Bad news is hard to deliver, especially when you’re breaking it to a childhood hero.
Somewhat lost in the tumult over the ouster Thursday of Pierre Gauthier as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens is another, arguably bigger event: a parting of ways with special adviser Bob Gainey.
Team president and principal owner Geoff Molson said it was a daunting discussion to have.
“It’s really difficult. … I was the five-year-old little kid looking up at him when he was playing for the hockey team,” said Molson, whose uncles owned the club during most of Gainey’s playing heyday. “I’ve known him my whole life. Who would have ever thought we’d get to this point?”
The point the Habs have reached is a pivotal one, by Molson’s own admission, and it has prompted the first truly momentous decision of the 41-year-old’s tenure.
As such, it risks defining his ownership of the club, which helps explain why the team plans to take its time in choosing a successor to Gauthier.
It can be reasonably argued that no meaningful change could take place as long as Gainey was in place.
The iconic former Canadiens captain and general manager is a towering presence in the organization, and cast a long shadow over the dressing room (“A great man,” defenceman Josh Gorges said mournfully).
That Molson decided to turn to another Habs eminence to spearhead the search for a new GM – Gainey’s former teammate Serge Savard – also speaks volumes.
Savard was sacked as GM in a 1995 front-office purge from which the team has never quite recovered. Star goalie Patrick Roy, who had led Montreal to a surprise Stanley Cup in 1993, was dealt a few weeks later – the Habs’ Curse of the Bambino moment.
Not only has Molson turned back the clock by bringing in Savard, the decision may well open the door for Roy – who was drafted by Savard – to step back into the fold.
Molson neatly side-stepped a question about whether Roy would be a suitable candidate, saying only he hasn’t seen him since 2009 and the short list would be kept confidential.
While Molson said it’s “important” the new face of the Habs’ hockey department be a skilled bilingual communicator, “our priority is finding the best possible person to help us win.”
It’s not clear whether Savard strayed from the script when he told RDS later that “the next GM must be able to express himself in French.”
Unlike Gauthier’s news conference on Dec. 17 to announce the firing of coach Jacques Martin – speaking of defining moves – this was handled smoothly, with nothing left to chance.
Though Molson, reading a speech he penned himself, was visibly nervous when he took the podium, he grew in assurance as he went along, made a point of emphasizing his desire to institute a winning culture, and referred to the club’s fans on multiple occasions.
Though the team’s ticket sales haven’t flagged, there have been growing numbers of empty seats and a sense of popular disengagement.
His central message – “we will do whatever it takes to win” – is sure to play well among fans angered by the team’s poor showing.
Molson also recounted a recent interaction with a supporter.
It landed via Twitter (Molson has an account) at about 4 a.m. (all times Eastern) on Thursday morning, and it was, in Molson’s words, “not very nice.”
By 10 a.m., when news filtered out that Gauthier was gone, another message popped up.
“It was the same person, saying, ‘Sorry, I didn’t really mean it,’” he said.
Molson said he informed Gauthier of his decision Tuesday, as the Habs were preparing to play the Florida Panthers – and spent the intervening days preparing an announcement.
Some will point to Gauthier’s decisions to fire a pair of coaches on game days (and trade Michael Cammalleri during the second period intermission), or to his tone-deaf handling of the appointment of unilingual interim coach Randy Cunneyworth (Molson allowed that mistakes were made that day).
Ultimately, Gauthier’s main failing, and Gainey’s, was simpler than all that.
“We haven’t been at the level our organization needs to be at, which is one of the best,” Molson said.
For the time being, Habs assistant GM Larry Carriere and chief scout Trevor Timmins will run the hockey department, but who will ultimately succeed Pierre Gauthier?
Patrick Roy: The former Habs netminder has been coach and GM of the junior Quebec Remparts for seven years, but has no NHL experience.
Julien BriseBois: Tampa's assistant GM has previously worked for the Habs, is a lawyer, and is highly-regarded, but inexperienced.
Claude Loiselle: An assistant to Maple Leafs GM Bryan Burke, Loiselle is a former NHL player and agent, he's also a lawyer and speaks French.
Vincent Damphousse: Former players' union official, former Habs captain, could be hampered by a pending court case for alleged spousal abuse.
Pierre McGuire: The NBC analyst has encyclopedic knowledge, he's good friends with Geoff Molson, he's bilingual, but lacks front-office experience.
Pat Brisson: The L.A.-based super-agent is a consummate NHL operator, but has a young family so relocation might be a problem.