When Geoff Molson hired Marc Bergevin as general manager on May 2, 2012, the Canadiens were coming off a 31-35-16 season, finishing last in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
“We feel we have selected an individual with the potential to lead our organization in the future,” Molson said during a news conference announcing Bergevin as the new GM. “We were looking for a candidate with very strong leadership capability, great communication skills at all levels and someone with a clear determination and commitment to winning.”
The Canadiens would make the playoffs in each of their first three seasons with Bergevin as GM, losing in the first round in 2013, advancing to the conference final in 2014 and losing in the second round in 2015.
Molson rewarded Bergevin on Nov. 25, 2015 with a multi-year contract extension taking him through the 2021-22 season.
“I am very pleased to announce that Marc accepted a multi-year contract extension and that he will remain our general manager until the end of the 2021-22 season,” Molson said at the time. “This new agreement brings added stability for our organization and particularly for our hockey operations. It enables us to continue our efforts in giving our fans a winning team. Marc is an excellent general manager who quickly made an impact in the league with his leadership skills and his ability to identify the needs and find the personnel to assemble a championship team. I am very pleased with his work and the results he has achieved since his appointment as general manager”.
Things haven’t gone well since that day. The Canadiens haven’t won a single playoff series since 2015 and should have missed the playoffs for the third straight season and fourth time in the last five years last season.
COVID-19 allowed the Canadiens to get into the expanded postseason this year as the 24th and final seed, upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.
At the team golf tournament before the start of last season, Molson was asked what his expectations were for the Canadiens after they had missed the playoffs by two points the previous season.
“I think last year we made a lot of progression,” Molson said. “We started the season with quite a bit of uncertainty, quite a lot of change and the players on the team showed that they are a good team and they delivered throughout the year. Obviously, it’s not enough to miss the playoffs by two points, but they sure showed that they are a team and I’m looking forward to a hungrier team, having learned from last year, and maybe a few additions. I’m hoping for a really good season.”
That didn’t happen as the Canadiens went through not one, but two eight-game losing streaks before showing some spark during their unlikely trip to the postseason.
“At the end of the day, it’s unacceptable to have two eight-game losing streaks and things do need to change or be adjusted as a result,” Molson said during a 20-minute radio interview Monday with former Canadien Chris Nilan on his TSN 690 Off the Cuff show . “But that doesn’t mean that you have to change your general manager. It means that you have to perhaps put a little pressure on the strategy and ask more questions. … The easy thing is to give up on a strategy.”
Since losing to the Flyers in the first round, Bergevin has been busy improving the Canadiens as he continues the “reset” he started two years ago, adding backup goalie Jake Allen, defenceman Joel Edmundson and forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson.
Molson says he is now excited about next season, as are Canadiens fans.
“I, too, like all the fans … I’ve had lots of texts from my friends,” Molson told Nilan and his radio partner Sean Campbell. “We are all pretty excited about the work that Marc’s done … not only over the years getting some nice, young players, but most recently in the month of September to make our team better and I think it is. So, yeah, I’m very excited.
“Right now, I think you guys were saying at the beginning (of the show) how excited you are about this team,” Molson added. “Well, it’s the first time in three years that we’ve said that and we’re saying it and we’ve been building to get to this point and I’m pretty excited about it.”
Expectations will be high for the Canadiens heading into next season, which will put added pressure on everyone in the organization, especially coach Claude Julien.
Julien and Bergevin both have two seasons remaining on their contracts.
“Our fans have been patient as we go through this process and I think that what we showed this summer in the playoffs raised expectations, just then, regardless of changes that we make,” Molson told Nilan. “And then all these additions that we’ve made. At the end of the season, Marc told me where all the holes are on our roster and he filled every single one of them with the new players. So expectations I think are pretty high. I think hope is really high and I couldn’t ask for anything better because I couldn’t have answered that question in the same way a year ago and now I can. And so I think that our fans have something to look forward to and we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
An evolving relationship
Campbell asked Molson during the radio interview how his relationship with Bergevin has evolved over the last eight years.
“It really has evolved,” Molson said. “I mean, the relationship’s always been positive. He came in having been in several roles with Chicago, but never the general manager. And so at the beginning he and I had a lot to learn and nobody’s perfect. But he sure settled into it quickly and I would say over an eight-year period we’ve been through two tough periods together. The most recent one is the reset and the trust is the most important thing for me and it keeps on getting stronger.
“The easiest thing you can do is change your general manager when things aren’t going that well,” Molson added. “But if you truly believe that the person has the capability to build a winning team and you believe in the strategy. …. For the past two or three years I have to take the punches because I really believe he’s a good general manager and I trust him and he does the work that a general manager needs to do to build a winning team for Montreal fans.”
When asked how much his patience has been tested by missing the playoffs so many times in recent years, Molson said: “Over the last couple of years, I mean my patience gets tested I think every morning when I pick up the paper. But I think overall my patience gets tested all the time, but I think it does with Marc as well and with the coach (Claude Julien). And that’s when you have to come together again and trust each other and decide what adjustments you want to make to get better. I’ve said this many times, if the trust was not there the first person to know that would be Marc. But it is there and that’s why we work well together.”
The Savard saga
Serge Savard played a key role in Bergevin getting the job as Canadiens GM.
Molson asked Savard, who was GM the last two times the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, in 1986 and 1993, to help him find the right person to replace Pierre Gauthier, who had been fired after the disastrous 2011-12 season.
In his new book, Serge Savard: Forever Canadien , the Hall of Fame defenceman who won seven Stanley Cups as a player with the Canadiens chronicles how he and Molson interviewed Bergevin for the job over a dinner in New York City. According to Savard, Molson also offered him an unspecified job that night with the Canadiens and said he would get back to him with a proposal.
That never happened.
Savard says he never asked for a job with the Canadiens and it was Molson who brought it up and said he wanted to make it public soon after that dinner. In his book, Savard says: “I say this with some disappointment, I sometimes get a strange feeling: that my loyalty to the Molsons was stronger than their loyalty to me.”
When asked by Nilan if he did indeed offer Savard a job, Molson said: “I think I should start off by just saying that my family has known Serge Savard for three generations of Molsons. My great uncle, Hartland, was there and was probably there when he got drafted. My father was there in the late ’70s and the ’80s and ’90s, and now I’m there. So we know Serge really well. We love Serge. We’re all very grateful for everything he’s accomplished as a player and as a general manager. And me, personally, when I asked him to help me find the next general manager it was an invaluable contribution that he made because he knew what it took to be a general manager in Montreal because he experienced it. And so the questions that he asks of all the candidates are very helpful for me. And then for him to be able to walk out of a room and say: ‘Geoff, I think you’ve found your man’ was pretty powerful, really helpful. So I appreciate that a lot and he knows that.”
Molson added that he has tried to keep Savard as close to the organization as possible, adding that’s he’s on a board the Canadiens have that allocates money each year to alumni members in need.
“As far as my own personal dealings with Serge in New York and conversations that we might or might not have had, I really don’t want to get into that public debate,” Molson said. “I’m a pretty confidential guy and when I have a conversation with Serge it’s between me and him and it’s not something I want to debate over on the media.”
The big question
The big question now is when will the Canadiens be able to hit the ice again as the NHL remains shut down by COVID-19.
“The hardest part is we just don’t know,” Molson said. “We don’t know when. But we will accomplish it. As a collective group of owners, players and the NHL, we’re going to find a way to have a season next year and it will start at some point in the early 2021, but we’ll find a way.”
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