Friday, June 29, 2012

The Tax Tilt

The Financial Post published an  article and accompanying graphic today that shows the difference between the take-home salaries of NHL players in every market, at the 2-million, 4-million and 7-million-dollar base salary levels. The story is all about how teams with tax-friendlier climates have an extra tool in the box when it comes to attracting and retaining good players. That, logically, would seem to translate to a better chance for teams in low-tax cities to win. The logic behind the article is slightly flawed, when you consider that Edmonton and Calgary offer players the best tax deal in Canada and neither one has been much of a Cup threat for some years now. Florida, Tampa, Nashville and Dallas have a total of two championships between them in the last 15 years, and they top the list of low-tax cities. What is interesting, however, is the Canadiens' rank on the list.

While it's nothing new to discover that income taxes in Quebec are steep, seeing it there in black and white is pretty stark. The Canadiens sit dead last in the amount players take home in every salary category. The comparison between the after-tax pay of Canadiens versus that of Panthers or Stars prove the Habs have a very significant hurdle to overcome in stocking their lineup. The chart shows a 4-million-dollar player is left with $2,464,189 after taxes in Florida, while in Montreal, he'd make only $2,086,763. The 400-thousand dollar difference there might not seem like a big deal to those of us who can only imagine making that kind of money, but when you consider a player's limited earning time and the significant health risks he takes by playing the game, then giving up nearly a fifth of his take-home pay is a problem. Even though it probably wouldn't impact his current lifestyle that much, it could seriously affect his future.

The Canadiens contribute quite a bit to league coffers. They, and the other six Canadian teams provide more than 30% of the total of NHL earned revenue. They're why the salary cap rises every year. Yet, while they're paying into the league kitty, they're getting punished at home because they're limited to the same base amount for player salaries as the rest of the league, regardless of the chunk that disappears in taxes. This isn't something a smart owner like Geoff Molson should accept.

Recent luxury tax increases in Ontario mean Ottawa's and Toronto's players will also be paying tax at a rate just slightly better than that in Montreal. These are powerful teams, and it isn't right that they should support weaker teams financially, while accepting the handicap of higher taxes. They have a chance to use their power to level the field for themselves and other teams saddled with high tax rates. Now, while negotiations for a new collective agreement are underway, there should be discussion about increasing the salary cap allowance to compensate for taxes.

Here's the idea: using the cities with the lowest tax rates as a base, teams whose players must pay more in income tax should be allowed to spend above the cap by the amount of the difference. So, if a player in Florida gets to keep 2.4-million of his 4-million cap hit, while a player in Montreal gets only 2-million, the Habs should be allowed to cover the extra tax on the player's behalf without being penalized on the cap.

Right now, if the Canadiens want to court a high-end free agent, they need to overpay him by up to a million dollars or so, just to compete on the tax front. That extra money counts against the cap, which reduces the amount left to spend on other players, who also must be overpaid to stay in Montreal. That, over time, can significantly impact the quality of roster the Habs can ice. Take the case of Mike Cammalleri as an example. When Bob Gainey signed him, he was probably worth about $5.5 million on the free agent market. Gainey had to pay him $6-million to convince him to come to Montreal. If, however, Gainey had been allowed to pay some of Cammalleri's tax in a legal tax bonus that didn't count against the cap, he might have been able to get him for the market value and use the extra half-million for another player.

If the NHL wants to have true parity, the biggest hurdle it must knock down is the difference taxes make in real salary under the current cap. A player should be able to choose a city based on location, competitiveness and philosophy rather than how much of his contract he'll be able to keep in one city versus another.

