Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What will change?

The Canadiens, in their uniquely charming, understated, late-afternoon way, announced Monday that Pierre Boivin will be entering his final season as team president after an 11-year tenure where he helped establish and oversaw perhaps the greatest marketing machine in the National Hockey League.

As people will soon start coming out of the woodwork to talk about Boivin's career as the business head of the most storied franchise in hockey, many will undoubtedly mention that his era also coincided with the darkest period in team history. Those people will find some way to blame Boivin for that, even though he really had very little to do with any of it.

In fact, it is that very same dark period that made what Boivin accomplished so extraordinary. Never before in Canadiens history has the team really had to worry about marketing. When you win Stanley Cups in every decade of your existence, it's not necessarily that tough to convince people to come watch your team play.

Boivin's arrival as team president almost perfectly matches up with my career covering the Canadiens. My first season, 2000-01, had players like Eric Landry, Christian Laflamme, Juha Lind, Patrick Poulin, Craig Darby, Patrick Traverse and other similarly forgettable players patrolling the ice at the Bell Centre. My seat in the press box, perched high above the visiting bench, often had wide expanses of empty seats behind it.

But who would want to watch that team, you may ask? Well I would counter, who would really want to watch many of the Canadiens teams since the lockout, which have mostly been middling teams that squeak into the playoffs? In a market that prided itself on expecting excellence, on poo-pooing first round playoff wins because it was beneath them, this was not an easy sell. 

Boivin, to his credit, realized this and created a monster, one that has the Canadiens at the forefront of the city's thoughts nearly 12 months a year, one that has produced a sold out building every night since 2005. He has managed to convert the first generation of Canadiens fans in the team's long history never to have truly experienced a Stanley Cup victory, a generation the team just as easily could have lost to the ravages of mediocrity, but didn't at least in part due to Boivin's foresight and refusal to sit on the laurels of past success.

The team's head of marketing Ray Lalonde deserves a good deal of the credit (or is it blame?) for creating the frenzied fervor the city now has for what is really a middle of the pack team. But Lalonde got his mandate from Boivin, and it is that undying popularity that allowed George Gillett to more than double his investment in the team when it was sold to a group led by Geoff Molson.

So now, it will be Molson making all these business decisions, and that's his prerogative, even though it would be unreasonable to expect Boivin to do a much better job than he's already done from a business perspective.

Where I suppose he could be criticized is failing to hire the right people that would win the Canadiens a Stanley Cup. When Boivin was hired, Rejean Houle was still general manager of the team. He quickly replaced Houle with Andre Savard, who was replaced by Bob Gainey. I don't think anyone could fault either of those hires.

His latest decision to replace Gainey with Pierre Gauthier without so much as conducting a search for any other potential candidates merits some criticism, but Boivin did not make that call on his own. Molson was already in place at the time.

So how will things change under Molson's presidency, which doesn't officially start until June 30, 2011 but in reality must begin immediately? I'm not sure, but if I had to bet I would imagine that most fans won't see much of a change at all. If Molson is to be believed, he will not interfere with the hockey department, which was always Boivin's way as well. 

But the one area of the hockey department that Boivin did interject from time to time was the  importance of having francophones on the team. He spoke up just before and after the Habs made their unsuccessful run at Daniel Briere as a free agent, and also said that Vincent Lecavalier would be an obvious free agent target for the Canadiens, only to have him sign what amounts to a lifetime contract extension with the Lightning. And finally, when defending the decision not to open up a search to replace Gainey as GM, Boivin admitted that the two main requirements for the job were NHL experience and bilingualism. That whittled the list down to a very low number, and three members of that extremely short list had already been fired as Habs GM (one who wasn't, Dale Tallon, might have at least merited an interview).

Funnily, I feel like on this matter, Boivin didn't satisfy either of the two solitudes. Some anglos who would rather have a winning product than worry about the ancestry of the players felt Boivin was too preoccupied with this reality of running a professional hockey franchise in Quebec. Many francophones felt Boivin did not view the language issue as the reality that it so clearly is.

One of those francophones is Bertrand Raymond, who wrote on the RDS website that this was a foreseeable move. He wrote that Boivin was surely pushed out of a job he would have loved to keep for many more years, and that Molson surely had this move in mind when the purchase was completed but wanted to wait and let the dust settle before taking a more active role running the team.

