Monday, November 12, 2012

A Lockout Top Ten

I don't know about you, but all the negativity surrounding the NHL lockout is really starting to get me down. It's unnatural that there should be no Canadiens hockey in November. The pointless posturing by both the owners and the NHLPA inspires every bad-mood feeling from frustration to outright boiling anger. So, as we roll toward Christmas with no NHL hockey in sight, maybe it's time to take a collective deep breath and tally up the good things about the lockout. For example:

10. Eight minutes of basketball highlights at the beginning of every sportscast. Before the lockout, I confess, I was among the many hockey fans with only a passing interest in NBA basketball. I just didn't see the point of running back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and scoring a basket 75 percent of the time. Now, thanks to the lockout, I am absolutely positive I hate basketball. So, thanks, NHL owners, for clearing up that question for me.

9. Better appreciation for the KHL. One eye opener that's resulted from the lockout is more readily-available access to KHL clips. I'd always thought of the KHL as a league for Russians who were too scared to come play in the NHL, minor pros from North America who couldn't cut it in the NHL, or former NHLers on the downsides of their careers. While that may be true to some degree, there's also some good hockey going on there. I've enjoyed watching some of their games this fall. (Not as much as watching Kladno in the Czech league, where my boy, Tomas Plekanec is enjoying every minutes of his time on a line with Jaromir Jagr, but stilll.) That there is hockey life on other hockey planets is a good lesson to learn.

8. More exposure to Gary Bettman and Bill Daly. In the 8 years since the last lockout, Bettman has become a caricature. We boo him for sport. Daley, we hardly even know. We just recognize him as that vaguely thug-like dude who walks two steps behind Bettman in public, similar to the protocol upheld by Prince Philip and the Queen. It's perhaps unfair to Daley that by the time we register the fact that he's not an extra from The Sopranos, his screen time is up. The lockout serves to remind us that there's more to these men than surface appearances. The more they talk, the better our understanding of inflexibility, mulishness and arrogance.

7. P.K.Subban giving full rein to his goofball side. We haven't seen this much of P.K. since he got called up in the middle of the 2010 playoffs and had overzealous Habs fans thinking he'd be the next Bobby Orr. He became a media darling then, with the Bell Centre crowd chanting his name. Since that time, squabbles with teammates, name-calling from opponents and a production plateau at the beginning of last season have tarnished a bit of his golden glow. He's making up for lost face time during the lockout, though. He's been applying for jobs on the George Stroumboulopoulos Show, doing the weather on CTV, promoting a kid's hockey charity, and reading the news on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. If you're tired of reined-in P.K. during the hockey season, you can enjoy unfettered Subban-mania for the duration of the lockout.

6. More time to dream about how much closer the Habs prospects will be next year, after a whole year of development in the AHL. As it looks more like the lockout will become another lost season at the NHL level, the clock stops for the prospects. Number-three overall pick Alex Galchenyuk can catch up on the time he lost to knee surgery, without the pressure of being thrown into the Habs lineup and expected to perform right away. (You may say that wouldn't have happened, but you have to believe even a decent showing at camp would have bought him a 9-game NHL trial, and when injuries and/or sucking hit the second line during that period, they'd keep him for the year.) The new Bulldog prospects in the AHL may accelerate their development by playing against the higher level of competition afforded by young opponents who should be in the NHL right now. When the lockout eventually ends, all of those guys will be higher up the development ladder than they would have been if the season had started on time.

5. Earlier Christmas shopping. Every year I mean to go shopping in September or October, with every intention of avoiding a mid-December panic. Inevitably, though, hockey interferes. There'll be a game to watch in the evenings, or a blog to write. Online time that should be spent picking the perfect present for the near and dear ends up spent reading some profile of a hockey player. This year, thanks to the lockout, I have almost all my gifts purchased and half my cards written. The holiday season will be stress free and much more enjoyable.

4. Saving money. Last season, I didn't go to Montreal to see a hockey game for the first time in several years. The team was terrible and I decided not to risk spending on a plane ticket, hotel, meals out, transportation and ridiculously-priced hockey tickets. It was a tough choice, but as it turned out, probably a wise one. This year, however, I thought the new faces signed over the summer and the added maturity of the kids, as well as the returns of Andre Markov and Brian Gionta from costly injuries would make a much better Habs team. I was planning a trip to see the team in October. Fortunately, though, the good old lockout came along and, just in the nick of time, spared me a nice chunk of change. If not for the lockout, I would not have been saved from myself and and thanks to it, I am now considerably more flush economically.

3. New hobbies. This fall I have returned to writing things other than a hockey blog. If we lose an entire season, I may finish that novel that's been languishing on the back burner while I cried over the Habs. I also decided to join a yoga class. I never would have done that in the past because it's on Tuesday nights, also known as Mechants Mardi on RDS. So, thanks, lockout, for making me a more relaxed and productive member of society.

2. Perspective. During the last two months I have come to recognize more clearly things that are more important than hockey. Hurricane Sandy and its consequences for people's property and lives is more important than hockey. The Greek economy is more important than hockey. Girls' education in Afghanistan is more important than hockey. So is the Conservative government's attempt to push the comprehensive economic trade agreement with the EU through without proper consultation with the provinces. And the closure of rural schools, forcing kids onto buses for an hour each way, is more important than hockey. Right at this moment, basketball highlights are more important than hockey. We're recognizing this, NHL, and some of us will give our heads a shake and realize hockey really isn't that important when you put it in perspective. Fortunately for the world, and unfortunately for the NHL, we've got lots of time to learn that lesson and many of us won't forget it when you stop fighting over billions.

