Saturday, October 18, 2008

Le Club de Hockey Canadien... de l'Américain...

Entering his eighth season as owner of the Montreal Canadiens, George N. Gillett Jr. has been honoured by Sports Media Canada with the George Gross award for 'Sports Executive of the Year'. Coming off of the surprising successes experienced by the club last season and opening now their historic centennial season amidst the combined fervour of landmark ceremonies and elevated expectations, the timing of this honour comes as no surprise to many. Had anybody predicted such a state of affairs when Gillett's bid to purchase the Montreal Canadiens was finalized in July of 2001, however, they'd have been deemed as foolish as the notion of an American owning the most storied Canadian franchise in professional sports.

Nos Glorieux were experiencing perhaps their darkest days as a hockey club as they entered the 21st century. The 2000-01 season marked the third consecutive season in which the team had failed to make the playoffs, making for their longest playoff drought in franchise history, and could not so much as conceive of their next chance at drinking from Lord Stanley's Cup. Attendance had begun to fall off as a result and, combined with a devastatingly weak Canadian dollar, it appeared as though the Montreal Canadiens were ill-prepared to truly compete in the National Hockey League, either in the standings or in the market. Recognizing the need to survive this near-tragic downturn in the fate of the organization, Molson Inc. declared their intention to sell a majority share of the club along with full rights to their home, the Molson Centre (now Bell Centre).

The sale is now often remembered for the fact that no Canadian and specifically no Québecois buyers came forth to rescue the organization, though that is not the entire truth. There was at least one hometown buyer interested in buying the team in former Hab and later self-made millionaire, Dickie Moore, though he couldn't secure sufficient financial support to do so. Even then, Moore remembers, the $275 million sale was thought to be a good deal; six years after the fact, Forbes estimated the Canadiens value in November of last year at $283 million U.S. (a 23% jump from the prior year), and that was prior to the team's playoff drive last spring. Remember, too, that this does not include the value of the Bell Centre, which cost $270 million to construct and through which Gillett operates several of his highly successful Gillett Entertainment Group concerts and other events.

Obviously then, Gillett has made the most of his investment, which promises to mature even further as the Canadiens look to re-establish themselves as league-leaders this season. The fear and antipathy exhibited among Habs fans at the time of the sale thus seem to have been unwarranted, and have since been replaced by mass approval of the work he has accomplished in his seven years as owner. Moore credits Gillett with much of the team's turnaround, citing their need for some of the same environment that the club had back in his playing days. "We were a special team, we were a family," Moore said, and Gillett "seems to be a family man."

Gillett said all the right things when he was formally announced to the public in October of 2001, citing his vision of restoring the Canadiens to greatness and to a 25th Stanley Cup, as any sane person in his position would do. As Gillett's character revealed itself, however, these words began to ring true. Questioned as to his company's decision to sell the team to Gillett, Molson President, Daniel O'Neill, noted Gillett's understanding and appreciation of the special place the Canadiens occupy in Canadian sports and made specific reference to the reassuring testimonial from a friend who said that he "puts the heart back into companies."

Moreover, Gillett's passion for sports is evident. Aside from the Canadiens, he has dabbled in ownership of the Miami Dolphins and Harlem Globetrotters and currently owns significant stake in Liverpool FC and Gillett Evernham Motorsports. More revealing still, the excitement and infectious spirit with which he watches or speaks about the Habs demonstrates a true emotional (and not merely financial) investment in the team and their fortunes.

True to his word, Gillett has approached his ownership of the Canadiens with great humility and respect for the history and tradition of the team, and has perhaps made his most significant contribution by doing nothing at all. Gillett did not shake up the organization, made no significant changes upon his arrival, and entrusted Pierre Boivin, who had been appointed to the role of Club President two years earlier, to lead the charge. Stability was paramount and, under the extremely capable direction of Boivin and Bob Gainey (hired in 2003), has led to steady growth within the organization.

Gillett built himself a $500 million empire only to lose it all when he was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1992, then rebuilt his fortune from the ground up. Viewed by some as reason enough not to trust him with an integral piece of Quebec's identity, Gillett's trajectory from riches-to-rags-to-riches again has rather proven a compelling parallel for the recent resurgence of the Montreal Canadiens.

'You have to know where you've come from to know where you're going,' as the saying goes, and Gillett appears to have taken this to heart. Assembling a management group that includes several former Habs and proven leaders and paying tribute to the great history of the franchise through a series of celebrations leading up to the club's 100th anniversary, Gillett has fostered a very clear vision of where the Canadiens are going and where they want to be. In so doing, he and his management team have established a collective identity through every rank of the organization--an identity that was sorely lacking for so many years. Far from what anybody believed at the time, an American buyer has helped redefine and restore the pride of the Canadiens.

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