All that said, Molson and the other owners in high-tax jurisdictions probably won't argue the point during the collective agreement negotiations. There are too many low-tax owners who like being able to use take-home pay as a draw in attracting players, for the minority to win that battle. It's a shame, though. The Canadiens have a lot to offer, but they probably lose more players than they attract because of the money difference. It's hard to argue otherwise when you see that difference laid out in black and white.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The End of the Line

On Monday, the Canadiens sent qualifying offers to their best pending free agents. Guys like Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller and P.K.Subban will be re-signed, without question. While those deals are in various stages of the works, some guys with dreams of joining them in Montreal have been quietly informed they won't receive offers and will, instead, seek their hockey fortunes elsewhere. The average Habs fan wouldn't recognize most of those guys' names, as they toiled in Hamilton for their entire time with the organization. Mark Mitera and Danny Masse probably have made very little impression on those whose hockey world does not extend beyond the Bell Centre.

Among those sent off to find a new hockey home is Olivier Fortier. He's never been a star. He's a hard-working, average-sized centre known for his solid defensive play. He was the Canadiens' third-round pick in the 2007 draft, when they also acquired Subban, Max Pacioretty and the much-lamented Ryan McDonagh. Unfortunately for him, however, his 17 goals in more than 100 AHL games has proven that he'll likely never be more than a heart-and-soul defensive scrub at the NHL level.

While his personal story is sad because it's surely the end of a dream for him, it's also a little sad for the Canadiens' organization as well. Fortier, you see, was the last player link to the great '70s dynasty. A few years ago, when I blogged occasionally for Habs Inside/Out, I wrote a piece detailing Fortier's connection to the '70s. Here it is:

"I was thinking the other day about the old cliche that a hockey team is like a family. That's actually true, in more ways than just the trite. Like a family, a hockey team has a genealogy. One player starts his career with a team, then is traded for another, and a line of inheritance is established. And as in any family, those members living in the modern generation like to think their ancestors did great things, and that, perhaps, they carry some of that greatness in their own veins. As I was thinking about that, I came across a bit on the Canadiens' website detailing how one current Hab's hockey bloodlines go back to the '70s Cup teams. It made me wonder, what's left of the last great dynasty the Habs experienced? Is there any vestige of the great '70s teams left on the ice in the organization today? I couldn't resist digging into the records to find out. 

There wasn't much variation on the roster between 1976 and 1979. You don't mess with success, after all. So, looking at the 1979 roster, it's obvious many of the greatest players' hockey bloodlines stop right there. Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire retired after that fourth straight Cup, and none of them were ever traded or waived. From that roster, Pierre Mondou, Rejean Houle, Bob Gainey and Mario Tremblay also retired as Habs, never having played for another team. Guy Lafleur retired, then signed as a free agent a couple of years later. Two others, Serge Savard and Yvon Lambert were claimed by other teams on waivers in the '80s, with no return to the Habs. Another, Larry Robinson, left the team as a free agent, again, with no compensation for the Habs. Cam Connor, who played on the '79 team, was released following that season. It's when you get into the players who were traded that things get interesting.

Most of the trades didn't turn into anything lasting. Steve Shutt was traded to LA for a tenth-rounder who went straight to Europe. Doug Risebrough went to Calgary for two draft picks, Todd Francis and Graeme Bonar, neither of whom had an NHL career or returned any assets to the team. Gilles Lupien was traded to Pittsburgh for a third-rounder who never made the NHL.  

Other trades did spin out their legacies a little longer, and the players acquired helped the Habs while they were there. Pat Hughes brought back Denis Herron, but Herron went for a draft pick (Rocky Dundas) who left the Habs as a free agent. Mark Napier was traded for Bobby Smith, although Smith was traded nine years later for a draft pick who didn't play in the NHL. Brian Engblom, Rod Langway and Doug Jarvis went to Washington in exchange for Rick Green and Ryan Walter. Walter stuck around until free agency called him to Vancouver, and Green eventually went in a deal for a fifth-rounder who didn't make it. Tough guy Rick Chartraw went to LA for a second-rounder that became Claude Lemieux, who, in turn was traded for Sylvain Turgeon. Not a bad return for a tough utility guy like Chartraw, even if Turgeon did leave in the expansion draft in 1992. 