1. Anger management. Well, if I haven't had a fury-induced stroke over the Bettman Show's insistence that players must give everything and owners nothing during these farcical negotiations, I'll never stroke out. That's a good thing. In learning how to ignore the lies and incalcitrance, we learn how to breathe deeply, lower our blood pressure and keep our patience without medication. This is also good practice for whenever the NHL resumes play and we see closeups of  Zdeno Chara's face or hear Brad Marchand speak.

So, there you are. There are benefits to this lockout that could lead us to happier, more fulfilling lives. We owe a lot to the owners of NHL teams for that. Not quite as much as the owners believe the players owe them, but hey, every little bit counts.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lord Stanley's Legacy

NHL hockey fans are an anxious bunch these days. The lockout of the players by the owners is heading in its fourth week and the two sides have yet to seriously discuss any of the big economic issues dividing them. A single team's season's worth of games have already been laid waste and fans dread a second season of the last eight in which the NHL does not award the Stanley Cup.

As we ponder that, here's a simple question: why do we watch NHL hockey? We can claim it's because of the players' elite skill level or the thrill of watching the fastest game in the world at its top speed. Or maybe we watch because we have an unswerving loyalty to a particular team, honed since childhood. All of these things may be true, but when it comes right down to it, the main reason, and for some of us the sole reason, we watch NHL hockey is for the roller coaster of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Every player who's made the post-season talks about how it's different hockey. It's passion, speed, emotion, desperation and heroism cranked up a notch because the playoffs mean something much bigger than the regular season. The 82 games preceding the post-season are just jockeying for position. The real stakes begin in April and every hockey fan knows it. The prize at the end of that annual two-month war of attrition is that beautiful silver cup. Players say it's the toughest trophy to win, and it symbolizes everything we treasure about the game of hockey. Another year without a Stanley Cup awarded to the top team in the NHL does not bear thinking about.

Well, friends and hockey fans, as it turns out, the NHL can go to hell.

After the last season-ending lockout in 2004-05, a couple of beer-league players in Toronto had had it with the big league's owners. They were particularly bitter about the cancellation of the playoffs, and that got them wondering whether the Cup actually belongs to the NHL at all. After all, Lord Stanley of Preston donated the Cup to the championship team of the Dominion of Canada. He meant it to be a challenge cup for hockey supremacy, and, accordingly, appointed two trustees who would oversee the governance of the trophy. They would set the rules for how the Cup would be decided and mediate any disputes. The beer-leaguers guessed, based on that premise that the Cup, in effect, belongs to the people and is merely under the protection of the trustees. So, they sent a letter to the trustees, requesting the right to challenge for the Cup. The trustees immediately turned them down, claiming they were not allowed to let teams other than those in the NHL play for the trophy. Not buying that, the two rec players decided to take the NHL to court. Tim Gilbert was their lawyer.

"We settled with the National Hockey League," Gilbert explains. "This followed the exchange of some affidavit material. We had a hockey historian weigh in, and we had experts from across Canada in trust law. We agreed with the NHL that the agreement between the trustees of the Cup and the NHL would reflect that, A, it is a trust, and B, that anybody can play for the Cup in a year in which the NHL doesn't frame a competition, subject to what the trustees decide."

It appeared at first as though the small-time challengers had won a big victory over the bureaucrats controlling the NHL. It didn't quite work out that way, however.

"You could say it was a draw, in that the trustees don't have  to award the Cup to a non-NHL team in a year in which there is a lockout," says Gilbert. "But they can't say, 'No we're not allowed to,' because of the agreement. The agreement does not preclude the trustees awarding the Cup to a non-NHL team."

The catch there is that it's up to the trustees to decide whether a challenge bid is acceptable. And, considering the fact that the two trustees, Brian O'Neill and Ian (Scotty) Morrison, are both former NHL vice-presidents with a long history of loyalty to the league, it doesn't seem likely they'd agree to let the Cup out of the NHL's hands.

O'Neill, when asked what he'd do with a challenge request if the current lockout cancels the playoffs replied:

"“It’s just not going to happen. The Stanley Cup should be awarded to the top National Hockey League team, which has been determined to be the top league in the world. Anything less than that would demean the trophy.”

Tim Gilbert isn't impressed with O'Neill's reasoning.

"I think it's unfortunate that they would say something and predetermine an issue before someone puts something before them that might have traction. I think it's an open question," he states. " Other types of leagues, should they be able to put something together, might be able to convince the trustees. The original object of the trust was to promote hockey. A lot of people feel with the lockout, it's all about money. A lot of people have tuned out of that dispute and don't even know what the real issues are, other than it's a dollar sign. It reflects negatively on the sport generally."

There are many who would agree with Gilbert. What, after all, demeans the trophy more: Having a passionate team of amateurs or semi-pros win it, or having two blank places on its side, reading only "season not played?" The Cup is a legend in itself, its history rife with weird, outrageous and entertaining stories. Awarding it to a team outside the NHL because hockey fans demanded it for the good of the sport would only add to that legend. Imagine the level of public interest if the Cup were to be disputed between local teams, rather than those in California or Florida. Picture the unbelievable joy of those who play for the Gander Flyers or the Montreal Stars,  seeing their names engraved on the Cup when they thought they had no chance because they didn't make the NHL, or are women.

Gilbert says there's plenty of legal room to challenge the right of the trustees to withhold the Cup.

"It's their (the trustees') decision, subject to living up to the object of the trust. The next stage is if the NHL can't pull its act together and should they cancel the season, then it's open for someone to argue that the trustees should be awarding that Cup and they're not living up to the original grant of the Cup," he warns. "That goes back to Lord Stanley himself. There's a letter of his, quite brief, that became evidence in our case. It says, paraphrasing, that it should be presented to the best team in the Dominion.  Those are the battle lines.  Last time, we came out in front. We remain interested. We did change the agreement, and we're prepared to help again if it makes sense."

