Canadiens having tough time living up to the past

Around the sporting cathedral that is the Bell Centre in Montreal, Pierre Gauthier was called The Ghost, which really only made him one of many. The Montreal Canadiens are steeped in hauntings, in visitations, in visions of the past. Les Glorieux have not been truly glorious in almost two decades, but the aura still lingers, cloudy as it has occasionally become.

Gauthier was fired as the general manager of the Canadiens on Thursday, just two years into a tenure that skated gracefully from an overtime Game 7 against the eventual Stanley Cup champions in his first season to a full-on bonfire in his second. It was a remarkable immolation; a series of unfortunate events, in tone and in substance. The Canadiens are the worst team in the Eastern Conference, but this season was probably worse than that.

“We can’t just be satisfied to make it to the playoffs,” Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said in a smooth news conference in Montreal that managed to be both penitent and aspirational. “We must aim much higher. Our entire organization must aim for a championship every year. Our fans are asking for nothing less.”

Molson talked about living up to the club’s history, and living up to the club’s fans, and about creating a winning team that “follows in the tradition of our storied past.” And when asked about whether the new GM would have to speak French, he tread a careful path. Speaking French would be important, he said, but winning must matter before all.


Of course, the man who he appointed as his chief advisor, Canadiens legend and former GM Serge Savard, immediately told the media that French was a must, even if being a francophone was not. The difference was not inconsiderable, and illustrates the weight of history on this museum of a franchise. Their storied past is the strength of the organization, and a weakness as well.

Whoever is next, they must appreciate the speed at which Montreal can devour a hockey man who makes bad decisions. The Canadiens made an improbable run to the conference final in 2009-10, and last year wrestled the Boston Bruins to overtime in Game 7. A single Montreal bounce and Bruins coach Claude Julien would almost certainly have been fired, and perhaps even Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli; instead the Bruins went on to win it all, and the Canadiens slid into a panicky sort of disarray.

Assistant coach Perry Pearn and head coach Jacques Martin were both fired on game days, two months apart. Mike Cammalleri, Montreal’s leading playoff scorer the past two years, was traded one day after he said the team has a losing attitude, during the second period of a game the Canadiens probably needed to win. That Molson came out talking about a winning culture should make Cammalleri smile today.

And of course, there was the towering mistake; the installation of assistant Randy Cunneyworth as interim head coach, which would have been fine had Cunneyworth not been unilingual. In Montreal, this represented an astounding misreading of the market; the outrage from the francophone press was a wildfire, to the point that two unsuccessful games into his tenure Le Journal de Montreal printed a blistering front page that included a lone acidic headline in English: “Another loss for Cunneyworth.”

The storm had enveloped the Canadiens, to the point that Gauthier apologized for having offended people with Cunneyworth, and Molson was forced to release a statement two days after the hiring saying that “although our main priority remains to win hockey games … it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.”

It was all a disaster well before the team’s living symbol of elegance, Jean Béliveau, suffered a stroke.

It was not just Gauthier, of course; Bob Gainey was the paterfamilias of this Canadiens era, and he was relieved of his post as shadow GM, too. Gauthier was the frontman who could not bear to actually come to the front. He rarely spoke publicly in either official language, but his moves will resonate. There is some US$44-million committed to 13 players for next season, and Carey Price and P.K. Subban, among others, are restricted free agents. Molson spoke of doing whatever it takes, which should include burying contracts in the minors, pending a new CBA.

But in the bigger picture, the Canadiens are freighted with their ghosts, with their visions, with the pillars of their identity. They will almost certainly pick someone who speaks French, after having been burned so badly this season. Then-Canadiens president Pierre Boivin admitted that bilingualism was a prerequisite for the job when Gauthier was hired in 2010; if the Quebec Nordiques somehow appear out of the mist, the linguistic fight for talent will only become more intense.

So the list is limited, and limited again, as ever. Names being tossed around include broadcaster Pierre McGuire, Canadiens legend and Quebec Remparts coach/GM/owner Patrick Roy, agent Pat Brisson — Sidney Crosby’s agent, for the record — and several French-speaking assistant GMs, in Tampa and Toronto and Chicago. Few if any of the top names have been general managers before, which for a franchise that chewed up rookie NHL coaches like Julien and Alain Vigneault would mean taking a risk.

But this is the water in which the Canadiens swim, and there is no changing that. The Leafs are defined by vanished glory and being treated like a cashbox, the Canadiens by fading glory — Montreal’s last Stanley Cup, its 24th, was won by Roy in 1993 — and by being a living symbol of the francophone soul. And neither is entitled to Stanley Cups anymore, or even contention; any advantages they ever had have disappeared, to be replaced with the kind of pressure you get on the ocean’s floor.

And so they scuttle along, trying to reach the surface, trying to live up to a past that can never be replicated, much less relived. Montreal has shed The Ghost but the shades remain, holding the torch much higher than their descendants can ever hope to reach.

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