MONTREAL — It spoke volumes to me that Geoff Molson dedicated half his opening remarks on Wednesday to dismissing a rumour started by a semi-retired reporter who is largely disconnected to the current Montreal Canadiens.
This was Molson’s first media availability in months — outside of an exclusive April interview with RDS which featured answers to pre-submitted questions that barely scratched the surface of how his organization has handled the fallout of a global pandemic that’s devastated revenues and forced a restructuring of several operations.
Molson, as the owner and CEO of Groupe CH and the Canadiens, temporarily laid off upwards of 60 per cent of the company’s employees in March, and is just a week removed from having permanently dismissed several others (including the Canadiens’ VP of communications Dominick Saillant, who was less than two years away from his 25th anniversary with the club when he received the news his services were no longer required).
It was a given that, over his 90-minute conference call, Molson would be asked to address those realities and decisions; to share his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter protests and his organization’s role in being a community leader on this and on other important issues; to elaborate on his team’s season and its current standing, the agreed upon return-to-play scenario the NHL and NHLPA are hoping comes to fruition later this summer, and on the various technical issues standing in the way of bringing all Canadiens players and personnel back together under one roof.
But that Molson first saw it as essential to respond to Journal de Quebec reporter Rejean Tremblay’s (unqualified) speculation that former Canadiens captain Vincent Damphousse would be appointed president of hockey operations within a year was particularly interesting. It was interesting because, after months of digesting what was guaranteed to be another lost season (a third in a row and a fourth in five years), he was most concerned with justifying not making any significant change to the structure of the Canadiens’ hierarchy.
That meant affirming his place at the top of the chain and expressing his loyalty to general manager Marc Bergevin, whom he referred to as one of the most respected and experienced GMs in the game.
"I’m still young and healthy, and I’m knocking on wood when I say that," Molson started. "I adore what I do and I’m very proud to be the CEO of this incredible company of sports and entertainment."
"I have a leadership team that is dedicated, motivated and very competent," he continued.
"And even if we accomplished a lot of things in the 11 years since my arrival, I have a tonne of ambition to do more in the long-term as CEO of the company. The biggest dream for me and the most important one is to bring a 25th Stanley Cup to Montreal one day."
"I have no intentions of hiring another president of hockey operations," Molson concluded. "There are very few teams that do it around the NHL and there are many reasons for that."
When asked specifically if he thought the mere suggestion of appointing a president of hockey operations was a direct indictment of his work in the role, Molson said he didn’t feel he had to prove himself to anyone and that his merits as an executive were evident enough to his peers to have them elect him to the league’s board of governors.
But if those merits were as obvious to the millions of Canadiens fans who are desperate to see their team back in contention for the Stanley Cup after 27 years of not winning the trophy that has been in their possession a record 24 times, Molson wouldn’t have had to have spent any time justifying them on Wednesday.
Furthermore, if the team hadn’t proven itself to be structurally flawed in trending towards an 82-point season after earning 96 points the year prior, he’d not appear myopic in betting on himself as president, securing Bergevin and the entire coaching staff and refusing to take a different direction to advance the Canadiens in their reset.
Molson’s faith in himself and in his people — and in the plan they’ve sold to him — is unwavering. And it’s clear he felt it was essential to confirm that.
"If we look at the history of Marc’s time as GM, in the first few years, with the core of players we had, we had a lot of success but we didn’t win," he said. "But we had a lot of success. It was decided two years ago that with the core of players we had, we weren’t going to win and we had to make changes. We readjusted. It’s not an excuse, but we readjusted. And we’re trying to realize the plan of those readjustments. And I have a lot of confidence in that plan, and that’s the only way I can explain it."
Not that Molson is satisfied with the results of late.
He said that he expected the team would take a step forward this year, but felt that progress was arrested by two eight-game losing streaks and injuries that exposed certain depth issues Bergevin and his associates were attempting to fix. And he added that, "At the end of the day, if we’re not making the playoffs and not challenging for the Stanley Cup, it’s not a successful season."
Meanwhile, Molson is confident that the NHL will be able to resume play in August, and he’s excited for his team’s opportunity to be included in a 24-team tournament for the Cup. Even if it didn’t earn that opportunity.
"It sure would be fun (to win)," Molson said. "Even though they would win the Stanley Cup without any fans there, I’m sure we’d have millions and millions of Montreal Canadiens fans around the world watching. I never give up hope.
"Do I think that this is the team that’s built to win the Stanley Cup? I don’t think so. But I do think that anything can happen in the playoffs and we’ve seen that before, and we’ve got a group of players that can make a difference. They’re three months rested, but so are the other teams. Anything can happen. But, for me, I look to the future and I see a core of veterans and young players that are going to bring us to that point where we think we can win it."
When that will be remains the unanswered question.