Then you have the blockbusters. The bloodlines of those travel on, like the most prolific members of any family. The biggest Habs trade with its roots in the seventies was undoubtedly the Patrick Roy deal. Bunny Larocque was a great backup goaltender to Ken Dryden during the dynasty years, but turned out to be not what the team needed after Dryden retired. In 1981, he was traded for defenceman Robert Picard, who was then traded for Winnipeg's third-round pick in the 1984 draft. That pick, of course, turned out to be Roy. And we know what happend in December, 1995. Roy was traded for Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky and Jocelyn Thibault. None of those players lasted long with the Habs, though. Kovalenko was traded the next year for Scott Thornton, who was traded for Juha Lind, who left for Europe in 2001. Rucinsky was traded in '01 for Donald Audette and Shaun Van Allen, both of whom eventually left the Habs as free agents. Thibault lasted almost three years before he was traded for Jeff Hackett, Eric Weinrich and Alain Nesreddine. Hackett later became Niklas Sundstrom, who left for Europe, and a draft pick that went to LA in the deal for Cristobal Huet and Radek Bonk, who have now both left the Canadiens as free agents. Weinrich was traded for Patrick Traverse (Reverse, for those who remember his gaffes well) and then Traverse went for career minor-leaguer Mathieu Biron who's now in Europe. Sad to say, there's not one player left in the Habs family from the Patrick Roy trade.

Guy Lapointe is another story, though. Lapointe, a stellar member of the '70s Big Three on the Habs blueline, was traded in 1982 for St.Louis' second round draft pick the following year. That pick became Sergio Momesso. In 1988, Momesso was traded for Darrell May, who never made the NHL, Jocelyn Lemieux, who was later traded for a go-nowhere third rounder, and a yet another St.Louis second-round pick in 1989. That second-round pick was none other than the Stanley Cup champion, great guy and scapegoat defenceman we all know and love...Patrice Brisebois. The only current member of the Canadiens who can claim a hockey pedigree dating back the '70s dynasty is the Breezer. But Brisebois is likely to retire a Hab now, thus ending the legacy of the dynasty...except for one last hope.

Pete Mahovlich was acquired by the Habs in 1969 for the 1963 first-overall pick, Garry Monahan. Mahovlich played on the first two Cups of the four straight in the seventies. Then, in 1978, he was traded for Pierre Larouche. Larouche scored fifty goals for the Canadiens in 1979-80, so when he went to Hartford the following year, he brought a nice return of draft picks. One of those picks became Peter Svoboda. Another was traded in a package to St.Louis for '84 picks that became Shayne Corson and Stephane Richer. All three of Svoboda, Corson and Richer were good contributors to the Canadiens in their time in Montreal.

Svoboda was later traded for Kevin Haller, who helped win the '93 Cup, then was traded for Yves Racine who was claimed on waivers in '96. Shayne Corson was traded for Vincent Damphousse in '92. Damphouse, in his turn, was traded for a pair of draft picks, one who went straight to Europe, and one that became Marcel Hossa. Hossa wasn't his brother by any stretch and ended up in New York for Garth Murray, who's now Phoenix property. Stephane Richer, the troubled goal-scoring virtuoso, couldn't find consistency in Montreal, and he was eventually dealt to New Jersey for Rollie Melanson and Kirk Muller. Montreal was Melanson's last playing stop. But Muller won a Cup in '93 and later became captain before being traded to New York in '95 for Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov. When Turgeon was traded the following year, none of the meagre return translated into any assets for the Habs' future. Malakhov, on the other hand, in 2001 went to Jersey for Sheldon Souray, Josh DeWolf and a draft pick. Of course, Souray left as a free agent and DeWolf didn't pan out. But the draft pick went to Washington in 2001 as part of a deal for Richard Zednik. Five years later, Zednik went back to Washington for a third-round draft pick in 2007.

