One recurring image defined last year’s hockey playoffs – Marc Bergevin, dressed in his lucky red suit like a bodybuilding Santa Claus, bopping around the press box as the mask slid off his magnificent beak of a nose.
The Montreal Canadiens general manager became a visual metaphor for how it’s possible to change your fortunes in the NHL. One day, you’re a muppet who’s ruining the most storied franchise in the sport. The next day, you’re a genius who rope-a-doped the whole league.
Even if you don’t like the Habs (and if you have never lived within the city limits of Montreal, you have no excuse to do so), it was hard not to jump on that ride to the Stanley Cup final.
But the problem with winning when you shouldn’t is that it tends to throw the return to reality into sharper relief.
Since that final, the Canadiens have been doing one of those Marx Brothers pratfalls down an endless stairwell. Every time you think they’ve hit the bottom, you realize there’s still another flight to go.
On Sunday, the whole mess landed on Bergevin. He and a couple of his capos got the chop. Even the comms guy caught it in the neck.
Like most coups, it gets a little hard to follow unless you’re paying close attention. The Canadiens’ press release announcing Bergevin’s departure focused on the search for a new GM.
You had to get a couple of paragraphs further down before you realized that former New York Rangers boss Jeff Gorton has been hired as the head of hockey ops to “assure continuity” in the interim.
Montreal isn’t hiring a replacement for Bergevin. Gorton’s the replacement. Unfortunately, he is also an American.
What the Canadiens are looking for is an assistant to Gorton who understands French and will agree to speak French to all the French-speaking people who cover the team. (Knowing something about hockey would be great, but may not be mandatory depending on exactly how French you are.)
Does that sound like a great idea to you? See. If only you owned Molson’s.
Something as good as the Canadiens’ playoff run doesn’t become something this bad overnight. It takes a village of dumb moves and terrible luck.
It’s hard to pick out the worst of the early warning signs that 2021-22 was going to be Montreal’s ‘through a glass darkly’ version of 2020-21.
Was it veteran defenceman’s Shea Weber’s career-threatening injury? Goaltender Carey Price’s leave of absence? Losing playoff hero and restricted free-agent Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the Carolina Hurricanes? (Worse than losing the young Finn was being mocked by the Hurricanes about it afterward – a cat-who-would-look-at-a-king situation if ever there was one.)
Or was it the Canadiens cashing in all the good will they’d earned by drafting a guy who’d been rung up on a misdemeanour sex charge? This despite the fact the pick, Logan Mailloux, tried to remove himself from the draft before anyone could take him.
Yeah, it was probably the last thing.
A few months later, Bergevin was forced to juke and jive his way out of the Chicago Blackhawks sex scandal. He’d been a member of Chicago’s executive at the time the Kyle Beach scandal went down in 2010.
Robbed of three major talents and carrying the baggage of being a pariah franchise (until Chicago relieved Montreal of that burden), the Canadiens fell face first into the season.
It’s hard not to see this connecting in some way to last week’s decision by Quebec Premier François Legault to strike a committee whose job will be to find ways to resuscitate elite hockey in the province. If your most elite team is getting kicked around most nights, it doesn’t exactly work wonders for national morale.
Though not yet declared dead, the management corpse began twitching on Saturday. Out of nowhere, Bergevin’s long-time consigliere, Scott Mellanby, quit. One can surmise the butterfly effect at work here.
If Bergevin had decided not to return to the Canadiens this year, that would have put Mellanby in position to take over his job. That might have persuaded Mellanby to pass on interviewing for GM jobs elsewhere.
Then the Canadiens went on their unlikely run at the Cup.
That might have led to everyone looking foolish once Bergevin decided to stay. Which would look even more foolish when the wheels started coming off l’autobus.
A sudden reversal of hockey fortune might nudge Montreal ownership to start looking around for someone to replace and/or ride herd over Bergevin. Say, a director of hockey ops. Say, someone who looks more like Jeff Gorton than Scott Mellanby. Which in turn might lead to Mellanby quitting in a huff.
All that we know for sure is that Montreal’s leadership was fatally compromised on Saturday by Mellanby’s departure. The Canadiens’ proposed fixes for a problem that was not yet official had already started leaking all over the internet. By Sunday, starting over must have seemed as though it were the only option.
If the Canadiens were steady losers who hadn’t made a surprise final, this changeover could have happened in orderly fashion. If the team’s crap and has always been crap, who cares? It can be crap for a while longer.
Now the succession is moving like an out-of-control satellite. What masochist would want Bergevin’s old job, knowing the guy it may have been promised to chose to run himself out of town rather than stay and put up with any more of this nonsense?
The longer it takes to find a new GM, the longer Montrealers get to cogitate the fact that their team is being run by a guy from Massachusetts.
Stanley Cup finalists four months ago, the Canadiens are currently one bad week from being dead last in the NHL. More important, they don’t look as though they’re going to be much better any time soon.
But as bad as things were, they are worse now.
While losing is the proximate cause of all these problems, unexpected winning created a situation where losing (which the Bergevin and the Canadiens had been doing for years) could cause such panic.
That would make Montreal the victims of Newtonian physics – because for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.