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Stephen Brunt

Molson family rekindles love affair with Canadiens Add to ...

As a kid, Geoff Molson lived a block from the Forum. He played hockey on a nearby outdoor rink, and in a basement converted by his parents to withstand whatever beating three boys with sticks and pucks could muster. And he watched the sport intently, when the home team was the best team in the world.

On game nights, as the Canadiens emerged from their dressing room and made a left turn to head for the ice, Molson stood there and became part of the ritual, tapped by the stick of Mario Tremblay, patted on the head by his idol, Steve Shutt. The family's seats were right behind the home bench, then unprotected by glass, oh so close to the action. Molson remembers especially a famous bench-clearing brawl against the hated Quebec Nordiques.

"Everyone else was on the ice beating the crap out of each other," he says, "and I wound up sitting on the bench. It was so cool."

Forget about Boy at Leafs Camp. How about Boy (or at least his family) Owns Habs Camp - and Habs Everything Else.

And now he, and they, are back. On Dec. 1, the three brothers from the seventh generation of Molsons (Andrew and Justin are the others), in partnership with a number of mostly local interests, officially took over full ownership of the Canadiens from the man the family company sold the team to in 2001, George Gillett.

Those were very different times for the city, the franchise and the league. When Gillett bought the club, he was the only potential suitor for what seemed a distressed business. The Habs weren't filling the Bell Centre, the Canadian dollar was low, there were experts confidently predicting that every NHL franchise in this country other than the Toronto Maple Leafs was facing extinction.

The Molsons, who had controlled the team in one configuration or another since 1957 - but for the period of Bronfman ownership between 1971 and 1978 - wanted out, wanted to concentrate on their core business, which was selling beer. Thus an outsider, a unilingual American, secured the team almost by default, with the brewery retaining a 19.9-per-cent share.

By the time Gillett officially put the team on the block last March, the landscape had changed dramatically. Hockey was booming in Montreal (and everywhere else in Canada). The Bell Centre and the entertainment business attached to it had become enormously successful, and the Yankee owner had been embraced by the city almost as one of its own.

There would be a vigorous auction this time, with multiple bidders. When Gillett phoned his minority partners to inform them that the team was available, their initial posture was to sit back and watch, and wait, and learn and think about it.

"My father [Eric]advised me to tread water, go slowly, figure it out," Geoff Molson says. "I treaded water, but by the time I got on the plane to Vegas, I was ready to start swimming."

That was in May, a flight with a buddy to a bachelor party, during which they sketched out the details of a possible partnership structure on a napkin that Molson has kept as a souvenir. Two weeks later, the younger Molsons went public with their intention to bid for the franchise, and were immediately greeted with an outpouring of public support. The possibility of returning the Habs to local hands, and to those attached to the team's glorious past, seemed to strike a chord.

"Our family understands the responsibility of owning this team," Molson says. "We have generations of experience of understanding what this is all about. We have that in our genes now. We understand what the fans appreciate. We understand how the team needs to be owned. And we have respect for that.

"The team is really important to Quebec. This wind in the sails that came our way was from Quebec because people are so passionate about their team. One reason they liked us as a family was because so are we. We are very much Montrealers and Quebecers and Canadians. We've been in Montreal for 224 years."

Not that any of that gave them a true inside track. By the time the auction reached its climax, there were others in the running (Molson says he doesn't know for sure how many, but believes at least two, and possibly three). He had to travel to Washington that afternoon for a wedding - the same one that inspired the bachelor party - and got on the plane believing that their final offer had come up short.

But that night, during the rehearsal dinner, he began to receive e-mails from friends back home, telling him that the word was beginning to filter out that they had the team. Official confirmation didn't come until a 2 a.m. telephone call.

"It was a real shock to me," he says.

One of the responsibilities that Molson has accepted along with his duties as general partner is to act as the public face of ownership. That goes against the grain for a family that had traditionally tried to make the papers only in times of birth, marriage and death.

"You could get away with it back then," he says. "You could hide back then. … Now I think there's value in me playing a role in marketing the product."

That may be especially true because he is of the place, because he is fluently bilingual (having been educated in French schools), and because like so many in Montreal, he remains a besotted fan, complete with his own set of game-watching rituals - refusing to look at the visiting team when the American anthem is played, doing the opposite with the home team when he hears O Canada, clapping in specific ways at specific times, feeling particularly secure any time he sees the number 22 - Shutt's number - keeping a collection of Shutt hockey cards, and Chris Chelios hockey cards (his second favourite: "He hit hard, he was dirty and he scored goals. He was a great hockey player") on his office desk.

Expanding the larger business of the Canadiens is a long-term proposition, especially given the fact that Gillett did so much to max out its potential. But what Molson understands, listening to the fans who now greet him on the street, who thank him, who occasionally ask for an autograph - and especially as a fan himself - is that he also has to embrace a goal beyond the bottom line, trying to accomplish what Gillett, despite all of his best efforts, could not.

"I'm going to bring what I can bring to the table but you still have to win," he says. "It's important to win. If I can bring [back]a culture of winning … it's sort of indescribable. There were times when I would walk into the Forum and you could practically smell it in the air and you knew they were going to win. You'd look at the security guards, you'd look at the trainers, you'd see the players and you just sort of knew. You just knew. I'm looking forward to having that feeling again. It was powerful."

 

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