That pick turned out to be Olivier Fortier. Fortier's a solid two-way centre currently in his last year of junior with the Rimouski Oceanic in the Q. Last year, he won the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the best defensive forward in his league. The odds of him winning a regular spot in the NHL are still pretty long, as they are for any good junior player who's not a blue-chip star. But the nineteen-year-old carries a special legacy. He's the last player in the Habs' system who can trace his hockey bloodlines to the last great dynasty the team may ever have. In geneological terms, if the Habs are a family, then Patrice Brisebois is the patriarch...and Olivier Fortier the only heir."

Of course, Brisebois did retire a Hab and has now been hired to help develop young players within the Canadiens organization. Fortier, though, the last player directly related to the great '70s dynasty, has now been cut loose. That's kind of sad, for a team that prides itself on its proud history. Whatever happens to Olivier Fortier now, we wish him the best. He comes from a good family.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Do the Right Thing

Two years ago, the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee made a callous mistake. Pat Burns, sick with terminal cancer, had the qualifications to be inducted to the Hall. He won the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year three times, with three different teams, and took home a Stanley Cup ring as coach of the New Jersey Devils in 2003. He coached more than a thousand NHL games and racked up 501 wins. That puts him 16th on the all-time list of coaching victories, one ahead of the legendary Toe Blake. It's quite likely those numbers will eventually translate to a place in the HHOF for Burns, but the committee missed the boat when it failed to induct him while he was still alive to see it. Now his future entrance to the Hall will be bittersweet, tinged with regret for his family who won't get to hug him in congratulations. The selection committee was wrong two years ago, but one would hope that, upon reflection, the members would recognize their mistake and vow not to repeat it. It looks, however, as though that hope is a futile one.

Sometimes a moment in a player's life, or a single, instantly recognizable quality transcends his career and defines him forever. When we think of Bobby Orr, most of us think of him flying through the air after scoring in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. When we picture Rocket Richard, we see those blazing dark eyes as he raced in on net. Paul Henderson was defined and will forever be recognized for his role in the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR. Hockey fans who weren't born for a decade or more after that epic series can still quote Foster Hewitt's "...right in front, THEY SCORE!!! Henderson has scored for Canada!!" after Henderson's game-and-series-winning goal with 34 seconds to go in Game Eight. What most fans won't remember is that Henderson also scored the game winners in Games Six and Seven as well. He tied Phil Esposito for 7 goals in those 8 games. In short, without Paul Henderson, the series that hockey people look to as a nation-defining moment would likely have been lost.

A lot of fans think Henderson's work in that series is enough to warrant an induction into the Hall of Fame. Most, both for and against his induction, agree his NHL career was respectable. It was not, however, Hall-worthy on its own merit. In a dozen full NHL seasons with the Red Wings and the leafs, he played 707 games and scored 236 goals and 477 points. In 1974 he jumped to the WHA and played seven more seasons, putting up 283 points in 360 games. As is the case with many players who left the NHL for the rival league, his career was considered somewhat tainted by the purists. If Henderson had played his whole career in the NHL, his thousand games and 700+ points would place him in consideration for a place in the Hall, and his role in '72 would have made him a shoo-in. As it stands, his NHL numbers alone aren't enough to qualify him for that honour.

The problem with looking only at numbers in Henderson's case is that '72 transcends everything else. NHL coaches are fond of saying every playoff game is equal to three games of regular-season experience. If that's true, there's no measurement for how many NHL games equal just one of those eight played that September 40 years ago. That Henderson rose so magnificently to the occasion when it mattered most is worthy of honour. Based on that series, he's been the subject of art, books and movies. In a series that shut down the country, that school kids watched instead of going to class, that people remember as a titanic struggle of "us" versus "them" that meant more that the mere outcome of a hockey game, Paul Henderson was the hero. His sweater from that series brought in a million dollars at auction. "The Goal" tops every list of every great moment in Canadian hockey history. Another sweater he wore in '72 and the stick he used to score the series-winning goal are in the Hall of Fame, but the man who scored it is not. Henderson is a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, which honours the greatest athletes the country has produced in all sports, but he hasn't been inducted into the Hall devoted solely to the sport to which he contributed so much.