So, there you have it. There's a legal case to be made, and lawyers willing to make it. If the NHL is stupid, greedy and stubborn enough to withhold the Cup for the second time in eight years, the door is open for some enterprising fans to force the trustees to give it back to the people. There wouldn't be a better way to stick it to the league who's been sticking it to them for years.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Take Back the Game

Yesterday, I was flipping through the Sears Christmas wish catalogue. I discovered this year, for a mere $70.83, you can get a plastic replica Habs goalie mask. For $69.99, you can own a statue of a depressed baby in a Habs sweater, wishing for a Stanley Cup. A Canadiens-logo scarf or dog dish will run you forty bucks, and if you want to keep your chilly toes toasty in Habs-themed slippers, it'll cost you fifty. If none of those Habby items rock your boat, the die-hard Canadiens fan can also shell out for sleeping bags, lighters, baby onesies, bikinis, playing cards, coins, t-shirts, long johns, curtains, socks, packages of tissues, toasters, air fresheners, clothespins, bar ware, lawn chairs or lunchboxes, all emblazoned with the proud CH. In short, if you can buy it, a manufacturer can slap a Habs logo on it and charge you double. Of course, all that lovely money runs directly into the NHL coffers, helping hockey-related revenue rise by an average of seven percent every year since the last lockout.

In the run-up to the current lockout, lots of angry fans have been threatening boycotts of everything from hockey itself to companies that sponsor NHL teams. They hope if they switch their internet from Bell to Rogers, it will worry Bell's brass enough to pressure owners for a CBA settlement. Less radical fans are saying they'll shut their wallets and not buy a new Colby Armstrong sweater or Habs-themed watch with Rocket Richard's goal-celebration arms marking the hours, in hope of making owners worry about loss of merchandise revenue. They threatened similar things eight years ago, when the last lockout began. In the end, after an entire year without the NHL, they rushed back to pro rinks in greater numbers than ever, paying higher ticket prices and shelling out 200 bucks a pop for their official replica Alex Kovalev jerseys.

It's a fine idea to say you won't go back to the Bell Centre when the lockout is over. Really, though, as the last work stoppage showed, you and the rest of the hockey-mad world probably won't be able to stick to that threat. We want our hockey, no matter how much we hate Gary Bettman and think the players and owners are all a bunch of greedy bastards. We also can swear to boycott NHL sponsor companies, but are we really going to change our cable provider or forgo our morning fix of Timmy's joe just for the principle of the thing? Probably not. Or at least, not enough of us will commit to a boycott to make a difference. One thing we can do, however, and in great numbers, is refuse to buy all that NHL-sanctioned swag. We can still have hockey; we just don't need to pay for a forty-dollar ball cap to wear while we watch it.

Fans, as we know, are the people who provide the money the NHL's players and owners are fighting over right now. Yet, when the cash leaves our hands and goes to Ticketmaster or the Habs merchandise shop, we lose our power.  The question is, how much influence do we really have if we choose to keep our money? Looking at the numbers, it turns out we could have quite a lot.

In the eight years since the last lockout, the NHL's hockey-related revenue has increased by nearly 50%. Last year, the league made a cool $3.3-billion. There's not a detailed breakdown of where all that cash originated that's publicly available, but with the numbers we can find, some of the picture begins to emerge. We know, for example, that the league takes in $355-million in TV revenue each year. We also know gate revenue last year amounted to $1.3-billion dollars. The league's largest sponsor, Molson-Coors, pays the NHL $53-million a year. Those three things account for $1.9-billion of the league's total revenue, leaving $1.4-billion for other sponsorship, including arena naming rights and dasher board ads, radio and internet rights and merchandise sales.

Last year, sales of all those team-logo-emblazoned goods went up by 15% over the previous season. In fact, they've risen every year since the last lockout. The league doesn't release specific numbers, but if merchandise accounts for even half of that $1.4-billion dollars, fans who buy NHL-approved stuff provide a very significant portion of the league's record revenue. If it accounts for even a third of the $1.4-billion, merchandise sales are worth more than all the TV rights CBC, TSN, NBC and RDS buy each year. That, friends, is big money, and money, as they say, talks.

I've never really considered how much Habs stuff I own, but after I thought about this, I took a look around. It turns out, I have four Habs sweaters, one of them game-worn and two pro replicas with names and numbers. I have four CH t-shirts of various patterns, three Canadiens ball caps, a keychain, gym wrist bands, a bottle opener, a water bottle, a subscription to the Habs team magazine, two fridge magnets, nine different books, videos and a DVD box set, coins, stamps, slippers, gloves, a framed 100th-anniversary print, a McFarlane figure of Patrick Roy, a calendar and a tiny model Escalade that sits on my desk at work, sporting the Habs logo. I don't know how much I or the people who gave me these things as gifts spent on the stuff, but I imagine it's well over a thousand bucks, and a portion of  that went right into the NHL owners' pockets. That's why I'm not going to buy anything else.

I'm angry this labour dispute is holding fans hostage, and I want to make a statement the owners will be forced to hear. I'm not willing to abandon hockey, but I will never buy another NHL-trademarked item again. And you know what? I won't miss it. I rarely wear my Habs gear, except during the playoffs, and the rest of it is just cute junk I've picked up over the years and never notice. I want my Habs hockey, but I'll be damned if I'll contribute to the many millions the NHL makes off merchandise sales and then fights about. Who's with me?

