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Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin at the Bell Centre last month. In three years back in native Montreal, he has the Habs back in serious contention. (Graham Hughes For the Globe and Mail)
Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin at the Bell Centre last month. In three years back in native Montreal, he has the Habs back in serious contention. (Graham Hughes For the Globe and Mail)

Marc Bergevin’s assist to Habs rise cements his role in Montreal Add to ...

Factoids and minutiae stick in his mind like fridge magnets, carefully arrayed and available for consultation on a whim – uniform numbers, faces, names, anecdotes both funny and tragic. Marc Bergevin remembers.

It’s not clear how this came to be. It makes for a neat party trick, though.

“[Montreal Canadiens coach] Michel [Therrien] can’t get over it – I remember every kid I played with when I was 12 years old. He’ll throw out a name and I’ll tell him, ‘Sure, I played midget AAA with that guy.’ You wore number 23, right Michel? [Habs assistant coach] Jean-Jacques [Daigneault] wore 15, [Pittsburgh Penguins legend] Mario [Lemieux] had 27 or 12, depending on the year,” says Bergevin, the Habs’ third-year general manager and one of hockey’s most fascinating executives.

A prospect he might have seen play once, years ago, in some far-flung European rink? Yeah, that rings a bell: Russian kid, defenceman, shoots left.

Recently, Bergevin ran into a minor-hockey teammate at Méchant Boeuf, a restaurant he’s been known to frequent in Old Montreal. Bergevin hadn’t seen the man in three decades, but he identified him by the number he wore at age 11.

“These things just leave a mark,” he says. “But my sister will ask me where I left her key yesterday, and I won’t know. Don’t ask me where I put down my wallet.”

So it can be established Marc Bergevin has total recall of facts and figures, which is handy when your job is to outmanoeuvre smart hockey people and make snap decisions involving one or more of the thousands of professional and elite junior-aged hockey players in the world.

It’s a job Bergevin is exceedingly good at and as the March 2 trade deadline approaches no one in hockey will be surprised if he lands another lunker.

From contract negotiations to trades to attracting free agents, the personable 49-year-old has emerged as perhaps the league’s canniest wheeler-dealer – he garnered nominations for NHL executive of the year in both of his first two seasons.

Call it the Bergevin style, a combination of emotional intelligence, talent spotting, networking ability, blind luck (he is the first to admit this) and experience with the real-world pain and joy that can be wrung from 20 years as a marginal NHL player.

The Canadiens’ recent run of success flows from the players and coaches, but it’s no accident that the club’s rise began with the hiring of their general manager after a 15th-place finish in 2012.

Bergevin draws considerable merriment from the fact he was well down the list of fan choices to take over from Pierre Gauthier in a Journal de Montréal poll in the spring of 2012. (Patrick Roy won by a landslide: “I was Marc Who?” he says.)

He’s fine with being underestimated, but after nearly three years on the job, that’s a pitfall his peers try to avoid. Bergevin’s wardrobe choices suggest a bold, confident personality – he’s a bit of a clothes horse – but he conducts his affairs with monkish discretion.

The contrasts don’t end there.

At a time where front offices are increasingly populated by law school grads, math quants and MBA types, Bergevin is a go-with-your-gut autodidact. Hockey’s a world of buttoned-down overachievers, while he’s a mischievous, inveterate prankster – although now that he’s the boss, he says, he has toned it down.

“It’s part of why I wanted to bring him in. If I was going to have to deal with the stress level of the job, I wanted to have at least some fun,” says Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who gave Bergevin his first front-office job, in Chicago in 2005. “He has a way about him that gets people to open up. It’s a good tool to have as a manager,” Tallon adds.

Surrounded by big personalities and egos, Bergevin is generally happy to delegate authority. It’s revealing that there have been few departures under his tenure – Gerard Gallant, who went to coach the Panthers, stands out. Bergevin admits he warded off approaches last year for associate GM Rick Dudley and scouting director Trevor Timmins by giving them improved deals.

“Delegating only works if you have confidence in your staff,” Bergevin says. “I saw how it works in Chicago, with Dale and Stan [Bowman]. You hire the right people and you empower them to do their jobs.”

As he says this, Bergevin is reclining in a booth at a Starbucks near Montreal’s Atwater Market. He’s a regular, and why not? The place is surrounded by personal landmarks. Down the street is Dilallo Burger, part-owned by Gilles Meloche (a former NHL goalie and hockey lifer who Bergevin has known for decades). Around the corner is the firehouse where his dad used to work. Several of his cousins live a couple of blocks away. His older brother lives in nearby Ville-Émard.