Well, now Paul Henderson is dying. He's been fighting leukemia for the last three years and recently said the cancer has spread and there are signs it's getting worse. The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee has a chance to prove it learned something from the shameful way in which it passed over Pat Burns while he still lived. It can do the right thing and induct Paul Henderson before it's too late for him to know about it. When a name comes up for consideration of induction to the Hall, at least 8 members of the committee must vote in favour of induction. In Henderson's case, if you were to put his name on a national ballot, you can bet many more than the required 75% of people in approval would give him the nod.

The Hall of Fame requires the following attributes of a player member: "Playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to the team or teams and to the game of hockey in general."  Paul Henderson was a good player and a good sportsman, but the contribution he made to the game of hockey was nothing short of great. He should be a Hall of Fame member, and he should be inducted now. The 40th anniversary of his famous series is happening this year, and honouring its hero would be a perfect way to mark the occasion.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Just about every serious Habs fan has an opinion right now about which of the top five 18-year-old prospects Trevor Timmins should select to be the team's next great player. You know what they say about opinions? Like arseholes, everyone's got one. To extend the metaphor, however, a lot of you have been tweeting or emailing or messaging this arsehole to see who my choice for the number-three overall pick might be.

While it's nice that you care who I'd pick, I have to be honest and say the most important thing is not who, but what, the Canadiens draft. I know what I would like to see. I'd like a young player who's dedicated, determined to win, thoughtful, smart, a good teammate (translation: puts team ahead of individual stats, bonuses, awards or contracts), coachable, as well as being a naturally good player. I think all five of the universally selected top-ranked players have at least some of those qualities. It's up to Timmins to pick the one with most of them.

To be honest, I don't know which guy that might be. I've seen clips and watched junior games. I've talked to my cousin whose kid plays in the Q and has seen some of the players first-hand. I've chatted with a couple of junior scouts. Other than that, I've got no great handle on whose name Timmins or Marc Bergevin should call on Friday. My instinct says it should be Alex Galchenyuk. Then again, my instinct said the Capitals had a steal in  Anton Gustafsson in 2008, and he's now out of hockey because he couldn't hack the pressure.

In the end, I think the draft is a giant crap shoot. People who think the player picked by the Habs will step in and turn the franchise around are bound, in most cases, to be disappointed. Eighteen-year-old young men aren't ready to be grownups, most of the time. They'll have slip-ups and set-backs and may need two or three years in the minors to learn how to be professionals. The Habs have taken a great step in hiring former pros to mentor the kids, but it still depends on how ready the individual is to take that adult step. Any team, including the Habs, that relies on a first-round draft pick to save it right away, isn't really being logical.

Trevor Timmins will most likely (David Fischer aside) choose a player who will be NHL quality on Friday night. Our job, as fans, is to be hopeful the kid he names is the one with the most big-league qualities and the one who will be the best Montreal Canadien. It's out of our hands. We just have to have faith. Then we have to hope the two second-rounders he picks are P.K.Subban, partes deux et trois.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Culture Club

Ten years ago, whenever a new player was drafted or acquired by the Canadiens, you could be sure he'd mention three things in his first media interview. He'd invariably say something about the great history of the team, probably referring to its status as a member of the Original Six. He'd likely mention how great and passionate the fans are in Montreal. And he'd talk about the class of the organization and how it had built a reputation for doing things the right way.

In the Pierre Gauthier era, new players still talked about the history of the Canadiens and the passion of the fans. Few of them mentioned class anymore. With Gauthier's treatment of veterans like Michael Cammalleri, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, the Habs' shine was more than slightly tarnished. When players are told they're traded, but made wait hours to find out where, when they're required to pay for their own sweaters as keepsakes and when employees are forbidden to speak publicly about their work, word gets around. When that happens, suddenly, players start to remember it's been 19 years since the Habs won a Cup, they'll get dinged by taxes if they sign in Montreal and when things go wrong, they'll be lambasted for not speaking French.