P.S. If all this makes you feel like crying, try this for a laugh.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Greed and Perspective

NHL training camps are scheduled to open next month and players are working hard to get their bodies in shape to withstand the rigors of a jam-packed exhibition season, 82-game regular season and, hopefully, a long playoff run. They're spending hours in the gym sweating, hoping the extra core work they do will prevent a sports hernia, or the agility training help them avoid the headshot that will steal their wits by the time they're 60. Guys in their 20s are fighting for a job and guys in their 30s fighting to keep one for an extra season or two.

Hanging over the normal routine of an NHL player's summer, though, is the looming spectre of another lockout by owners who claim they need a bigger share of hockey-generated revenue to cover the rising costs of doing business. In reality, they need the money to save them from themselves as they hand out monster contracts and then wonder why the salary cap isn't working the way it was supposed to work.

The fans...those who supply the money the owners and players are now fighting over...are stuck in the middle. In their (our) frustration at the possibility of, once again, being denied the pleasure of our vicarious adrenaline fix, they (we) throw accusations of base greed at both sides. Admittedly, there's little redeemable in the stance the owners have taken. Their initial offering to the players was laughable, requiring as it did a salary rollback of nearly a quarter of contract values, restricted free agency rights and an extended period of indentured servitude for the young players who are the lifeblood of the game. Fans are right to be disgusted by the way the owners are colouring the league.

Painting the players with the same shade of greed, however, isn't really fair. While they make amounts of money to which most of us could never aspire (the current average NHL salary is more than $2-million a year), the money doesn't come easy. Consider the path most of the players take to the big time.

From the time they're nine or ten years old, players spend the summers at hockey camps and running through endless games of street hockey. In the winters, they (and their dedicated parents) spend every weekend on the road travelling to tournaments and early mornings and late evenings on the ice for practice. The best players, the ones who make the NHL, play for two or three different teams and therefore double or triple the commitment required.

In their teens, most NHL-bound players leave home two to three years earlier than their peers to attend prep schools or play junior hockey. Their lives become a treadmill of workouts, practice, travel and games. Some of them fit school in there where they can, some of them don't. By the time they're 18 and they're ready to be drafted by an NHL team, they've devoted thousands of hours to the game. Most of them have had at least one concussion, many a hockey-related surgery and only a handful will hear their names called by a big-league general manager. Those are the lucky ones. The others who are unwilling to let the dream die eke out a tough living in minor pro leagues or in Europe.

Once drafted, the majority of the chosen ones must spend two to five years working their butts off on the ice and in the gym, enduring tedious bus rides and learning how to make ends meet in the ECHL or AHL, hoping they can fulfill the promise the big team once saw in them. A handful of those drafted will actually make a career in the NHL. Of those, a smaller handful will make the really big money one imagines when picturing the life of an NHL hockey player.

The average NHL player spends up to 15 years in training for his job. The average NHL career lasts 5-6 seasons. So, for every guy who's one of the 1-in-25 who plays more than 1000 games, there's another who gets to play just one big-league game after all that investment. As we've seen in the last couple of years, the risks inherent in playing a game that's faster than at any time in history, against bigger, stronger opponents who have a league-sanctioned right to punch you in the face can be life-threatening. Players willingly put their health and their future sanity on the line in order to fulfill the dream of playing hockey for a living. One thing they learn from this experience is there are no guarantees.

Now, take a look at the money the players get for their years of training, their physical dedication to the game and the risks they take to play it. If a player is lucky enough to work in the NHL for ten years, according to the league average salary, he could make about $22-million dollars. In actual compensation, however, that ten years includes three at an entry-level pay scale. It also includes a year or two at the end of that time, when the player has lost a step or sustained a serious injury, when his income drops. Enforcers, fourth-line scrubs, spare defencemen and backup goalies make a fraction of the average. If the ten years include a lockout season, that's a year of lost income he doesn't get back.

Out of the money a player makes during his fairly brief earning period, he must pay an agent to negotiate for him and an accountant or investment manager to look after the money. Those guys don't come cheap. Then there are taxes. In Quebec, a player making a nominal $4-million a season at the peak of his earning life takes home only slightly more than half of that. There's the expense of a secure home where the player can't be pursued by fans, and there's the need to save for the future. Most player careers are over by the time they reach their mid-30s. That means they have 40 or 50 years stretching before them, in which hockey no longer pays the bills. Most of them don't have a trade or college degree, and some emerge from junior hockey barely able to read. They make nothing for the hours of community service they provide on behalf of their teams.

For all of those reasons, it's not quite right to say NHL players are just as greedy as the owners who dole out the fans' money in paycheck form. This is not in defence of the amount they make, or of the privileged lifestyle they live during their brief tenure as professional hockey players at the highest level. It's meant to offer perspective of the road players take to be where they are, versus the path owners take, on which there's no physical hardship, performance anxiety or crushing failure.

In the end, owners will still be owners in ten or twenty years. Most of the players attempting to negotiate a new collective agreement will be done and forgotten by then. Players have to live for the moment and make what they can, while they can. That the owners who govern their professional lives want to impose limitations on that ability makes them no better than the crooks who left Maurice Richard selling fishing line after his career ended.