But he also writes of Boivin's supposedly poor record for insisting that having francophone players be a priority for the organization. He cites the example of Francois Beauchemin being passed over as a free agent last summer in favour of Jaroslav Spacek for the same amount of money (Spacek actually makes a little over $33,000 more per season that Beauchemin), or Martin Biron being allowed to sign with the Rangers for less money than was given Alex Auld on July 1.

"Geoff Molson would never go so far as to establish the difference between a Biron or an Auld in hockey terms," Raymond concludes, "but when he seriously mentions during a board meeting that the Canadiens, who have never been this poor in this area, must have more Francophones in their ranks, people would be best served to listen to the remark.

"And maybe things will change for the better very soon."

That might be true, but I doubt it will come in the form Raymond refers to. I seriously doubt Molson will be sitting in Gauthier's office looking over trade proposals and insisting he choose the one that brings a francophone to the team, nor will he instruct Gauthier to base any personnel decisions on a players ability to do television interviews in french.

But one area he may have an influence is at the draft table, or at the very least having more of a team presence in the junior and even midget hockey rinks of the province. With Gauthier jettisoning half his scouting staff prior to the draft, there's only one, part-time scout working for the team in Quebec. For much of Boivin's time here, Quebec scouting was a clear weakness that - considering the public relations repercussions - he should have addressed. I don't think Molson would be stepping on the toes of either Gauthier or Trevor Timmins if he strongly suggested the team hire a team of, say, five scouts devoted solely to Quebec. Perhaps that would allow the team to avoid the public embarrassment of missing out on a David Perron or Claude Giroux on draft day.

But, almost more importantly when it comes to Molson's job as president, it would be the right message to send to the fans and media that the Montreal Canadiens will spare no expense in trying to unearth the next francophone hockey star, which appears to be a dying breed.

The failure to deliver that message to the population was probably Boivin's greatest failing. And perhaps even his only one.

But other than this one, largely cosmetic area of team management, I highly doubt we will see much of a change in organizational philosophy with Boivin gone and Molson taking over. Because ultimately, was Boivin not there to serve as the owner's eyes and ears, to carry out the mandate handed to him by his boss? 

So all Molson is really doing here is cutting out the middleman.

19 comments:

kostadis roussos said...

Hi!

What really irritated me about Bovin was the lack of ambiguity he put around the question of language.

He created and promoted a culture that advocated being billingual and even better French was more important or as important as being good.

And if the President says that then every lame-assed journalist can also repeat the same routine.

If Boivin's departure can create an era where being good not being billingual was important, then there is hope here.

kostadis

A longer version of this can be found here:

http://eastmeetswest.krung.net/east_meets_west/2010/07/now-that-the-head-is-gone-maybe-the-stench-will-go-away-too-.html

Anonymous said...

Hi,
it is a really strange inconsistency where Boivin wanted to promote francophones (players and management?) and yet he fired Andre Savard who could have helped him identify talent in his backyard. This is a tough one to figure out.

Paul said...

Again with the language issue (and Raymond loses more of my once great respect every time he hammers on that nail).

The Canadiens are not a government entity, they are a private, for-profit business and they are in the business of winning hockey games. If that takes 23 Martians, so be it.

No one's job at the hockey level should depend on a prior knowledge of French. It should depend on their competence as a player or coach. Hire the best and THEN offer them language lessons.

And as for the horse excrement that is "at equal talent, draft/sign/trade for a francphone"--there is NO SUCH THING as "equal talent". Doesn't exist.

En passant, je suis bilinque et mes parents sont québécois de souche. Mais je m'en fous éperdument qu'un jouer ou un entraineur soit capable de dire plus que "bonjour" ou "merci" en français. Et surtout laissez-moi faire avec les "les jeunes veulent se voir refléter dans le club"--les jeunes ne sont pas les xénophobes que sont les Raymond et Bergie et cie. et il ne faut surtout pas les encourager à le devenir.

Sliver24 said...

I think you're giving too much credit to Boivin for the popular success of the team. In my opinion the lock out - or more specifically a year without hockey coupled with several rule changes that have led to league-wide parity - should really be given credit for that.