The Marc Bergevin era gives the organization a chance to bring back the shine and the reputation it used to have as being the classiest in the league. He's started well, by bringing in front-office staff who are all known as hard workers and personable men. Most importantly, they've all played NHL hockey for years and will deal with today's players with respect and realistic expectations. There are questions about Michel Therrien as coach, because Habs fans' memories are long and the man's last stint in Montreal didn't end well. Even so, he and Bergevin will have the benefit of the doubt in the general goodwill of a new regime.

Bergevin is also opening the secretive doors of the upper floors of the Bell Centre and gamely answering questions. The Cone of Silence that had been draped over the building under Bob Gainey's and Gauthier's tenure has been lifted and information is now allowed to flow freely. This direct approach will serve Bergevin well in his effort to polish up the image of the Canadiens, both for the fans and for potential players. By dealing up-front with the inevitable rumours and sensational pseudo news stories that crop up in Montreal every year, Bergevin kills them where they stand. Honest answers mean there can be honest debate about issues, but innuendo can't grow in dark corners and pollute the dressing room.

Another important move toward building a more solid and cohesive team is Bergevin's decision to follow the lead of so many other clubs who recognize young men in their late teens and early 20s need guidance on the sometimes-rocky road to becoming professional hockey players. The introduction of a comprehensive player development team within the organization will help players transition better and hopefully limit the disillusionment of guys who go on to find success elsewhere, with the idea that they'd never received a proper chance in Montreal.

These are small steps, but they count in helping build a road back to championship form. There's so much more Bergevin and Habs ownership can do. First, and the GM has said he'll be addressing it, is the scouting department. A wealthy team like the Canadiens can afford to have the best scouting group in the league, starting with better scouting in their own back yard. If Bergevin wants local representation on the team to re-build that sense of hometown pride, he's got to start improving the department that searches for those players.

Of course, there can't be local players to draft if there aren't players signing up for the sport as kids. The Canadiens used to sponsor a whole network of minor league teams back in their glory days. That began to fall by the wayside with the introduction of the NHL draft in the '60s. What was the point, after all, in developing a whole bunch of sponsored talent, only to have it become fair game for all the other teams? Today, while team sponsorship is no longer feasible, it would benefit the Canadiens to be more active in enabling local kids to have access to the game. They are doing well in partnering with community groups to build open-air rinks, but fees for registration and ice time are prohibitive, and many parents can't afford the costs of travel and equipment. Children of single parents, low-and-middle earning classes and new Canadians might never have a chance to play the game without financial assistance. It wouldn't cost the Habs much to sponsor kids who need a hand, and might help increase the number of children learning the game in Quebec.

Another thing the Canadiens could do to help shine up their reputation is take advantage of their own history. If Serge Savard is around the team, there could be a really great opportunity to have him work one-on-one with the yet-to-be-named defence coach and a guy like P.K.Subban once in a while. Or have Henri Richard offer David Desharnais a few insider tips on how to succeed as a little guy in the NHL. The old-timers are probably willing to help if they're asked, but they should be formally asked. The Canadiens built that reputation for class by building a strong, family-like organization. They passed the knowledge of how to win on from generation to generation, but somewhere in the last two decades, that knowledge has been lost. The team would do well to take better advantage of the guys who can help bring it back.

The next important step in the return of class to the Canadiens will be in choosing the right player at Friday's draft. The team hasn't chosen this high since 1980, and the player will come with great expectations. It's important for the kid they pick to be someone with the character to match his skills. He doesn't necessarily have to be the best player in the draft, but he's got to be someone the team is proud to introduce to its fans as a hard worker and good person, as well as being a good hockey player.

