The most encouraging moment had no words – and no need of them.
Geoff Molson, the principal owner of the Montreal Canadiens, was taking the very first question on his fabled hockey club's hiring of Marc Bergevin as its 17th general manager. Molson, looking as serious as this appointment to the province's highest and most public office requires, was deep into his explanation as to why Marc Bergevin when the new GM suddenly looked to his right and winked.
It's time to smile again in Montreal. Yes, Les Glorieux have not seen much glory since 1993, the last time any Canadian team had a Stanley Cup parade, and yes, this year's team may have been worst ever in finishing 15th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, and yes again, there was all the ugliness this past season over language and cold-hearted firings and ridiculous trades, and yes, yes, yes, there is still that matter of Scott Gomez and the worst contract in hockey history. ...
But hockey is supposed to be about fun. And in Montreal, a city that had two of its greatest hockey heroes – Howie Morenz and Rocket Richard – lie in state at centre ice while weeping fans filed by in such numbers they could have filled a half dozen NHL rinks, hockey is supposed to be about celebrating greatness. Richard, Béliveau, Lafleur, Savard, Roy. ... 15 retired numbers, 24 Stanley Cups. ...
But not much to cheer about lately – at least not until Wednesday at 2 p.m., when a 46-year-old man who looks vaguely like Mr. Spock was introduced to the Montreal media.
Bergevin, who takes over the most-watched job in hockey, has never been a general manager. The 20-year NHL veteran of eight different teams, has served as a scout, an assistant coach and, most recently, as assistant GM to Stan Bowman with the Chicago Blackhawks.
He is far better known for his pranks than his playing – stuffing cutlery into friends' coats if they go to a restaurant washroom, shaving cream and cut laces in the dressing room – and the one magnificent highlight he left hockey is him catching a puck and then tossing it into his own net while playing defence for the St. Louis Blues.
But he is said to be a quick study and learned under the guidance of three shining lights in hockey management: Dale Tallon and the Bowmans, Scotty and son Stan. He was Chicago's director of player personnel when the Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010. He is, by his own measure, a "people person" – as well fluently bilingual, having grown up in Montreal.
And this is where the smiling began Wednesday at the Canadiens practice facility in Brossard. Molson opened up with a long opening statement in French – no one missing his point. It was Molson who was forced to apologize to outraged fans after former GM Pierre Gauthier fired head coach Jacques Martin and replaced him with assistant coach, Randy Cunneyworth, a very good man who unfortunately speaks no French.
(Bergevin's first move Wednesday was to call Cunneyworth, tell him what he already knew – he's out as head coach – but is welcome to stay as an assistant until a new head coach can decide staffing.)
Gauthier's misread of the fan base was but one stumble in a staggering year: firing assistant coach Perry Pearn on the day of a game, firing Martin, trading playoff hero Mike Cammalleri in the middle of a game, making trades that never worked out.
Gauthier picked up the nickname Ghost while in Ottawa, was never a media favourite and did not waste time courting favour. Bergevin has been a media delight since his playing days. The smiling, winking man who wears his heart on his sleeve is replacing a man who many believe kept his in a safety deposit box.
The style change is instantly welcome. Day 2 begins the hard work. There are contracts required for two keepers – goaltender Carey Price, defenceman P.K. Subban – and the Gomez contract to decide. With a salary hit of $7.357-million a year and four years to run, it may be wiser to send the underperforming centre to the minors and simply eat the miserable deal.
"I know I'm ready," Bergevin told the packed gathering.
And this time, he did not wink.