Also, you credit the team's (off-ice) resurgence "to Boivin's foresight and refusal to sit on the laurels of past success." I would argue that the exact opposite of that is true.

The Habs' marketing machine milked the successes of the past for every penny they could squeeze out of their present-day fans. They managed to gloss over fifteen years of overwhelming mediocrity by distracting fans with images from the glory days of yesteryear.

As for Geoff Molson, I can't say that this is much of a surprise, other than maybe the timing. I would have thought that the process would have started unannounced last summer and that Boivin would be leaving this year.

I know I'd sure as hell want to be sitting in that office if I owned the team.

Anonymous said...

Molson has made it very clear since he bought the team that in his mind there was no room to politicize the Canadiens operations.

Boivin made it clear he believed the opposite.

Maybe the only change which will come is to prioritize winning over political correctness.

Kamal Panesar said...

Hi Arpon, great piece!

I have to partially disagree with you, however.

In business—which is exactly what the Canadiens franchise is—at supervisor is ALWAYS accountable for the actions and results of their subordinates.

While I agree that Boivin had the Midas touch on the PR/Marketing front, he failed to deliver a winner.

And, as a hockey team, that is what the fans pay for: a winner.

So, on that level, he did fail.

Sure, he wasn't involved in hockey decisions, but, again, being the man in charge or hiring and firing the GM, he IS responsible for the lack of success on the ice.

There is no disputing his incredible work off of the ice, and he absolutely did keep fans engaged despite horrific teams, but at the end of the day, this team is now in year 7 of a a five year rebuilding plan that started when Gainey took over.

That he was not involved in hockey operations is irrelevant: he hired these people, and their lack of success is a direct reflection on him.

K.

Arpon Basu said...

@ Kamal - I take it then that you disagreed with the hiring of Bob Gainey as GM? Or of Andre Savard? The one point I will grant on that is perhaps Gainey should not have been given absolute power over the hockey department, which is what Boivin and Gillett handed him. But otherwise, when Gainey was hired I think he was rightfully seen as a godsend. I personally think the only questionable hire Boivin made was Gauthier, and even that isn't totally fair because he hasn't even had a full year to prove himself (though he had a huge influence on the shaping of the current team as head of pro scouting and assistant GM under Gainey). The way the Habs are structured, the team president has little influence on the hockey department aside from hiring the man who will head the hockey department. In that regard, I'm not sure Boivin can be faulted for Savard's lack of success. He was a scouting wizard who, unfortunately, was not very strong negotiating contracts. As for Gainey, while he didn't lead the team to a Stanley Cup, he made the Habs into a consistent playoff team, which is the first step you take from being a laughingstock to a contender.

@Paul - Very well written, and your point is absolutely fair. The main problem I see is that the Canadiens don't know what the priorities are for their fans. That's because the fans themselves probably don't know either. Yes, they would love to have a winning team full of Quebec francophones. But frankly, the language issue only seems to come up when the team struggles. At that point, I think a lot of fans figure that if the Habs are going to suck anyway, may as well give some francophones a shot. If Gauthier is able to build a winner, I don't think the lack of a francophone presence will be such a hot-button issue. Unfortunately for Boivin (and perhaps he should shoulder some blame himself for this), the team was poor for much of his time here. Thus, the language issue is one he had to deal with very often.

Lyse said...

Good article. I don't necessarily agree with everything in it like Kamal above. But change is a good thing and after all those years under 3 different owners, the move could be expected.

Totally agree with Paul above.

Québec's language issues should be solved by the citizens first: they have a say with the politicians they vote for (or not).

Les Canadiens is a private enterprise.

I love hockey. Québécois hockey players will earn my respect whether they play with the Habs or not but not because they'll complain or bitch about the way they are treated. And I do support the Habs because I've been trained to do it at an early age and I'm too old to change now.

For my cultural needs, I also like theater, music, literature, etc...

Kamal Panesar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kamal Panesar said...

Dammit, I deleted my folow up comment!

Oh well...

Hey Arpon, I don't necessarily disagree with you and don't think that the hiring or Savard and/or Gainey were the wrong moves.