Classiness is like any good reputation. It's of great value and worthy of admiration when you have it, but terribly hard to regain when it's been lost. So far, Marc Bergevin is showing signs of rebuilding that most elusive of qualities in Montreal. It will take hard work and generosity, but he's made a promising start.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Ten years ago, the Montreal Canadiens were a pretty bad team. Yanic Perreault was the top scorer, with just 56 points. Karl Dykhuis and Patrick Traverse took regular turns on D. Captain Saku Koivu missed all but the last three regular-season games while fighting cancer. Until the last two weeks of the schedule, it looked like the Canadiens would go a fourth consecutive year with no playoffs. I remember that desperate stretch run leading up to the 2002 post-season very well. Goaltender Jose Theodore stood on his head for the last three weeks of the season, running off seven consecutive wins that culminated in the unexpected comeback of Koivu. The captain's return sparked a rush of emotion and passionate support for the team, and even though the Canadiens barely scraped into eighth place, the stellar goaltending of Theodore and the players' new-found sense of purpose, pushed them past the first-place Bruins in the opening round.

Then came Carolina. The Habs got the split they wanted on the road against the Hurricanes. Back at the Bell Centre, they won a very tight Game Three in overtime. Game Four would set the tone for the remainder of the series. Either the Canadiens would put a stranglehold on it, pushing the Hurricanes to the brink, or they'd lose and let the 'Canes back in it. Rarely have I been as angry during a Habs game as I was that night. The Canadiens had a 3-0 lead after two and looked like they'd take the game easily. Then, at 2:40 of the third period, Stephane Quintal took a cross-checking penalty.

That wouldn't have been too bad, as the Habs had killed off four previous penalties (two of them to Quintal) earlier in the game. Unfortunately, that's when Michel Therrien decided to lose his mind. In an angry tirade to protest the call, he bellowed obscenities across the ice at referee Kerry Fraser. Fraser, not being one to sit quietly and take any crap, assessed Therrien a bench penalty for abuse of officials. The Hurricanes scored on the two-man advantage and got back into the game. That goal turned momentum entirely in their favour. They scored another halfway through the period and Erik Cole, Habs Killer, sent it to OT with 41 seconds to go. Three minutes into the extra period, Niklas Wallin, on a shot to the heart of the Habs playoff hopes, scored to tie the series. Two thumpings later, the 'Canes sent the Canadiens packing and rolled all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. For the Habs, that loss in Game Four erased the fragile confidence built by Koivu's return, Theodore's excellent play and the victory over the Bruins. I, as so many fans did, blamed Therrien. I hated him all that summer, and when he got fired the next season, I was glad.

That's why I decided to take a day to absorb this hiring before immediately condemning it, as my instinct demanded. A day later, I still don't like the hiring much. History, when made, can't be rewritten. However, the beauty of sport is that there's always another season, another game, another period, and each of those "anothers" gives a team a chance to make new history. While I strongly feel the choice of coach doesn't match the fresh, new feeling we were getting from the front-office revamp, he is the coach.

Marc Bergevin has decided to go the Therrien route, so we, as fans, either throw in the towel based on history and condemn the G.M.'s first big move, or we get behind it and give it a chance. I don't really feel like giving it a chance, but that choice is more palatable than looking at a fresh new season with instant pessimism. So, with that in mind, I will wait until the Canadiens are 20 games into the new season before I say anything else about Michel Therrien. Perhaps Bergevin is smarter and more hopeful than most of us. And, perhaps, Therrien really has learned from the mistakes in his past and has developed into the kind of coach who won't ruin P.K.Subban or divide the team when it most needs unification.

It's wrong to judge a person based on a temper tantrum ten years in the past, even if that moment cost his team dearly. I'll have more to say around mid-November. Until then, Therrien has a better cast than he had in his first go-round in Montreal. It's up to him to prove he's got the tools and the smarts to handle it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Good Luck, Bob

As of yesterday, Bob Hartley is back in the NHL following a five-year absence. After contributing his inside knowledge as a commentator on RDS broadcasts for a time, the lure of the bench drew him to Switzerland, where he led his underdog ZSC Lions to the league championship. Calgary Flames G.M. Jay Feaster took that European success, Hartley's Cup win with Colorado in 2001 and his personal relationship with the coach as signs that the time was right to offer Hartley a job in Alberta. Both men appear happy with the partnership and the Flames will go to the draft with one major decision out of the way.