Bergevin grew up a few streets south, across the Lachine Canal – which his condo overlooks – in hardscrabble Pointe-Saint-Charles, crammed into a three-bedroom apartment with his parents, four older siblings and one of his grandfathers.

“It was so small you had to go outside to change your mind,” he quips.

Bergevin made enough money as a player – and earns enough now as a GM – to live in a fancier part of town, but he chose to come back to the old neighbourhood.

“I’m comfortable here, I’m close to my roots,” he says.

Familiarity, it turns out, is a major theme in his life.

Consider that he remains fast friends with Lemieux and Daigneault, both of whom grew up in the next parish over (the trio met when they were in grade school).

He also employs Clément Jodoin, his former midget AAA coach, and Therrien, who once lived with the same billet family in Chicoutimi (he was traded just as Bergevin arrived with the QMJHL’s Saguenéens in 1982). Dudley was his boss in Chicago, he played with Canadiens’ front-office types such as Scott Mellanby, Martin Lapointe and Rob Ramage, as well as with several of the club’s scouts. Not all the people in front office are close friends, but all are well known to him. One of his minor coups was hiring goalie coach Stéphane Waite away from the Blackhawks (his arrival coincided with goalie Carey Price’s emergence as perhaps the league’s best netminder).

Another thing you learn quickly about Marc Bergevin: He attends carefully to his relationships.

“He stays in touch,” says Ron Stevenson, an octogenarian ex-cop who coached Bergevin, Lemieux and Daigneault with the now-defunct Ville-Émard Hurricanes, a powerhouse pee-wee AA club, in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Hurricanes were a tightly-run ship: Players wore their Sunday best to games (that’s not where Bergevin’s love of finery started; he says it came later, in Chicoutimi), and leaving a piece of equipment behind resulted in having to write out, “I will not forget my elbow pad at practice again” a couple of hundred times.

Bergevin recalls the period fondly. Stevenson and his wife were his guests at the Habs’ first home playoff game under his tenure.

“Marc was just a nice kid, a very respectful kid … not really exceptional in any way, but I will say he had a lot of guts. He would play hurt even then. Well, most of the time,” says Stevenson with a laugh, relating an amusing anecdote about the day Bergevin needed a painkilling injection in a sore elbow at a tournament and vanished when the doctor left to fetch the needle and syringe.

Those established ties also explain the fabled Bergevin network, a tight web of connections. The hockey world is small, so everyone has contacts, but even by that standard, Bergevin’s Rolodex is impressive.

In two decades as an NHL player, Bergevin was a member of eight teams and shared a dressing room with just under 450 players, running the gamut from Atcheynum to Zalapski. He played with five of the six Sutter brothers and a Gretzky (Brent, not Wayne).

His former teammates are prominent in broadcasting (Ray Ferraro, Darren Pang), the player-agent world (Igor Larionov) and in coaching (Jack Capuano, Todd Richards and Gallant, among others). Several are in the Hall of Fame (Lemieux is at the head of the class).

As well, Bergevin played with at least nine current NHL general managers and three team presidents. He also played for and worked with a handful of other senior executives (including Tallon, his mentor in management, and Calgary’s Brian Burke).

“I don’t think there’s a rink I can go to where I don’t know anyone,” Bergevin says.

Ex-teammates are not automatically bosom pals, but Bergevin is at least acquainted with all the league’s power brokers. “He knows everybody, he’s like the mayor of the league,” says an official with a rival Eastern Conference team who isn’t authorized to speak publicly.

NHL executives will typically do most of their business with the half-dozen other managers they know best in the league. Bergevin is among a smaller number who keep regular contact with basically every team. Player agent Pat Brisson, an omnipresent figure in NHL backrooms, says Bergevin’s social skills are his principal edge.

“He understands people, he can find the deal points … and he’s plugged in at all levels of the game,” says Brisson, a close friend who met Bergevin the day they were both drafted in the QMJHL. “He’s good at studying people – it’s not a strategy or anything like that, it’s just how he is.”

Bergevin’s marquee trade as GM – acquiring coveted sniper Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline last season for a jaw-droppingly reasonable price – was done with Garth Snow, his former teammate in Pittsburgh. A few weeks later, he sealed the deal to sign 22-year-old Czech free agent Jiri Sekac, snapping him up despite the interest of more than a dozen other teams.

He has made some less-ballyhooed acquisitions that have nonetheless paid handsome dividends, such as defenceman Mike Weaver and winger Dale Weise. He has also found takers for declining veterans with onerous contracts, such as Erik Cole, Josh Gorges, Travis Moen and, most recently, Rene Bourque.

