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Canadiens’ Molson emerges as leader fans have been craving

BROSSARD, Que. — It might have been Geoff Molson’s finest hour as president of the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s a role he assumed in 2011, after obtaining controlling interest in the company back in 2009, but not one he had filled quite as emphatically as he did on Monday, just hours after a restless night and less than a day after firing general manager Marc Bergevin, assistant general manager Trevor Timmins and VP of communications Paul Wilson and hiring Jeff Gorton to serve as the team’s new executive VP of hockey operations.

The heat on Molson in the leadup to the morning press conference first began to rise when Bergevin was left without a contract extension prior to the start of the season. It grew to scorching levels with each passing day after the team spiralled out of the gate, and understandably so.

Just months removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, with captain Shea Weber deemed incapable of continuing his playing career, star goaltender Carey Price checked into the NHL/NHLPA players assistance program, several key players sidelined by injury, and Bergevin rendered a lame duck, the Canadiens found themselves in disarray. Molson was completely unavailable to answer for any of it.

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A fanbase that’s typically divided on nearly every issue was united in impugning his leadership. The owner was under fire from every angle for not saying anything about what was happening, but it turned out he was busy doing something about it.

When it came time to finally talk, Molson had something meaningful to say.

He was calm, honest, accountable and, frankly, presidential in explaining the direction he had opted for.

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“It’s my job is to be able to handle that (heat),” he said, “and there will always be low moments. There will be normal moments and there will be high moments, and my job is to stay positive. My job is to stay supportive of the hockey folks. My job is to make tough decisions like yesterday.

“Do I go to bed at night feeling good about making tough decisions? No, I don’t. But I make them.”

Molson presented a cursory depiction of some of the ones he came to — Gorton immediately conducting the GM search and hiring someone for the position as soon as possible, the diversification of the rest of the hockey operations department, and the institution (under the guidance of the team’s medical staff) of a department dedicated specifically to the wellness and mental health of players.

He had taken decisive and progressive action, and not just in setting those last two initiatives in motion but in establishing the new structure of the Canadiens’ front office.

We’re unclear on how the power dynamics will eventually play out between Gorton and the incumbent GM, but Molson expects them to work as a team, tackling the various responsibilities that, he’s learned in hindsight, are too large for just one person to continue doing in this unique market.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Gorton, who, as one rival executive told Sportsnet, prefers to do his work away from the spotlight, brings nearly three full decades of experience to his role. He’s worked in just about every front-office capacity in his time split between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers — from scout to general manager — and the relationships he’s built across the league will fill the most important quotients of running hockey operations for the time being.

As a unilingual anglophone, Gorton won’t have to be in the spotlight much. He may deal with media on occasion, but the person he helps hire to be GM will have to be able to communicate in both English and French, which, as Molson pointed out, is the most commonly spoken language among Canadiens fans.

“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 is able to communicate to them,” Molson said. “The bilingualism is also important, so the people that are at the head of coaching or the general manager also have to speak English because we want to communicate to our fans around the world. And that’s one of the unique things about this market that we have to appreciate, and that’s why we do this, because in our own market, we have to respect the language.”

Most, if not all, the GM candidates who speak it well enough to take on those responsibilities would be first-time managers in the NHL.

But Molson was quick to suggest that shouldn’t disqualify any one of them from doing as good a job as anyone who might have been considered in a less narrow search.

“I hired Marc Bergevin in 2012,” he said, “and he had zero experience as a general manager.”

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Molson added that if he could go back a number of years and give Bergevin the type of support he’s going to give his successor, he would.

That, too, was progressive. It was a considerable deviation from what Molson had said on many occasions over the last number of years and most recently back in 2020, when he was asked if it was time to hire a president of hockey operations and responded, “There are very few teams across the NHL that do so, and there are a lot of reasons why.”

“Marc [Bergevin] is one of the most respected GMs in hockey,” Molson added at the time. “He is also now among the most experienced, and he will continue to report to me. He is very well surrounded by people with a lot of experience, including – without naming everyone — people like Scott Mellanby, Martin Lapointe, and John Sedgwick. There is a culture team-wide, and surrounding Marc, to never be afraid to question the decisions we take.”

But the owner admitted on Monday that a new way of doing things was in order, and that was part of the accountability he showed.

It was the kind Canadiens fans have been craving for a long time.

Judging by the reaction on social media, many of them found it refreshing to hear Molson say, unequivocally, that he’d butt out of the hockey decisions and support whichever direction Gorton and the new GM want to take the Canadiens in — even if it means embarking on a rebuild.

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“I’m not afraid of that word,” Molson said. “I think our fans wouldn’t be afraid of that word, either.”

He said he’d support going down the road the previous administration refused to “if it’s the right thing for the Montreal Canadiens to be a great team in the long-term.”

Molson was unwavering in expressing the decisions he made over the weekend will once again make the Canadiens a great team in the long-term.

“I took this decision because it was necessary,” Molson said of firing Bergevin and the others. “Our start to the season was unacceptable for the Montreal Canadiens and something had to be done to change the direction.”

Despite wanting to install Bergevin’s second successor quickly, the 50-year-old said he’d conduct an exhaustive search and hold out until the off-season, if necessary, to complete it.

“I still believe the sooner the better,” Molson added. “But it won’t be at the expense of an extensive search, for sure. There are some great candidates out there that some of you are already talking about. I haven’t asked permission of any team yet to talk to anybody, but the first step is to do the research and put together a list and we’ll take it from there.”

On Tuesday, right here in this space, we’ll offer a detailed look at who might qualify to fill the vacancy.

But for us, Monday was about Molson extinguishing the flames around him and emerging as a leader, which is something the Canadiens have been in desperate need of for too long.

“We want to establish new standards of excellence at the hockey operations level and improve the way we manage the team on the ice and off the ice,” Molson said. “These new standards include several important organizational improvements, including being better at the Draft, being better at player development, and better supporting our players so they can have success in our market.”

To Canadiens fans, Molson said: “I can’t thank you enough for your unwavering support during these difficult and disappointing times. I’m making these significant changes to get better results. The passion and incredible support you showed during the Stanley Cup Final was extraordinary. I’ll do everything I can to get our team back to the Stanley Cup Final in hopes of bringing a 25th Stanley Cup to Montreal.”

Then he stood his ground for more than 50 minutes, answering dozens of questions without flinching.

It was all part of the fresh start Molson’s promising, the one he repeated several times he’s excited about.

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