Seeking a 'fresh start,' Canadiens owner says Montreal's hockey ops to be tandem job

·6 min read

Geoff Molson felt the time was right for the Montreal Canadiens to emphatically turn the page.

And with his decision to engineer a clean break from general manager Marc Bergevin's regime over the weekend, the scuffling team's owner came to another realization.

Running the Canadiens' hockey department under the glaring spotlight in a media-saturated, bilingual market — one unlike any other in the NHL — will be a two-person job moving forward.

"I strongly believe that this organization needs a fresh start," Molson told reporters Monday during a press conference at the club's practice facility in Brossard, Que. "At this stage, a fresh start is not so much at the team level, but rather at the management level."

One of the roles — the newly formed executive vice-president of hockey operations — was filled less than 24 hours earlier when Molson announced Bergevin's dismissal and the hiring of former New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton.

The other — Montreal's now-vacant GM position — will eventually be occupied by a bilingual candidate following what Molson said would be an "exhaustive" search, but also one completed with a caveat of "the sooner, the better."

"(Gorton and the GM) are going to assess the situation," Molson said. "They're going to develop an identity they want."

Bergevin was in his 10th season in charge when he was fired after a miserable 6-15-2 start to the 2021-22 campaign that came on the heels of last season's stunning run to the Stanley Cup final.

Molson said Bergevin, who was in the final year of his contract, did a good job over his tenure, but change was required following an "unacceptable" start.

The owner also acknowledged his former GM, whose managerial career in Montreal was often marked by bold and sometimes controversial moves, could have used help in the front office.

"It's a lot for one person," Molson said. "If I could back up a few years and know what I know today, I would have complemented (Bergevin) with another person.

"It's that big a job in this market."

Molson said Gorton and the GM-to-be-named-later are expected to work in tandem, but the latter will have final say on hockey decisions.

"To have two people thinking about making a smart decision is way better than having one person," Molson said.

Gorton was fired by the Rangers last spring after they missed the playoffs, but much of the talent accumulated over his six seasons in charge has New York competing for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

"Nobody's perfect in the hockey world," Molson said. "But I look at that team ... it seems to be performing pretty well.

"He has a reputation for being a great evaluator of talent, but I think somebody who lasts all those years as a general manager must be doing something right."

The 53-year-old from the Boston area was also briefly interim GM of the Bruins in 2006, and ran a draft that helped set the stage for the franchise's Cup victory in 2011.

Molson said Gorton, who signed what he called a "long-term" contract, will be in Montreal later this week and plans to move his family to Quebec for the start of the next school year.

"We're all going to really like to have him here," Molson added. "It'll be a breath of fresh air."

Having also fired assistant GM Trevor Timmins and public relations executive Paul Wilson on Sunday, and after assistant GM Scott Mellanby abruptly resigned Saturday as the Gorton rumours started to swirl, Molson said it's on his two-headed management monster to hammer out how the organization goes about achieving its goals.

"I shared some of the high-level things (to Gorton) about vision — better scouting, better player development, a medical performance team and more diversity (in hockey ops)," Molson said. "It's going to be up to them to figure out how we're going to do that."

Molson, who will remain Canadiens president, was asked to explain to people outside Quebec the need to have a GM able to speak English and French.

"It's absolutely essential that the people that are working in our organization that communicate to fans on a daily basis, or on a regular basis, are able to communicate to them," he said. "That's one of the unique things about this market. It makes it complicated ... complications can be good sometimes.

"I'm pretty excited about this one. We've got two new people joining the organization — one of them we know about and the other one is to be determined."

Also left to be determined is the fate of head coach Dominique Ducharme.

He had his interim tag removed and earned a contract extension after making the final, but there's been a clear disconnect in 2021-22 for a group minus captain Shea Weber because of injury and star goalie Carey Price, who continues to work his way back after entering a residential treatment facility for substance use.

"I don't make the coaching decision," Molson said. "I haven't even discussed that with (Gorton).

"As far as I'm concerned he's the coach and he's staying there."

Molson added he's never interfered in hockey decisions, and if Gorton and his counterpart agree a rebuild — a roster tear-down that could at least a few seasons — is the best way forward, he wouldn't stand in the way.

"I'm not afraid of that word," he said. "And I think our fans wouldn't be afraid of that word either. I'm somebody who's a pretty good listener. I ask a lot of questions, and I try to make my opinions informed.

"If that is proposed to me, I would take everything very seriously."

Molson said as of Monday morning he'd yet to reach out to fellow NHL organizations about speaking with potential GM candidates, but the awkward timing of this housecleaning could make things tricky knowing some targets are currently under contract.

"We'll cross that bridge," he said. "But I don't think we would rush into anything if we think a better candidate is going to be available in the off-season.

"We will pick the best candidate no matter what."

And that person will have a partner in Gorton to share the burden — unlike Bergevin or his predecessors.

"Management of the team and the media around the team and the crises that happen and the ups and the downs," Molson said in describing the mammoth task. "And then you have trading and you have signing contracts — in two languages, the whole time. With the expertise that Jeff brings, and hopefully the expertise the new general manager brings, it's just going to make us better.

"I truly believe that it's important to have in this market — living in this market — two people at the head."

It might take years, but Molson will eventually find out if he's right.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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