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Habs deal makes hockey history Add to ...

While light-heavyweights Jean Pascal and Adrian Diaconu battered one another Friday night, Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett watched intently from ringside, his thoughts occupied by more than a title fight.

High above the ring, in the Bell Centre's seventh-floor executive suite, teams of lawyers and financial experts were working the fax machines and drawing up documents.

As Mr. Gillett and other senior Habs executives periodically came up from the boxing gala to check in, minions hammered out the details of an agreement in principle to sell the venerable hockey club, the rink and a concert promotion company to members of the Molson brewing clan.

Sources say when all is finalized, the deal will be worth at least $550-million (U.S.), making it the richest transaction in NHL history.

Mr. Gillett offered obfuscations and denials when asked by a journalist at the Pascal-Diaconu fight whether a sale was imminent - rumours had started leaking out during the undercard - but on another occasion, when La Presse columnist Réjean Tremblay pressed him about the machinations, he smiled cryptically and held out a plastic beer cup full of white wine as if to offer a celebratory sip.

Sources report the final handshake between Mr. Gillett and 38-year-old brewing executive Geoffrey E. Molson, leader of the family's bid, took place in the wee hours of Saturday at the Bell Centre. At least one other group who had hoped to hijack the deal with a late offer were told on Saturday morning they were too late.

And with that, Mr. Gillett made what he has described to intimates as a gut-wrenching decision: selling his 80.1-per-cent stake in a team he's fond of under circumstances that left him little choice.

"Our family has been very proud to be associated with the Montreal Canadiens over the past eight years, and particularly to be a part of their centennial season," Mr. Gillett said in a statement issued by the team.

"I am fully confident that the Molson brothers, who have been a great part of the heritage of the club, will ensure the preservation and development of this great sports institution."

He has said he would not comment further until the deal is finalized.

So it is that a third generation of Molsons, the dynastic Montreal family whose business roots in the city stretch back 223 years, will shortly assume control of the team.

In a centennial season that saw high drama both on and off the ice - players sent home, others linked with mob figures, lengthy losing streaks, perfunctory playoff elimination - this weekend represented a denouement to the sale speculation that for months has dogged the most successful franchise in pro hockey history.

It's expected the league's board of governors will rubber-stamp the sale after it closes, likely in August.

"I think, to the extent that they've been able to find people who are obviously passionate about the game and structure a transaction that makes sense for everybody, that's a real plus for the franchise and the fans in Montreal," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

The prospect of the team returning to local hands drew a positive reaction on Montreal's call-in shows and Canadiens fan sites.

Everyone from Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay to Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois heralded the deal.

Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said the provincial government is not part of the Molson bid, and that the $100-million he had been willing to advance to a local bidder would be available to the groups trying to attract an NHL team to Quebec City.

Former Canadiens captain Jean Béliveau said: "I'm extremely happy for the Molsons. ... This is seven generations of people who are generous in all spheres for Montreal and the province."

"This is a very exciting time for our family, and we are grateful to the many people and organizations who came forward to offer their collaboration in the development of our proposal," Geoffrey Molson, who sits on the Habs' board and is vice-president of marketing at Molson Canada, said in a statement.

Mr. Molson's grandfather, Thomas, bought the team along with his brother, Senator Hartland Molson, in 1957. Under the family's tutelage, the team won 14 of its 24 Stanley Cups.

The Molsons later sold to a group led by the Bronfman family in 1971, but the family brewery bought the team back seven years later and held on to it until 2001.

Business sources say the Molsons will borrow roughly $200-million of the purchase price. Their offer is supported by telecommunications company BCE and Thomson-Reuters chairman David Thomson.

Mr. Thomson has a minority stake in CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc., which includes The Globe and Mail and RDS, the French-language rights holder to Canadiens games, although it's not clear how much money each is investing.

The Fonds de solidarité FTQ, a $6-billion investment fund run by the province's largest labour federation, acknowledged yesterday that it is also involved.

It will be several weeks before the sale closes because of financial considerations and the NHL's due diligence. A spokesman for the Molsons said the family doesn't expect to take over until late August or early September.

With reports from Andrew Willis and Eric Duhatschek

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