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Geoff Molson is the last member of his clan at the 224-year-old family brewery. (Sylvain Dumais)
Geoff Molson is the last member of his clan at the 224-year-old family brewery. (Sylvain Dumais)

ROB Magazine

Can Geoff Molson save the Montreal Canadiens? Add to ...

It's shortly after 8:30 a.m., and the chairman of the company is rummaging through his desk in search of a personal talisman.

"My kids raid my drawers all the time," Geoff Molson says as he searches. "I've got Matt Duchene, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby." He flips through several more laminated cards before his face lights up. "Ah. There's [Chris] Chelios, Kirk Muller. Steve Shutt, look at that! Classic."

These hockey cards are the sort of memento many a middle-aged jock might keep at hand. But Molson's connection to these Habs of yore has a unique resonance: When he was a kid, his hero Shutt would playfully tap him with his stick on the way from the dressing room to the ice at the Montreal Forum.

That's the sort of thing that happens when you belong to a family that is as close to the Montreal Canadiens as...well, as close as beer is to hockey. Geoff Molson has the singular distinction of being both the last member of his clan to have an operating role in the eponymous brewery and the central player in the family's decision to renew its ownership of Les Glorieux.

In a town with lots of old money, the Molsons' is perhaps the oldest: John Molson founded the family business in 1786. (His descendants' net worth has been estimated at $500 million.) But in spending roughly $575 million to acquire the hockey club, its arena and a concert promotion business last year-more than twice what Molson Inc. got in 2001 for 80.1% of the team-Geoff Molson and his two brothers seemingly engaged in a very un-old money thing: Sell low, buy high.

What's more, the fabled Canadiens are in the longest championship drought in franchise history. One can't help but ask: Is this just another case of the sports business attracting owners that have more money than sense?

Part of the comeback to that question is that the Molson brothers take the long view. The family, while it made its name as one of Canada's biggest brewers of beer, also seems destined to own the Canadiens. This is no less than the fourth time an arm of the Molson dynasty has controlled the team.

The first Molson to run the Canadiens was Hartland, who bought the team in 1957 in partnership with his brother Tom, grandfather to the newest crop of owners. That year, the Canadiens were fresh from a Stanley Cup conquest, their ninth. Seven years later, the Molson brothers sold the team to their cousins David, William and Peter for a knock-down price of $5 million to keep it in the family. The trio in turn sold it to a syndicate of owners led by Peter and Edward Bronfman in 1971, tripling their money-a move that didn't exactly foster familial harmony.

The brewery, prodded by a deeply unimpressed Hartland Molson, bought the team-by then the finest squad ever to glide on an NHL rink-back from the syndicate seven years and four Cups later.

Family squabbles notwithstanding, 11 of the Canadiens' 24 Stanley Cups were won under Molson ownership. But the clan has also seen the team's glory fade. The seven seasons between the Canadiens' last Stanley Cup in 1993 and the brewery's decision to unload all but a 19.9% stake in the team in 2000 were among the leanest in franchise history. The Habs had missed the playoffs for two straight years-an unimaginable heresy for the league's oldest, winning-est team, and the first time it had happened since the early 1920s. The brewery had bigger things-that is, the global consolidation of its core business-on its mind than a sentimental sideline that had lost its sheen.

The young Geoff Molson and his brothers could only dream, at this point, of mounting a bid to buy the team. "I was too young to know how to do it," Molson says. "As a family we were much more focused on being a global beer company at that period of our history."

In the end, Colorado-based leverage artist George Gillett Jr. stepped up. It was the first time the Habs hadn't been owned by Canadians, or indeed, Montrealers-prompting gloomy reactions from pundits dismayed by the paucity of homegrown interest. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Rex Murphy groused that the sale was "more than melancholy. We really shouldn't have a trade in the limited store of our national symbols."

Geoff Molson and his brothers-members of the seventh generation of the family in business in Canada-literally grew up with the Canadiens. Their house was around the corner from the old Forum.

Eric and Jane Molson decided early on that the best way to contain their three boys was to put scuff-proof panels on the walls of their basement, place wire cages over the lights and condemn the area for all pursuits other than hockey.

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