What's next for the Canadiens?

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National Post, Friday, April 24, 2009

Swept. Swept away by the Big Bad Bruins. Seldom have les glorieux looked as inglorious as they did on Wednesday night, when the Canadiens quit even before they were eliminated in four straight games by Boston in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Habs didn't even go out with a whimper, much less a bang. "It was," as legendary hockey writer Red Fisher noted in his Gazette column yesterday, "as if they had borrowed the white towels from the spectators and waved them."

There will be consequences. There will be recriminations. There will be human sacrifice. This is Montreal, where everyone is a general manager, and no one tolerates failure, let alone quitters.

How could Bob Gainey, who famously had no quit in him as a player, stand behind a bench coaching a team of quitters? Well, he won't be behind the bench next season, having made it clear when he fired Guy Carbonneau last month that he was only there until there until the end of the season. And it's an open question whether Gainey will be back as general manager of the Canadiens, which by next season may well have new owners, George Gillett having put hockey's most storied franchise in play.

The Canadiens' centennial season having come to an ignominious but merciful end, the question is what went wrong? Goaltending for one thing. Carey Price, at 21, can't handle the bright lights of the big city, and won't handle NHL rebounds until he learns to become a standup goalie. Defence, for another. The Canadiens were without Andrei Markov, their best and highest scoring defenceman since Larry Robinson, and Mathieu Schneider, a force on power plays. The forwards, for yet another. You can't win with only one line, centred by captain Saku Koivu, and only one franchise player, Alex Kovalev. And you can't win with a bunch of unrestricted free agents, playing for their own resumes rather than the pride of the CH.

So whether it's Gainey or someone else in the front office this summer, a lot of these guys aren't going to be back, and only the girls of Crescent Street will miss them. Whither the Habs? In Montreal, there is no more serious issue of public policy.

And who will own them? That's the other thing. Since Canadiens president Pierre Boivin hired his friend Jacques Menard, chairman of BMO Nesbitt Burns, to shop the Canadiens and the Bell Centre around, prospective buyers have been getting a good look at the books.

The Canadiens have been valued by Forbes magazine at US$300-million, and the Bell Centre cost $350-million to build when completed in 1996. Gillett owns 80% of the privately held team and arena, while the Molson family retains the other 20% (one of the reasons they sold back in 2001 was they found losing was bad for beer sales).

For weeks, the papers have been full of speculative pieces about prospective new owners, with the caveat in the French-language press that they had better be Quebecers, or at least Canadians, even as it is generally acknowledged that Gillett, an American, has been a good owner. Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, has deep enough pockets and certainly knows how to put people in the building, but he has taken himself out of consideration. Celine Dion and her husband, Rene Angelil, are also in the media mix, as is Stephen Bronfman, scion of the Montreal-branch of the former Seagram dynasty, who knows about the concert business from bankrolling Rolling Stones tours.

But as a business proposition, it makes the most sense for Pierre-Karl Peladeau as a pure convergence play for Quebecor. Hockey sells newspapers, as do concerts, and he's got Le Journal de Montreal. He's also got several TV channels, including TVA, Quebec's most popular network. And he's got a cable TV monopoly, Videotron.

But if he buys the Canadiens, he'll be buying a public trust, and all the scrutiny that goes with it.

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