Gainey DID bring this team back to respectability, and Savard (who was more of a scouting whiz than an administrator) represented the first step in the right direction for a franchise that had been rudderless throughout the late ninties.

That being said, my point is only that "the boss" is always responsible for the results of their subordinates.

I know I am. Whether I micro-manage people or leave them to their own devices, I am ultimately held responsible for their work, good or bad.

To use a hockey example, this is exactly why a team chooses to fire a coach when things go off the rails, even though the problems might not stem from the coach.

So, with Boivin, while he was not involved in hockey operations, he was ultimately responsible for them in that the people that he hired were subordinate to him.

So yes, Boivin DOES deserve a ton of credit for his off-ice sucesses, but I feel he also deserves part of the blame for the on-ice failures.

K.

Anonymous said...

a dying breed?

extremely short?

yechk

pfhabs said...

@Paul: tres bien dit, merci !

@Kamal: you are correct that on day-to-day operational decision making he had no direct line in that but he did hire the guys that were not successful

-yes Gainey was initially seen as a godsend as Arpon points out but history shows that for 6 seasons this club under his guidance as GM could barely win a first round, assuming they got in which was usually on a wing and a pray at every season's finale

@Arpon: into year 7 of his tenure with the Canadiens are we to believe that somehow Gauthier's influence and decision making will be different or exceed his recommendation of trading Ribeiro for a broken ankle, or bringing in George Laraque or passing on Beauchemin because of alledged back issues. his role in last July's overspending was significant as he was the man in charge of evaluating all the pros they signed. Paul Mara was an excellent signing wasn't it ? look at the $500K raise he just gave Pouliot and expect that type of stupidity to punctuate his reign as the GM

-to come back to the original point both men were hired by Boivin so he shares a significant chunk of forming this club into a marketing bonanza with mediocre on ice performances

-as I see it, Geoff Molson took step one in sweeping the executive suite clean in what seems to be a protracted methodical process and for that I applaud him--just wish he'd get on with step #2.

-as for Gauthier, he no longer has his buddy as a buffer. he now reports directly to The Boss and his track record will soon enough catch up to him and be his downfall and only then can the CH be on the road to a full recovery

Kamal Panesar said...

@pfhabs - Yep, well said. Re: Gainey, however, I don't feel that he was a complete failure.

Rather, I feel that he was the man necessary to bring organizational standards back to this team and to get them going in the right direction.

That being said, as his tenure as GM wore on, it become more and more apparent that he was not the man to take the Habs to the promised land.

He brought them to a certain level and someone else, someone who understands how the new game works, needs to take over and push the Habs to the next level.

Will that be Pierre Gauthier? Only time will tell. I'm not the biggest fan of his work, based on track record, but so far he has made some strong, purposeful moves.

I am still not convinced that he can turn this team into a winner, but I'm willing to judge him in hindsight, and not before the fact.

K.

pfhabs said...

@Kamal:

-yes Bob rebuilt Hamilton, got the CH back to being respectable, got Boucher into the fold only to foolishly have them let him go, got some decent draft picks although they badly developed some of those and let others go in foolish trades (Gomez) or walk for nothing as in the case of Komisarek.

-but for organizational standards, who was monitoring them or enforcing them when Bob or Boivin or both let young millionaires roam the streets of Montreal without any checks and balances ? sure we can blame Carey, and the K boys and Higgins but Bob knew better than most given his role as captain in the days of Keane, Corson, Chelios and others the trouble young, rich single males can get into on the Main or Crescent...I'm afraid he severely missed the boat there and cost the CH some valuable assets - now gone and development time for the one still in MTL.

-as for Gauthier he contiues to ply his trade as he did before---with mediocre results...here are his moves to date

1.paying 2nd round choice and $1.1 million for Moore when they could have had him for no pick just cash and probably under million. Moore was told to call the CH last setember as he fit Martin system perfectly. the CH said no in September but yes later in year. they then did not try to re-sign Moore as a UFA July 2010. technically a shared blunder between G&G

2.letting Boucher walk and keeping Martin

3.convincing Pearn to stay and passed on Larry Robinson as D coach

4.gave $500K ($850-$1.35) raise to Pouliot who got 2 assists in 19 playoff games and 1 goal in last 26 regular season games