A lockout will be painful for fans, but it will hurt players too. When all's said and done, these guys have been training to play hockey since they were little kids. Taking that away from them for a long time, no matter how much they make to do it, will be painful. Chances are, while the players are training so hard for a season that might not start for months, the owners aren't quite as dedicated. And, when the season is inevitably halted because the two sides are at an impasse, the owners probably won't feel nearly as bad.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The P.K. Puzzle

When you try to build a definitive image of P.K.Subban, it's difficult to bring that image into clear focus. Eventually, you realize that, instead of calling to mind a single emblematic picture of the player, you end up with a slide show.  There's Subban scoring his first-ever playoff goal to put the Habs up 1-0 against Pittsburgh, and accepting the pats on the back from his teammates with an air of surprise. Subban hitting Boston's Brad Marchand so hard with a clean open-ice check that the Bruin wasn't sure what sport he was playing. Subban, late in his rookie season, scoring a vital OT winner against Chicago and coming up with one of his notorious celebrations. Subban at the NHL All-Star breakaway challenge, charming the crowd in Carolina by changing sweaters with hometown hero Jeff Skinner. Subban having fun with Carey Price. Subban in a practice scuffle with Tomas Plekanec as last year's bad season got a little worse. The images don't really give you a single clear picture of Subban, and that's part of the problem newly-minted Habs G.M. Marc Bergevin is having right now.

So far this off-season, Bergevin has been systematically identifying the players he wants to keep and signing them to extensions. He quickly chose the guys he wanted to bring in to fill roster holes and got them signed too. Now, aside from persistent rumours that he's planning to sign one of Shane Doan or Alex Semin to play wing on the second line, the only task left in Bergein's "in" box is Subban.

When two sides are negotiating a contract, they're basing their ideas of fairness on their respective images of each other. So, right now, P.K.Subban sees himself as a young stud who saved the Habs when they had nobody on defence. He's right, to a degree. However, Bergeron sees him as a kid with a lot of developing yet to do, who had a great rookie playoff, a fair-to-middling official rookie season and a somewhat disappointing second year. Still, Subban is developing quickly, as he has through every level of hockey, which is a good thing.

The problem is, he's not an A-List stud like Drew Doughty or Shea Weber. Yet, in Montreal, he's been given those kinds of responsibilities. So Bergevin is looking at a lineup including Andrei Markov as the number-one D, not Subban. At the same time, Subban is expecting to be paid for the role he's played while Markov was hurt for the last two seasons. It's a difficult situation because Subban is still a restricted free agent and hasn't really stepped up, in the stats department at least, as a guy who deserves the money his buddy Carey Price just made.

It comes down to what Subban is asking. Bergevin, certainly, has made an offer based on his perception of Subban's development and what he expects of the next two or three or five years. The difference in negotiations now is in how Subban perceives himself and his role on a D that includes a healthy Markov. Ideally, Subban would be a top-four guy who can step up into the top pairing if there's an injury. And, as he's a homegrown player with tons of potential and a fan favourite, he deserves a legitimate contract to keep him around during his development years. The thing is, Subban may already see himself as a top guy. That would mean the gap between what he expects and what Bergevin is offering may be wider than is comfortable.

It's important to sign Subban soon, because the pickins' are pretty slim on the open market right now, and teams like the Flyers are desperate for young, talented D-men. The Habs, however, can't panic and use that excuse to overpay a guy who should be coming into his money in about four years, after he's proven he's really a stud. Right now, given Subban's resume, it would be wise to sign him for about four years, with a cap hit no higher than about four million. Probably, that's what Bergevin's offering. And, probably, that's what Subban's team is rejecting because they think he should be compensated for the two years in which he's stepped in for Markov.

The two sides need to come to an agreement soon, because the slide show of P.K.Subban we have in our heads right now will get longer, and the images will be more and more impressive. We just have to hope the team can strike a deal that pays fairly early on for his current skill and expands for the development we know is coming.

P.K.Subban is one of the cornerstones of the Canadiens future, especially if they hope to win a Cup in the next 3 to 5 years. However, if the idea is to keep him around for longer than that, the next contract can't be crazy. Hopefully, both sides will eventually realize that and the kid we all love to watch will get signed for 3 or 4 years in the next little while. With any luck, Bergevin won't cave and hand him a ten-year contract with tens of millions involved. That won't help anyone and the Canadiens will be poorer for it.

The image we have of P.K.Subban, the person, not the player, is of an open-hearted guy who grew up cheering for the Habs. He's a hard worker and a smiler. He needs to stay a Hab. We hope it happens that way.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Duct Tape and Spit

When the Canadiens ended their dreadful 2011-12 season in last place in the Eastern Conference, they had a lot of lineup holes to fill if they were to have any hope of improving. They were weak in the bottom six, short a couple of second-line wingers and they needed at least one solid, stay-at-home-style defenceman. Then Marc Bergevin came on board as GM, and the job of filling those holes fell to him.

It was a daunting task, and only one of many facing the Habs' new boss. He was also responsible for revamping the front office, planting the seeds of a new team culture, drafting the best player possible in the highest spot the Habs had chosen since 1980 and re-signing the team's future corner stones. Through all of that, it appears Bergevin does have a plan for the Canadiens. He wants a front office with experience and smarts. He wants players with character and skill.

The front office part seems to be going well. The on-ice part of the plan is harder to achieve. Unfortunately for those who want to see an immediate turnaround in this team, the fix is going to take more than one season. Bergevin certainly acquired character in his free agent signings, but the remaining skill the players have is questionable.

He addressed the need for veteran D by bringing Francis Bouillon back to Montreal. Bouillon has defied the odds by playing tough NHL defence for 12 seasons, despite standing only 5'8" tall. This year, however, he will turn 37 years old and is coming off a series of groin injury and concussion problems. On the plus side, Bouillon's contract is only for a year, as he's obviously a place-holder who'll give the prospects in Hamilton a chance to develop.

On paper, Bergevin has beefed up the bottom six forwards with the signings of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Both players are tough, in-your-face types, of which there's been a serious shortage in Montreal in recent years. Both also come with questions. Armstrong played only 79 games in his two seasons in Toronto because of a series of injuries. Prust has been traded three times in the last four years, which usually means there's a younger, better player behind him. The four-year contract is the longest of his NHL career, and one wonders whether he'll be surpassed by a Habs prospect before that term is up.