It's a little bit worrisome that critics and pundits are already questioning whether Habs G.M. Marc Bergevin has made his first mistake in his new position by "missing out" on Hartley. The headline in the Winnipeg Free Press today reads "Bob Hartley Chooses to Coach Calgary Flames Over Montreal Canadiens." The Sporting News says, "Bob Hartley to Coach Calgary Flames, Not Canadiens." And on Sportsnet, it's "Short List for Coach Shrinks." Even CJAD's guru of all things Habs, Abe Hefter, questioned whether Bergevin was asleep at the switch when Feaster pounced on the chance to sign Hartley. All of this implies two things: first, that the Canadiens really wanted Hartley and Bergevin failed to sign him, and second, that the Canadiens and Bergevin are limited to the tiny handful of Francophone retread coaches available.

Both of those assumptions are rooted in the way the team was run under the last two general managers. In regard to whether Bergevin missed the boat on Hartley, one must consider that the two had already spoken about the position in Montreal. If Hartley had blown Bergevin away with his approach or ideas, or his absolute perfection for the job, it's reasonable to believe the G.M. would either have offered Hartley the job already, or indicated to Hartley that the job was his, pending the installation of the entire new management team for consultation purposes. If Hartley felt he should take the job in Calgary instead, either things weren't going as smoothly as he hoped in negotiations with Bergevin and he had reason to believe he would not be the successful candidate, or he just liked Calgary better. (Strange from a hockey standpoint, considering the aging Jarome Iginla is sticking around as the franchise player and there probably won't be a significant rebuild there.) In either case, there's no reason for Habs fans or media to think Bergevin wasn't on the ball in this situation. If Hartley chose Calgary, he chose it for personal reasons Bergevin couldn't control. If negotiations weren't going well, then perhaps Bergevin wasn't convinced Hartley was the right guy for the Habs. In that case, kudos to the new general manager for choosing carefully.

Which brings us to the second assumption of most who are predicting the name of the next Habs coach: that the list without Hartley is now down to Michel Therrien and Marc Crawford, with darkhorse mentions of Jacques Lemaire, Guy Carbonneau or Patrick Roy. People seem to be thinking very narrowly, and focusing only on two criteria, bilingualism and experience, in that order.

Marc Bergevin was hired by Geoff Molson and Serge Savard, both experienced businessmen with deep ties to Quebec society. The latter quality would, of course, lead them to hire a bilingual candidate if there's one out there who fits with the type of personality and approach to the game they're looking for. Their business roots, however, must require them to broaden the parameters while searching for the person who'll fill such an important position. The coach they hire will play a big part in determining whether the Habs win or lose. These guys want to win...a lot. With that in mind, and considering the thorough search for the right G.M. we just witnessed, it's hard to believe the front-office team in place now would limit itself to a handful of men.

Bergevin has already hinted that NHL experience is not necessarily a must in the selection of the new coach. We don't know how flexible he's willing to be on the bilingual requirement, but must assume that it's less negotiable. One thing we do know is Bergevin has been around and he knows many, many good hockey people. He's new blood himself, and it feels right that he should surprise us with his choice. When we look at the energy and enthusiasm he's bringing to the front office, it doesn't really fit that he'd bring in a retread to be coach.

That said, while we're expecting Bergevin to take his time and pick the right person, he may be really impressed by Therrien or Crawford and determine that one of those guys is The One. If he chooses one of them because they come into the interview and blow his socks off, that's great. We can have confidence the team is going in the right direction. If, however, he hires one of them because he "missed the boat" on Bob Hartley or feels the need to look for bilingual experience first, we'll have cause to worry.

Until the choice is announced, however, we might as well stow the assumptions away. Even after we know who'll be coaching, we can't judge until we hear Bergevin explain his choice, which, unlike the previous regime, he'll certainly do with candour. For now, the G.M. gets the benefit of the doubt and we need to dig deep and find the patience to wait for his decision. All we know, after all, is that Bob Hartley will be having fun trying to get the Calgary Flames into the playoffs.