This past week, he flipped Sekac, who wasn’t a seamless fit in Montreal, to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Devante Smith-Pelly, a 22-year-old human bowling ball who is well-suited to playoff hockey. There had been rumblings of Sekac’s availability – his being a healthy scratch was an obvious tip-off – but as usual nobody saw the transaction with Anaheim coming.

Bergevin even managed to get ahead of the market – only suckers pay retail on deadline day.

Bergevin’s not perfect. He can be detail-oriented to a fault, and has been known to occasionally keep a very tight grip on the tiller. Not every move has paid off and, as he says, “nobody bats a thousand.” The four-year contract extension to defenceman Alexei Emelin, that pays him $4.1-million (U.S.) a year, is starting to look a little too rich. Free-agent signings such as Douglas Murray and Daniel Brière didn’t work out; neither did minor trades for defenceman Davis Drewiske and tough guy George Parros.

The jury is still out on last summer’s key signing, defenceman Tom Gilbert (who has a year left at $2.8-million and has been playing third-pairing minutes with Emelin), and Bergevin doubtless would have preferred to spend a little less money on P.K. Subban’s contract extension.

But in the aggregate, he has retained several core players at reasonable expense – the long-term deals for Price, Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty (a bargain so outrageous it prompted the Connecticut native to switch agents). He has managed the salary cap deftly, and trusted his scouting staff to pile up young talent.

Bergevin is fond of saying his team is a club in transition, but the fact is that with Price in net, Subban anchoring the blue line and Pacioretty scoring 40ish goals a year, the Habs’ Stanley Cup window is easing open. Youngsters Alex Galchenyuk – Bergevin’s next big contract challenge – and Nathan Beaulieu are emerging, and there are enticing prospects in the pipeline (Nikita Scherbak, Michael McCarron and Charles Hudon).

So Bergevin has trade bait if he feels the itch to swing for the fences and acquire a couple of big-ticket players at the trading deadline at prohibitive cost (the Vanek experience was instructive).

“There are never any guarantees … you can’t target one or two players and say ,‘Aha, they’re going to get us over the hump.’ There are seven or eight teams that have a serious shot this year,” he says, noting that a bad early round match-up can derail even the most carefully laid plans.

That said, “if you have a good goalie, you have a chance,” he says. “So you take [the risk], within reason. If over the course of 10 years you make the playoffs eight times, well that’s eight chances. If you go for it all after three years and it doesn’t work, you pay the price for the next four years.”

That’s not a scenario that interests Bergevin. He has a plan, and that plan is plainly to make the Canadiens a perennial contender. The team has become bigger, faster and younger under his stewardship, and he has shown the ability to adapt and to change his mind (exhibit A: the decisions to jettison Murray and Parros). “You have to stick with the plan, sure, but also you have to adjust,” he says. “If you’re on the highway and you see an accident up ahead, you get off and take an alternative route. You can’t be stubborn – this, and only this – but you can’t be swerving all over the road. You have to keep an open mind.”

You also have to maintain your humanity.

Bergevin hasn’t shied from making unpopular decisions (cutting veteran defenceman Francis Bouillon loose after training camp, trading fan-favourite Brière), and unsentimental ones (putting Allen, his former teammate, on waivers and sending him to the AHL).

“At the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for the Canadiens. If I can help you without hurting the team, I will,” he says. “I would hate for it to ever become easy to make those decisions. At the same time, I’d make all of them again.”

This is a man who knows what it feels like to be benched, banished to the minors and traded for a tub of Icy Hot. He also knows what it’s like to win a gold medal in a Team Canada jersey, which he did at the 1994 World Championships.

Asked whether it’s more difficult to make a personnel decision than to suffer the consequences of one, Bergevin pauses. Then he launches into a story: “I’m in St. Louis and, in training camp, I get into a fight protecting a player named Scott Young. Broken thumb, pin, I think I was out for eight weeks. I was a regular, but they put this kid in the lineup, Bryce Salvador. When I’m ready to come back, the team is something like 25-6, Bryce is young, he’s good, I’m maybe 36 years old.

“I was doing the job, but it is what it is,” he says. “So I wait, I don’t know, 10, 12, 15 games, and then I decide to go see the GM. I told him, ‘Trade me or play me,’ and he said, ‘For the Blues, the best thing is to keep you, we’re going to need you.’ And I got pretty mad. I said ‘You’re selfish.’ If I don’t play, I won’t have a job next year. I left, and that afternoon I got traded. He said, ‘I’ve got nothing for you, but I owe it to you.’ That was hard. Today I understand the situation way better.”

His eyes get misty as he concludes the story. Separately, Brisson offered a complement to the tale, saying Blues GM Larry Pleau apparently cried on the day he traded Bergevin.

One suspects Bergevin, who can be stoic and even combative in news conference situations, is a man who works hard to contain his emotions.