If Bouillon, Armstrong and Prust stay healthy, which, at the moment, is a big "IF," then they will improve some of last season's weaknesses. They'll make the team a fair bit rougher around the edges and bring a no-quit attitude to the room. They will not, however, score many points, and this is the biggest problem the Canadiens will have again in the coming season.

Last year, David Desharnais did an admirable job centering the team's two best wingers in Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. The trio was the Habs' best in terms of offensive production. Tomas Plekanec, on the other hand, who entered the season as the number-one centreman, ended up with more linemates than Hugh Hefner has bunnies. He also was given the majority of tough defensive assignments up the middle and his stats reflected both of those facts.

Going into this season, we assume Brian Gionta will be ready to take his place back on Plekanec's right side. If he stays healthy (and, again, that's a big IF, considering the injury problems he dealt with last year, his size and his aging body), he will bring some skill and consistency to that line. The problem is the left side, and it seems as though Bergevin and Michel Therrien have decided to play the inconsistent Rene Bourque there.

Having scored 58 and 50 points in the two years prior to last season, with 27 goals each year, there's an argument to be made that Bourque has the goal-scoring ability to play second-line minutes. Last year's 18 goals and 24 points, along with his -19 in the plus/minus category are the other side of that argument. Plekanec plays a vital role defensively, and therefore, so must his linemates. If a guy is going to be non-committal and lazy, it's going to cost that whole line in terms of effectiveness at both ends of the ice. Bergevin's decision to give Bourque another chance and hope Therrien gets more consistency out of him than he showed last year is risky.

On one side, if Bourque turns it around and he and Gionta are able to put up the 25 goals apiece of which they're capable, Bergevin looks like a pretty smart guy. On the other side, if Bourque continues to play the sulky hockey he did last season, it leaves the top six forwards short a man. That, in turn, leaves the team not much farther ahead than it was last year.

Bergevin is taking a fairly conservative approach right now, trying to patch the holes with cheap pieces that all come with some degree of risk. By giving guys like Bourque and, it would appear, Scott Gomez, a second chance under a new regime, he's hoping they'll save him the cost of trading assets or spending money he can't afford to replace them. This is marking time until the new wave of home-grown much of which had been squandered by previous management regimes in exchange for expensive quick ready to take over.

What that means is the team we saw lose its way to worst in the East last season probably won't be markedly better this year. But, you might argue, there's no way the bad luck of injuries will strike again. Andrei Markov will start the year healthy and Gionta will be back. That's true, of course, but injuries happen every year. Maybe a new coach will make a difference. Perhaps Bourque will make a comeback and give the team two real top lines again. All of this is possible, but it's also strictly based on hope. The lineup, as constituted on paper right now, will be a little bit tougher and hopefully better organized on the ice. It won't score many more goals or prevent a whole lot more than it did last year. And it won't suddenly develop a power play or win shootouts when it didn't do so in the last season.

It looks like, unless something dramatic happens and Shane Doan finds his way to Montreal, the Canadiens may still struggle to win enough games to grab a playoff spot. This is the time when all of us who wished for a proper rebuild from the draft are seeing that wish come true, but it's also the time for patience because it's not going to happen in the coming season.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


When Marc Bergevin took over as Habs' G.M., he breezed in with a smile and a wink and the promise of a new lightness in the organization's hierarchy. After the oppressive secrecy of the Pierre Gauthier era, Bergevin's willingness to speak frankly about his decision-making was a great relief. It turns out, however, that the new boss isn't immune from a little glossing over of the truth when it suits him.

There's been a lot of discussion in the last week about the Canadiens decision to pass over Larry Robinson as a member of the new coaching staff. The Hall-of-Fame defenceman claimed to be interested in Montreal and the rest of us were certainly interested in welcoming an expert of his stature back to the fold. Then to the disappointment of many, the team announced the job would go to J.J.Daigneault instead.

Now, there's nothing on Daigneault's record as a minor-league coach that says he isn't ready for the NHL. He comes with glowing reviews from the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Connecticut, where he spent the last five years instructing many members of New York's impressive young blueline corps. As is the case with any new guy coming to the organization, we can just wish him the best and hope, for the good of the team, he does a great job.

That said, there's something not quite right about the way in which the Bergevin team handled the Daigneault-over-Robinson hiring. Sometime after Robinson's New Jersey Devils lost in the Stanley Cup final on June 11, Bergevin requested permission to approach Robinson, then called to assess the big man's interest in a job with the Canadiens. According to the Montreal Gazette, calls went back and forth between the two sides, but because of storm damage to his property, Robinson wasn't able to jump on a plane and meet Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien for an immediate in-person interview.

In the end, Bergevin called Robinson just before the team announced Daigneault's appointment and told Robinson Therrien really liked his interview with Daigneault and that's why the Canadiens went in that direction. Robinson said he understood and that it was a business decision. Although many fans were disappointed such a great Canadien would not be returning to Montreal, most were willing to give Daigneault a shot.

That should have been the end of the story, but a piece in the Hartford Courant this week makes one wonder whether Robinson was really a consideration at all. The article gives a little insight into the speed-of-light hiring process the team employed in choosing Daigneault:

"When Montreal was searching for an assistant to concentrate on the defense, Daigneault’s name was mentioned in the Canadian media," the story reads.  "But he did not apply for the job because he was still under contract with the Rangers.
"It wasn’t until the Canadiens contacted Sather that the offer came. Daigneault was working at the Rangers’ prospect camp last Friday when Sather told him he would waive the final year of his contract if he wanted to leave.
"By the time Daigneault arrived at his West Hartfford home Friday afternoon, a contract was waiting for him. By 3:30 in the afternoon, he was officially employed by the Canadiens."

