Shopping around Les Glorieux

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National Post, Friday, March 27, 2009

The Montreal Canadiens may not be officially for sale yet, but they are in play and their cash-challenged owner, George Gillett, has hired investment advisors and invited prospective bidders to make him an offer he can't refuse.

Buyers beware. The Canadiens and the Bell Centre may be a profitable private business, but owning them is a public trust. It's not just about hockey, and how the Habs are doing -- lately not very well, struggling just to make the playoffs. Nor is it always about the bottom line -- the Canadiens may be a valuable brand, but they are a low-margin business. Owning the Canadiens means tending the pride of les glorieux, serving a public that regards the Canadiens not so much as sports team as religious cult.

And always, the language issue is never far from the surface. Are there enough francophones wearing the celebrated CH? Should the next coach be fluent in French? Is Bob Gainey, the general manager, sensitive to these questions? For that matter, if there are to be new owners, shouldn't they be Quebecers? In which case, shouldn't the Caisse de depot, the huge Quebec pension fund, get behind a Quebec bid to assure such an outcome? There are much more important businesses than the Canadiens, but no more important sporting or cultural institution in Quebec.

Which should give Jim Balsillie pause, as the co-founder of Research in Motion ponders the possibility of a bid on le tricoleur. He's reportedly a lifelong Habs fan, and has been shopping for an NHL team he can move to Hamilton or some other part of southwestern Ontario.

Of course, he wouldn't be moving the Canadiens to RIM's home in Waterloo, or anywhere else. That wouldn't sell a lot of BlackBerrys in Quebec. But even with the best will in the world, he would have to ask if owning the Canadiens would be beneficial to the RIM brand. Would the Bell Centre, on which the phone company has long-term naming rights, be reborn as the BlackBerry Centre? Would ownership by an avid Habs fan from Ontario be sympathetically portrayed in the media, or viewed as a hostile takeover? These are not insignificant questions, even for a billionaire.

There are other billionaires, including one or two in Quebec, such as Guy Laliberte, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, who certainly knows how to put people in a building, and could perhaps put the Cirque in the Bell Centre on dark nights.

While the Bell Centre is not a great hockey venue, with not a lot of great hockey being played in it lately, it is a superb concert hall for ageing rock stars. Because album sales have been battered by free Internet downloads, rocks bands are touring aggressively. Fleetwood Macwas here just the other night. Bruce Springsteen is coming again. And U2. And Celine Dion remains a hometown favourite.

As a pure convergence play, owning the Canadiens might be something for Pierre-Karl Peladeau toconsider for Quebecor. After all, hockey sells newspapers and he owns the province's dominant tabloids, Le Journal de Mont-real and Le Journal de Quebec.

The price? The Canadiens are valued at US$300 million by Forbes, and the Bell Centre cost that much to build in the mid-1990s. But a realistic number is somewhere south of $500-million for the two.

My prediction: When someone does make a move, keep an eye on the Caisse under its new boss, Michael Sabia. Why wouldn't it back a local bid, especially from Quebecor, 45% of which is already owned by the Caisse?

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