He has embraced the NHL’s analytics revolution after a fashion (the club has a small contingent of number-crunchers), but he is also a firm adherent of the “character” school. That’s partly why he was willing to overhaul a lineup that fell two wins short of a Stanley Cup final berth last spring (10 players from that team, including Vanek and captain Brian Gionta, are now gone).

Asked how he defines character, Bergevin considers for a moment. “Competitiveness is important,” he says. “I also saw this saying: ‘If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If it’s not, you’ll find an excuse.’ I don’t want people who make excuses. Be part of the solution.”

It’s an approach Bergevin says was inculcated by the main influences in his early years: Stevenson (“he gave me structure”), his father (“he was a firefighter for 30 years, never missed a day, never showed up late”) and several of his rookie-year teammates (Bob Murray, Darryl Sutter and Steve Larmer).

Murray was his first defence partner and instilled professionalism. “He was pretty grumpy,” Bergevin says with a laugh. Larmer demonstrated you can be all business and still have fun.

Sutter, who has coached the L.A. Kings to two Stanley Cups in the past three years, showed him what a competitor looked like.

“I’ll tell you a story,” Bergevin begins. “I’m 19 years old, we’re playing in Calgary, and we were up late in the game, I want to say by five goals. At a faceoff, a guy from our team makes a little joke and I smiled and laughed. I got back to the bench and [Sutter] just reamed me out. There’s four minutes left, we’re winning 7-2 or something, and he’s like, ‘I never want to see a smile on your face until after the final whistle ever again.’ It got my attention. I told him that last year.”

It’s a nice yarn, and Bergevin is good at telling it.

This is no accident.

“Stories help you make a connection with people … My Uncle Ben, he’s dead now, he always told me stories. My dad too,” he recalls. “He was an intelligent man, he knew history, I think he also read the [dictionary] from cover to cover, never saw a crossword puzzle he couldn’t finish.”

When Bergevin left the Saguenay for the NHL, he spoke only basic English. When he came home 29 years later, he surprised himself with his poor command of French. Sitting in his new office after his introductory press conference on May 2, 2012, he thought, “My god, that was pathetic.”

“I was embarrassed by the quality of my French,” he says. “But I’m way better now.”

It’s a surprisingly candid admission from a public figure. Bergevin is recognized everywhere he goes here and is referenced more times in the local media than the Premier.

Then again, Bergevin intuitively understands his hometown market, and he’s immersed in it in a different way than his immediate predecessors (Pierre Gauthier often commuted from Vermont for family reasons; Bob Gainey was a beloved franchise icon, but often gravitated to anglophone circles). Bergevin’s proximity to the everyday fan may be an underrated strength. So is the fact he is perfectly content to stay out of the spotlight.

“He doesn’t need to be the centre of attention,” says Brisson, “but he can become it pretty much whenever he wants.”

It happens through humour, Brisson adds, and because of Bergevin’s ability to relate to others. Those who know him best tell tales of the unlikely verbal gymnastics, mostly intentional malapropisms and neologisms – in both official languages – that highlight the unique and ever-expanding Bergevin-ese dialect.

“A few years back, he was here [in Los Angeles] scouting [Kings centre] Anze Kopitar, who was in his first or second year,” recalls Brisson, “and he said to me, ‘Yeah, I really like that Coppertone guy, hell of a player.’”

You get the picture. Cellular phones become cellulite phones, nicknames take on qualifiers – thusly ‘Berge,’ as Bergevin is known to intimates, becomes ‘Road-Berge’ when travelling.

“I’m not doing it justice,” Brisson says. “He’s way funnier than I’m making it sound. He could be a comedian … he could be a lot of things if he wanted.”

That’s doubtless true, but Bergevin’s passion is for hockey. He still plays; in fact, one of his friends is gathering many of their childhood and junior teammates for an old boys’ night at the Bell Centre next month. On a recent Sunday, he grabbed his skates and stick – brand new gear, perks of being the GM – and wandered over to the outdoor rink at Parc Vinet in Montreal’s St-Henri neighbourhood.

As the kids and adults on the ice looked up in surprise (and, one suspects, awe), he joined the game. “It was,” he says, “just about perfect.”

He understands the Habs job won’t be his forever.

“My tombstone isn’t going to say ‘Marc Bergevin, general manager of the Canadiens.’ It’s going to say Marc Bergevin, father to Wes, Rhett and Elle,” he says.

In the meantime, the Bergevin style will continue to be refined. This will happen because of a simple truth: For the kid from Pointe-Saint.-Charles, the game is its own reward.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Larry Pleau is the late GM of the St. Louis Blues. This version has been updated.

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