From the first contact with Sather until the contract arrived on Daigneault's desk, just three hours passed. It doesn't give one confidence that the great impression Daigneault allegedly made on Therrien was more than a cursory resume check. Played D in the NHL? Check. Promising career working with minor-league defencemen? Check. Unthreatening? Check.
In the Gazette article, Robinson took care to explain it would never be his goal to use his experience and stature to undermine Therrien. Given the rapid hiring of the minor-league Daigneault instead, it appears Therrien wasn't buying that. 
In the end, Daigneault will possibly do a fine job in teaching the new crop of Habs D-men. Fans everywhere hope he does at least as well as we know Robinson would have done. It would have been nice if Bergevin had been more truthful about how Daigneault was chosen to coach in Montreal, though. When a legend like Larry Robinson is involved, the team owes it to him to be as open as possible. Telling him Daigneault beat him out for the job fair and square because of a great interview (obviously by phone, if it even went in-depth at all, which negates the excuse that Robinson lost out when he couldn't make it to Montreal) isn't the classiest move. People talk and this stuff makes the papers.
Perhaps Bergevin found himself in a difficult position. Maybe he and Therrien wanted a younger, more up-and-coming assistant coach, but they were feeling the pressure to at least give Robinson the courtesy of a phone call. However, if they were never intending to hire him, they shouldn't have pretended they might. And they shouldn't have pretended that Daigneault was in the mix for longer than three hours and somehow blew them out of the water in the interview process. The way this was handled may be due to inexperience on Bergevin's part, but it smells a bit Gauthier-ish. Let's hope that's where the similarities end.

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.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Nine-Second Hero

On a warm, Calgary night in May of 1986, someone took a photograph. In it, preserved like a dragonfly in amber, 20-year-old Claude Lemieux has thrust the Stanley Cup into the air above his head, face contorted in  a kind of sobbing ecstasy. Standing on his right, smiling with indulgent joy is fellow rookie Brian Skrudland. The picture is emblematic of the run that saw the Canadiens win an unexpected, but deeply welcome championship. Lemieux was the emotional catalyst who scored ten goals in 20 playoff games, including four winners, two of them in OT. Skrudland was the support guy, a solid, hardworking two-way centre who shared a lot of on-ice moments with Lemieux, but rarely commanded the spotlight. Most of the time. On another spring night in Calgary, six days before that iconic photograph was taken, Skrudland had a chance to be the hero and he grabbed it.

If you Google Brian Skrudland's name now, the second result that pops up is "Brian Skrudland OT goal." Twenty-six years after he scored his first NHL playoff goal, it's still the moment for which he's best remembered. On May 18, nine seconds into overtime of Game Two of the Stanley Cup final, Skrudland set an NHL record for scoring the fastest OT goal in playoff history. The funny thing is, his line, with grinder Mike McPhee and Lemieux, was probably on the ice to start the extra period only because coach Jean Perron hoped hot-hand Lemieux might pop one.

"First of all, what the heck was I doing on the ice was what most Habs fans would say," Skrudland laughs. "And flanked by second-year Mike McPhee and first-year Mike Lalor on the point and Claude Lemieux, first-year player. And there we were, with our lives on the line and who would have ever thought? But, what an opportunity. As I say to Mike McPhee, I was probably the only guy in the league who could have put it in off the post with the whole four-by-six in front of me."

The Flames had jumped out to a two-goal lead in that game, and having won Game One, had the Habs in a hole. Then the Canadiens' unlikely heros jumped into action. Defenceman Gaston Gingras scored his first of the playoffs early in the second period. Then, early in the third, rookie Dave Maley popped his first of the post-season. For the remainder of the period, the teams were locked in stalemate. A long overtime loomed. Enter Brian Skrudland. After winning the faceoff back to his own D, he broke for the Calgary zone on a two-on-one. Linemate McPhee faked a shot, then slid a perfect pass cross-ice to Skrudland, which he did, in fact, ring off the post and in. The goal stunned the Flames and helped the Habs avoid falling behind in the series two games to none. Momentum changed in that moment. The Canadiens never looked back, bringing home their 23rd Cup six nights later. While the goal cemented Skrudland's place in the NHL record book, it also helped his team create something special.

"That was the pinnacle. With winning comes a relationship with people that lasts a lifetime," he reflects. "Seven of us won a Calder Cup together the previous year, and our expectations of one another were already implemented in that we played the game to win. It was just a real special time from start to finish, for the decade I was in the organization."

The team's rookies might have had expectations of each other, but none of them carried the expectations of one of the team's greatest icons.

"One of my favourite stories of that entire playoffs was Toe Blake walking in after we beat Boston in the first round and saying, "Congratulations. You haven't won anything yet."," Skrudland recounts with a laugh. "Then the second round and Hartford and it was "Congratulations, you haven't won anything yet." Then we're in the third round against the Rangers and once again, here's Mr.Blake saying, "Congratulations, you haven't won anything yet." Then, of course, Calgary. And he walked up and said, "Congratulations. That's only one.""

Sometimes, when a player wins a Cup in his rookie season, he thinks that's the way it's supposed to be and he may take it for granted that he's got many more chances to win another. For Skrudland, though, just three years after that magical Montreal run, the Flames got their revenge and sent the Habs packing in the Cup Finals. Skrudland learned the bitterness of coming so close and going away with nothing. He says he feels lucky he got a chance to erase that bad taste by winning again with Dallas in 1999. He admits he still winces a little when he remembers losing to the Flames, however. It doesn't help that the NHL seems to be constantly running a playoff TV ad showing Lanny McDonald scoring in the final game, with Skrudland ineffectually trailing the play.

