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Jean Beliveau, left, and J. David Molson, right. (Photos courtesy of Club de hockey Canadien inc.)
Jean Beliveau, left, and J. David Molson, right. (Photos courtesy of Club de hockey Canadien inc.)

OBITUARY

Former Habs owner John David Molson had a passion for hockey Add to ...

John David Molson was happy on ice. As an adult, as a husband and father, as a scion of the brewery family and as owner – with his two brothers – of the Montreal Canadiens, you could often find him at midnight in the Verdun Auditorium, a lone figure illuminated by the lights, skating up and down the length of the rink, fast, faster, his hockey stick arcing behind him as he practised shooting into an empty net.

At university in Brussels, he played for the Belgian national team – a prolific scorer who became known in the country as the player with “blond hair that flows like Canadian wheat.” And in 1955, driving back to Montreal from his honeymoon in Saint-Sauveur, 60 kilometres north of the city, he told his new wife, Claire Faulkner Molson, that he had to make a pit stop along the way in the town of Saint-Jérôme to play in a hockey match.

“This was long before the days of helmets, masks and mouth guards and he was struck across the bridge of his nose by a hockey puck and ended up being rushed to Montreal General Hospital,” Mrs. Molson said. “I never did get to be carried across the threshold of our new home.”

Mr. Molson, who was known as David, died in Montreal on May 8 of congestive heart failure. He was 88 years old, a quiet, generous man who hated the limelight and, despite his father’s disapproval, turned a passion into his business. It was under him that the Canadiens won five Stanley Cups, and he was one of the forces behind the National Hockey League’s first expansion in the 1967-68 season from the original six teams to 12.

“It was a tough, exacting job,” said Marc Cloutier, who did public relations for the Canadiens and helped Mr. Molson with promotions. “Having to choose which teams would fit, where to build new audiences or take advantage of an audience that was already there, which teams would get which players – the answers weren’t obvious.”

John David Molson was born on June 1, 1928, the third of John Henry Molson and the former Florence Hazel Browne’s four children. His father, who served in both world wars and worked in the family’s Molson Brewery business, loved his offspring but expected them to conform to the codes of the day. They were to be seen and not heard, always be respectful to their elders and attend church on Sundays. It was a rigid world where you acted out of duty, no matter if you wanted to or not.

There were strict bed times and there was afternoon tea. His mother once told his wife, Claire, about the time David was four years old and burst into tears at a birthday party.

“He wanted to be at home for teatime,” the older woman said.

There were tennis lessons, football and soccer games, and yachting in an oft-leaky boat called the Heather. In wintertime, there was an ice rink in the family’s expansive back yard in tony Westmount, complete with boards, lights and metal posts. It was here that young David began to skate at the age of 3, learning to fall, get up and do it all over again.

When his parents finally moved from his childhood home, he transported that rink, piece by piece, to his own back garden in Baie d’Urfé, in Montreal’s West Island. Each year, as soon as the weather got cold, he could be found outside at night in a winter jacket and snow boots, carefully tramping the snow and sprinkling water on it so it would freeze evenly.

As a teen, David played with the Montreal Royals, which was part of the Quebec Junior Hockey League, mostly on the left wing but sometimes subbing as a centre. Scotty Bowman, who would go on to coach the Canadiens, recalls that he was quick, competent and calm.

“He played as he was in real life,” Mr. Bowman said. “He was reserved but gave it his all.”

His elementary and high-school years were spent at Lower Canada College in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. Now co-ed, at the time it was a boys-only institution modelled after British public schools such as Eton and Harrow, a place that emphasized academics and sports and counted among its graduates university presidents, politicians, world-renowned scientists and pioneers in medicine, the military, business and the arts.

After LCC, at the behest of his father, Mr. Molson attended the Université libre de Bruxelles, in Belgium, for a year to learn French and groom himself for an entry into the family’s brewery business, which he did in 1949 at the age of 21. He got to know the business from the ground up, starting on the trucks that delivered the product and making friends with the other drivers and supply room workers who would go on to join his industrial hockey league team and play against teams from other major companies.

