no other city in the league has to contend with. There was not going to be a band-aid solution.

Jeff Gorton

Choosing a bright hockey man in Jeff Gorton (an anglophone) who could work behind the scenes but not be the face of the franchise was an astute move. His mandate was not only to improve the organizational structure but do it in a way that satisfied all parties. Yes, the Montreal Canadiens are domiciled in Quebec but they are a franchise with supporters around the entire globe.

As a vice-president with a solid knowledge of hockey Gorton lacked bilingual capabilities but in a move worthy of a chess master, Molson and Gorton tackled that problem, too.

More changes

The man chosen to fill the role of GM would be someone who could interface with both French-speaking and English-speaking media. But he also needed to be someone with skill, discipline and a vision for the future. In each of his press conferences, Kent Hughes has demonstrate that he has all of those qualities and he can deal with the media comfortably.

Factions of the fanbase had continued to clamour for the addition of Patrick Roy to the organization. If not vice-president then GM, if not GM then head coach. With the first two roles already filled, if Roy was not going to be head coach then it would have to be someone that few would have argument with.

Enter Martin St. Louis. He is green as grass when it comes to being an NHL head coach but that might be the only part of his pedigree that is lacking. Fortunately he has former teammate Luke Richardson to lean on when he gets his feet under him. His other attributes shone through in his introductory press conference. Every Habs’ fan should listen to it.

And let’s not forget Chantal Machabee. Information about the Canadiens will flow through her and we are already seeing subtle improvements. She is breath of fresh air and I hope that Molson, Gorton and company give her the freedom to continue to improve and expand that department.

A Change in Culture

In an interview on TSN690 Marc Denis put it bluntly.

It was his belief that far too many in the Canadiens’ upper management chose not to live in the city. How do you get the pulse of your fanbase if you are living in St. Louis, Phoenix, Ottawa or elsewhere. It was a somewhat disturbing revelation. The culprits included Scott Mellanby, Sean Burke, Trevor Timmins and others.

Denis considered them as “consultants” and while he said the use of such consultants was acceptable, he implied that such an approach was less than optimal. In his mind management needs to live and breathe the Montreal experience up close and personal.

Use consultants for one-off opinions or second opinions but put the day to day operations in the hands of a resident management team. It remains to be seen how this will unfold.

Behind the Scenes

Another thing many of us did not know was the structure of the organization when it came to the behind the scenes work being done. It was a revelation that the team literally had NO analytics department, a bare bones player development staff and an unknown quantity/quality at both the pro scouting and amateur scouting levels.

Martin St-Louis

Who was on the ground in Europe, at the NCAA level, at the USHL level and at the CHL level. With no analytics department, prospects had to be evaluated on the eye test level only. The same applied to pro scouting. When analyzing their own team’s needs and the players available from others it is obvious that little or no analytics figured into the decisions.

It seems that the new approach will be to develop an analytics department that will work with the scouting staff so the best possible decisions can be made. One isn’t better than the other; scouting and analytics should complement each other.

The behind the scenes changes are as important has the high profile signings already made.

Looking Ahead

In retrospect it seems amazing that this organization accomplished what it did while having one hand tied behind their backs.

This past autumn Geoff Molson set the new agenda and has allowed his management team to carry the ball from there. He had obviously been thinking about it for a while.

Jeff Gorton has proven to be a man of his convictions but it is Kent Hughes who has knocked it out of the park during the first couple of press conferences. He has a crystal clear vision of what he wants to accomplish and how long it might take to get there. His interaction with the media has been superb. Now we have to wait on his player moves before making the final judgment

And now the addition of Martin St. Louis has added to some long term optimism for the team. In the short term, we all look forward some spirited play and some exciting hockey, win or lose. Of course there will be lots of struggles along the way but there seems to be a path forward.

The era of cryptic answers and lack of transparency seems to have come to an end and replaced with an attitude of openness and a mood of optimism.

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