5.trade Sergei Kostitsyn for rights to UFA Dan Ellis and UFA Dustin Boyd. Ellis signed for $3.0 w Tampa for 2years and although Boyd signed for $650K with the CH it was after July 1 and the deal w St Louis means they have to give SL a pick...they could have signed Boyd as a UFA after July 1 w/o giving any pick to SL

-btw Sergei a top 6 talent signs for $550K in Nashville and Boyd a
4th line guy signs for $650K in MTL

6.sign Auld for $1.0 for 1 year . instead of giving raise to Pouliot that $500K could have gone to get Ellis

Kamal, is this the stuff that championship teams are made of ? add this to his work in the last 6 years and it's just a continuation of hit and miss player acquisitions...the team on ice is a bubble team as is the management group...no need to wait in my book the evidence is already in

pfhabs said...

@Kamal:

-yes Bob rebuilt Hamilton, got the CH back to being respectable, got Boucher into the fold only to foolishly have them let him go, got some decent draft picks although they badly developed some of those and let others go in foolish trades (Gomez) or walk for nothing as in the case of Komisarek.

-but for organizational standards, who was monitoring them or enforcing them when Bob or Boivin or both let young millionaires roam the streets of Montreal without any checks and balances ? sure we can blame Carey, and the K boys and Higgins but Bob knew better than most given his role as captain in the days of Keane, Corson, Chelios and others the trouble young, rich single males can get into on the Main or Crescent...I'm afraid he severely missed the boat there and cost the CH some valuable assets - now gone and development time for the one still in MTL.

-as for Gauthier he contiues to ply his trade as he did before---with mediocre results...here are his moves to date

1.paying 2nd round choice and $1.1 million for Moore when they could have had him for no pick just cash and probably under million. Moore was told to call the CH last setember as he fit Martin system perfectly. the CH said no in September but yes later in year. they then did not try to re-sign Moore as a UFA July 2010. technically a shared blunder between G&G

2.letting Boucher walk and keeping Martin

3.convincing Pearn to stay and passed on Larry Robinson as D coach

4.gave $500K ($850-$1.35) raise to Pouliot who got 2 assists in 19 playoff games and 1 goal in last 26 regular season games

5.trade Sergei Kostitsyn for rights to UFA Dan Ellis and UFA Dustin Boyd. Ellis signed for $3.0 w Tampa for 2years and although Boyd signed for $650K with the CH it was after July 1 and the deal w St Louis means they have to give SL a pick...they could have signed Boyd as a UFA after July 1 w/o giving any pick to SL

-btw Sergei a top 6 talent signs for $550K in Nashville and Boyd a
4th line guy signs for $650K in MTL

6.sign Auld for $1.0 for 1 year . instead of giving raise to Pouliot that $500K could have gone to get Ellis

Kamal, is this the stuff that championship teams are made of ? add this to his work in the last 6 years and it's just a continuation of hit and miss player acquisitions...the team on ice is a bubble team as is the management group...no need to wait in my book the evidence is already in

V said...

Ha. Ha. What a load of garbage. You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

We agree on one thing though... we both love the fact that the Habs bring you so much misery.

pfhabs said...

@V

-stick to what you do best in your feeble attempts at analysis; i.e., writing Hallmark card phrases in describing this team's fortunes and future...for as you once posted yourself you know little about hockey and your lame posts reflect your own words

@Kamal:

-my mistake in the SK trade, in that there will be no/no draft picks to be exchanged as per your's or Arpon's article on that very subject...thxs for clarification

-forgot the most curious Gauthier deal to date; trading the playoff hero Halak for 2 unknowns. one of which; Eller, if scouting reports come to pass will be a second line centre in about 2 years...curious in that in 2 years from now he'll be the 3rd of 3 second line centres with the untradeable Gomez and the newly signed Plekanec. perhaps a potential top 4 winger was in order given the bubble status of Pouliot and who knows where AK's head space is at?

V said...

pf... I leave the hockey decisions to the experts - the people running the Habs. Got better things to do than write rambling 10point posts into the ether.

Keep it up though. Every word brings me a chuckle.

pfhabs said...

V:

-laughter is good for the soul...if you refuse to become smarter at least you'll be happy and those around you will benefit