One thing stood out to me when I watched the press conference announcing Pierre Gauthier as the Habs' new general manager yesterday: I didn't recognize him. He's been hidden so well behind the scenes, I didn't know what the man looked like. I knew he'd been the director of pro-scouting as well as assistant GM, which didn't endear him to me when you consider some of the players who've ended up in Montreal on his recommendation. If a boss is only as good as the people who advise him, then some of Bob Gainey's critics have to turn a gimlet eye on support staff like Gauthier and Trevor Timmins. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I'll start today with a question. If you were responsible for filling the most important job on a National Hockey League franchise; the one in charge of drafting, trading and signing the players and managing the salary cap, would you pick Pierre Gauthier out of the crowd? Assuming you knew what he looked like? I confess, I wouldn't.
There's an argument to be made for his appointment on an interim basis, considering the timing of Gainey's resignation. This is a crucial point for the team in terms of approaching the trade deadline and opening negotiations with pending free agents, and it's best to have someone in that job who's familiar with the players involved. It would be a difficult thing for someone to come from outside the organization and take responsibility for important roster moves right away. That argument, however, doesn't support hiring Gauthier on a full-time basis.
Looking at Gauthier's record as a GM in Anaheim and Ottawa, the overwhelming impression you get is "meh." He drafted a couple of very good players and a lot of average-to-poor ones. But he had a reputation for relying heavily on his European scouting department at draft time so the fault for bad picks might have been more on the scouts than the GM. Gauthier made a couple of good trades, including dumping Alexandre Daigle for Prospal, Falloon and a pick and acquiring Wade Redden and Damien Rhodes for Berard, Beaupre and Straka. He also made some terrible ones, like Pavol Demitra for Christer Olsson. The rest fall into the category of what my father calls "dried shit on a blanket...neither hurt nor service." In other words, meh.
In terms of stature in the hockey world, Gauthier has no name like Stan Bowman or Ray Shero. He's got no on-ice career like Doug Wilson or Darryl Sutter. And he's got no off-ice force of personality like Brian Burke, Paul Holmgren or Lou Lamoriello. He seems like a nice, quiet man with fair-to-middling success in his previous roles in hockey.
I believe the personality of a team starts from the top. If you want a team that tries its best and puts the team concept first, you hire Bob Gainey. If you want a team that's disciplined and determined, you hire Uncle Lou. If you want a feisty team that doesn't quit even when it's losing, you hire Brian Burke. Want a team that makes the most of what it's got? Hire David Poile. Want a team that's never quite good enough to rise above mediocrity? Larry Pleau's your guy. So, what kind of team do you get when you hire Pierre Gauthier? He's like Mr.Cellophane in "Chicago." As the song says, "'Cause you can look right through me, walk right by me and never know I'm there."
I think the Montreal Canadiens deserve better. The oldest, proudest team in the NHL, which makes a lot of money for itself and the league, should have a head man who commands a room when he enters it. The Habs' GM should have deep respect from everyone in the league...inspire a little awe even.
I have to confess, I don't know what went into the behind-the-scenes decision-making involved in the Gauthier hiring. But I do worry about the publicly stated reasons for it. President Pierre Boivin said they didn't look far for a candidate because the qualifications he was looking for were already there in-house. Chief among the listed must-haves, right after experience, was the ability to speak French. When questioned about French as a requirement, Boivin emphatically stated that, yes, the Canadiens GM MUST speak French. His reasoning is that the team's clients and many of its fans are French-speaking, and the Canadiens are operating in a predominantly French province.
I ask this: Are the Canadiens a hockey team, or are they a cultural institution? You might answer they're both. But inevitably, one must take predominance over the other in decision-making. Take the Gauthier hire, for example. If you could choose anybody in the world to be your general manager, based purely on success in hockey, would Pierre Gauthier be your man? Probably not, right? You'd look at Jim Nill in Detroit, among others. Now, if you had to choose the best French-speaking candidate who has worked as a GM before, would Gauthier move up on the list? Probably, because that list has now become much, much shorter.
This is what will ultimately make the Canadiens a mediocre team for a very long time. When the direction of the team starts at the top, and your top man is a mediocre GM who has the good fortune to speak the right language, then your team will be just like him.
Pierre Boivin is a good customer-service manager. He's successfully managed to create a hype around the Habs that outstrips that the team enjoyed even in its glory years. But, it's a hype based on illusion and on history that will never be fulfilled as long as the team continues to dress itself in the flag and language. If the Canadiens are choosing to be a cultural institution and basing their decisions on that, well, that's fine. They will always be a great part of the province's history and culture, but their chances of returning to being a winning hockey team will be severely handicapped by pandering to PR.
In reality, how often does the GM of the Canadiens need to use French? Does he speak it with other GMs when he's working on a trade, or with agents when he's negotiating a contract? Does he need to announce the draft picks in French outside of Montreal? He may have to give a speech or two at a public appearance, but there's no law saying he can't learn some French AFTER he's been hired that would allow him to accomplish that much. The problem is, if the team doesn't look outside its narrow hiring restrictions, nobody with more talent, better vision or greater intelligence will ever get a chance to do the job.
No, this was not a hockey decision, at least not altogether. If it were, the team would have been beating the bushes for the perfect candidate. Admitting they stopped looking when they found an adequate candidate who fulfills the language requirement was disappointing because it proves the team is looking first at PR rather than winning.
There's an argument that says Boivin doesn't really mean that. He's just giving the only possible answer a public-relations manager can give when asked about the importance of French at a press conference in Quebec. I don't buy it. It's one thing to pay lip-service to the concept to please the masses, but another to back it up by basing important hires on it.
Also of concern when you're running the team as a culturally iconic business rather than as merely a hockey team is the question about what to do when public pressure to make a move mounts? Do you ignore it and do what's best for hockey like Gainey did, or do you bow to the pressure and do what the public wants because that's better for PR? We don't know the answer to that anymore, and that's scary. The ultimate irony of this is if the team focussed on winning hockey games above everything, all the other problems solve themselves. French-speaking players would actually WANT to come to Montreal, fans would be happy and the team would have the luxury of time to develop the upper management it wants.
In any case, maybe the Canadiens are really doomed to be...as a friend of mine says...an historical curiosity at this point. They're the team about which you say, "Je me souviens..." instead of the team about which you say, "I hope."
Still, expectations and the reasons behind his hiring aside, it would be wrong to write Gauthier off without at least giving him a chance. He's got a huge challenge with the cap and with roster issues like upgrading the D and the bottom-six forwards while still trying to keep players like Plekanec, Price and Halak. I'll give him some time to prove what he can do because now that he's installed as full-time GM, he's all we've got.