Soon, he was promoted upstairs, but chafed at having to work in an office. While other executives met for long business lunches, he went and played tennis instead. And it was at Montreal’s Hillside Tennis Club that he caught sight of a tall, blond woman in 1955 and expressed an interest in meeting her.

“That’s Claire Faulkner,” he was told. “Don’t bother. She’s already engaged to someone else.”

Undeterred, he still managed to wangle an introduction. After a few minutes of polite chitchat, he abruptly asked: “Want to come see my yacht?” He didn’t say that he’d bought it from his father for $1 or that it needed lots of repairs.

She did, and they were married a few months later.

“From the get-go, David was so easy to be with,” Mrs. Molson said. “We just enjoyed each other.”

The couple shared a love of water, over the years sailing to places such as the Bahamas and exploring the Mackenzie River, the largest and longest river system in Canada. Once, while coming back from an outing on the St. Lawrence Seaway, Mr. Molson, at the suggestion of his wife, honked as he came into the locks, a salute to the people gathered there to watch the boats coming in.

“To his horror, the horn wouldn’t stop,” Mrs. Molson recalled. “Here was a man who hated the limelight and the horn was blaring away. He took a hammer to it once and it stopped, then again to be sure – and it started up again.”

In 1957, Mr. Molson’s older cousins, senator Hartland Molson and Thomas Molson, bought the Canadian Arena Company and its holdings, which included the Club de Hockey Canadien. Just before the start of the 1963-64 season, they asked the younger man to take over leadership of the company, an opportunity he jumped at, despite his father declaring that he’d never known anyone to make work out of what was supposed to be a hobby.

Mr. Molson and his two brothers, William and Peter Molson, soon bought the Canadian Arena Co. from their older relatives for $5-million. Under his leadership over the next seven years, the Montreal Forum was rebuilt and the Canadiens won five Stanley Cups, including a nail-biter on May 11, 1968, when the team, coached by the legendary Toe Blake, came from behind in the final minutes of the third period with goals by Henri Richard and Jean-Claude Tremblay to beat the St. Louis Blues, 3-2.

“He was a delegator,” said Mr. Bowman, who was the coach of that St. Louis team and would come back to coach the Canadiens in the summer of 1971. “He knew the game, understood it intimately and he trusted the people he had around him.”

On Dec. 30, 1971, the brothers arranged to sell the company and the hockey club to Placements Rondelle Ltée, whose main shareholders were Peter and Edward Bronfman, for about $15-million. The team would win one more Stanley Cup with Mr. Molson at the helm – another dramatic Game 7 victory, this time against the Chicago Black Hawks.

Mr. Molson never really spoke about why he sold the team, but his wife said the political climate in the wake of the October Crisis in 1970 didn’t help. The couple went to every home game, leaving their three children in Baie d’Urfé with a nanny – and when the police informed them that there had been a bomb threat, that was it.

“It was unnerving to know that anyone watching TV could see that we were at a game and not at home,” Mrs. Molson said. “Someone who shall remain nameless said ‘David, you need a gun in your house’ and he gave one to us, along with the shells, instructing us to put it under the bed. Can you imagine?

“You’re never left alone. You never have any private time,” she continued. “People had our phone number and address. We used to get calls at 11:30 at night. Constantly being in the public eye was affecting our health and with a family and a long future together, we just couldn’t manage it any more.”

Following the sale of the team, Mr. Molson bought Continental Galleries in downtown Montreal; he and his wife, an artist, dealt mostly in Canadian art. It closed its doors for the final time on October 1, 1990.

Mr. Molson died at 12:06 a.m. after days of torrential rains. When his daughter took his hand, she remarked how warm it was.

“I told her to open the window so his soul could fly out,” Mrs. Molson said. “She did, and there was a difference in the room. After all the rain we had, the moon suddenly came out and it was so nice.”

Along with his wife, Mr. Molson leaves his younger brother, Peter Molson; his children, John Henry, Catherine Elizabeth and David Hugh Molson; and seven grandchildren.

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