"Couldn't they just fast-forward it a little bit and cut me out of it? It burns. Now when I'm at an event with Lanny and he flashes '89, I flash '86," he chuckles ruefully.

Back now to that triumphant photograph. The moment is frozen forever, but of course there were other moments; celebratory moments when time ticked on and left the still frame behind. In the wake of their triumph, the Habs began a months-long whirlwind of parties, honours and fun. Most of the Habs, that is. For Skrudland, the celebrations were, well, painful. He explains why his smile in the photo isn't quite as wide as those of some of his teammates.

"First of all, when you break your jaw in three places in Game Five and you try to celebrate, it isn't much fun," he remembers. "I had minced food for the next six weeks of my life, but I did find the odd straw that favoured a flavour I loved, and I had a few evenings out with the guys. It was one of those events when you look back and you know you missed out on a lot as well."

He may have missed some of the nights on the town, but he'll always have The Goal. The unlikely night a warrior became a record-setting hero has outlasted the fleeting celebrity of a winner's celebration. In that photo there are two guys who know what it feels like to be a star.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The New NHL Order

Brian Skrudland laced up his skates and left every drop of sweat and, often, blood, he could wring out of himself on NHL ice rinks for 881 games over seventeen seasons. Marc Bergevin played 1191 NHL games, breaking into the big league in 1984-85, just one year before Skrudland made his debut with the Canadiens. With 13 different home teams between them over their 2000 combined games, it's something of an accomplishment that the two never dressed in the same room. That's not to say, however, that they didn't know something about each other.

"A funny story about Marc Bergevin," Skrudland, now director of player development with the Florida Panthers, recalls with a laugh. "Every time I walked into an arena and Bergevin was on the opposite team, he would always impersonate Brian Skrudland getting ready for a faceoff and then skating. So, he would be pulling his elbows up and putting everyone in position. And then going into the faceoff and really whacking and hacking. And then he would go for a quick little skate and, of course, it drew a pretty good smile from those who were watching.

"I walked into Dale Tallon's office last year before our home opener and there sat Marc Bergevin. It was the first time I'd ever actually met him, and Dale and him are pretty good buddies. So I walked in and said, "You son of a bitch. I've never met you before and now I finally get the chance." Dale said, "You've never met him before and you're calling him a son of a bitch?" I explained the story and we all had a good chuckle."

This is the new network of former players who are moving into today's NHL management positions. Some played together, some faced each other in corners or over faceoff dots or fists, but they all know each other in some fashion.  After recalling his 'official' introduction to Bergevin, Skrudland was quick to wish the new Habs G.M. well.

"Congratulations to Marc. I think that's going to be a nice fit," he praises.

That's how it works today. Brian knows Dale, who  knows Marc, who knows Stan, who knows Ken, and the web of interactions is spun. When a trade is on the table, one of the most valuable things a GM can have going for him is his network of connections. These days, as well, it's not just one guy who's responsible for building that network. Management of up-and-coming NHL clubs is based on teams of executives that collaborate in decision-making. The loner autocrat general manager is a thing of the past. Skrudland says he sees the way everyone works together in Florida's front office as a positive thing.

"It's a group effort. Here, Mike Santos, our assistant GM and Dale work together. Then there's the money side, the business side, that has their say in it. There are a lot of fingers in that pot. It's about having those people in place, having good people in place and making those decisions as a group," he explains.

Skrudland says that collaborative approach applies to scouting and drafting prospects too. When teams invest so much time and money into developing draft picks, it's vital they know as much as they can about the players they're choosing.

"It's amazing. That's the thing that really gets me in regards to speaking with some of those guys who absolutely study it. It's almost an analytical thing today. Everybody knows where the guy last went to the bathroom, for crying out loud. That's how in-depth we are today," he marvels. "But, at the end of the day, as we can see, you still can't measure a heart. At the end of the day, there's still a lot of great hockey players out there that may not have the greatest skill, but we can see how beneficial they are, especially these last four teams. They've got a lot of those kinds of players and they make a big difference."

Skrudland looks at the success Edmonton and Florida have had in their high draft picks of the last few years, and knows if a team chooses properly, the right pick can really help turn its fortunes around. He thinks Montreal has a chance to do that in June, if Bergevin and his team can work together to make a wise choice.

So, in the new era of management team-building and networking, one wonders whether Skrudland himself is thinking of using some of those hard-won connections to move up in the front-office ranks.

"I learn as I go along the way. I certainly pay attention to what people are doing and what they're saying. There's always part of me that wants to be a bigger part of the action," he confesses. "Maybe one day down the road, I'll find my way back behind the bench again for a couple of years because that's where I think all the fun is.  It really is a challenge. Coaches today have to not only coach a hockey team, but there's the media and it's more of a full-time job than it's ever been."

One thing is certain: Brian Skrudland didn't play more than 800 NHL games because he was a fool. Lots of Habs fans wonder Bergevin and his team might consider trading the Canadiens third-overall pick this June for an already-developing prospect like Florida's Jonathan Huberdau, currently starring in the Memorial Cup playoffs for the Saint John Sea Dogs.

"People have asked me that, but Huberdeau is going nowhere. He'll be the face of the Florida Panthers for hopefully the next decade. He's doing a lot for Saint John. But (Habs prospect) Michael Bournival is a good young player too," he soothes with a laugh.

Maybe a job higher up the NHL management ranks is in Skrudland's future. If it is, though, he knows he won't be working alone. And, chances are, the people he'll work with will be guys he played with or against in his NHL career. Perhaps there'll even be a son of a bitch among them. All in the name of good fun...and good business...of course.

*Coming soon: Skrudland's memories of the '86 Cup and his record-setting 9-second OT goal against Calgary.