MONTREAL -- I can’t be the only one who’s been wondering what this year has been like for Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
It promised a unique experience for everyone, but he couldn’t have possibly envisioned how complicated and trying it would be -- especially after a highly successful off-season he came out of feeling like he had addressed every need his team had.
Bergevin picked up Jake Allen to give Carey Price the rest he’d need to perform the way he’s performing right now, he signed Joel Edmundson to further offer his defence a nastiness that has helped carry it to the final four of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he brought in Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Corey Perry to diversify the dimension of his offence and offer a balance that could mitigate its lack of superstar presence, and then he asserted that the Canadiens are “here to win,” that they “mean business,” and that they “can play any way you want.”
The GM had eight years of experience on the job prior. He had gone through every high and low, lived the excitement of guiding a team deep into the playoffs and suffered through the pain that comes with resetting the roster and not witnessing a post-season game at the Bell Centre since 2017. But nothing could have prepared him for what he’d have to endure during this unprecedented season.
Bergevin watched the team he believed so much in, and the team he invested so much in, set fire to a 7-1-2 start. He relieved Claude Julien and Kirk Muller of their coaching duties with the Canadiens sitting on a 9-5-4 record and he appointed Dominique Ducharme head coach and promoted Alex Burrows as an assistant to extinguish the flames immediately. When they weren’t able to, he fired goaltending coach Stephane Waite and promoted scout Sean Burke to get Price back to where he was expected to be.
Right as the Canadiens appeared to be straightening out, COVID-19 hit, shut the team down for a week and forced them to close out the season with 25 games in 44 days. If Bergevin had hoped they’d show their true colours then, they failed him -- losing 14 of their final 21 games and backing into the playoffs with the worst record of any team participating.
And as they appeared to be bowing out meekly, down 3-1 in their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, I had an impossible time envisioning him wanting to continue on in a job that would even test the Dalai Lama’s unshakeable Zen.
But seeing the passion and enthusiasm with which Bergevin met his players after they won their seventh consecutive game of these playoffs to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets and stamp their ticket to the semifinal, I’m having an even harder time seeing him relinquish his role.
“It’s great to see,” said Ducharme on Friday. “He’s working hard… he’s heart-and-soul about the Canadiens and having success. We’re all in this together -- players, coaches, management -- we all want the same thing. To see him as happy as us… he’s maybe a little bit more expressive, but we’re all in this together. I think he was known as a player to be a team guy, to be a player that you want to have on your side in any fight. And he’s the same in the management as a GM, he’s the same way. He’s there on your side, too, as a coach to help me out, to support me if I need anything. So, it’s great to see.”
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson recognized it long ago and stood by Bergevin after his worst stint as GM, in 2018. When I spoke with Molson prior to this season, his excitement about the work Bergevin had done in the years since -- and particularly in the months before the puck dropped in January -- came through loud and clear over the phone. So, when Elliotte Friedman reported in early May that discussions on a new contract had begun, with Bergevin under term for just one more season after this one, it hardly came across as a surprise.
And since sources recently informed me a lucrative, three-year deal was on offer -- something neither Bergevin nor Molson will confirm -- I’ve started to shift from believing the soon-to-be 56-year-old might not want to continue that long to wondering if he’ll push for more time and more money.
If we’re to take Bergevin at his word, he didn’t quite suffer through the peaks and valleys of this season the way some -- including yours truly -- thought he might have.
“I believed in this team since the beginning, and even in January I said we had built a team for the playoffs,” he said on Saturday, just hours before the Canadiens departed for Las Vegas to take on the Golden Knights come Monday.
“But during the season, there were ups and downs, and I won’t hide from the fact that the schedule of 25 games over 44 days did a lot of damage physically, but also mentally,” Bergevin added. “In the Canadian Division, we were the division with the most travel between east and west, too, and that factored in for the players. Personally, I stayed calm. We were aware of certain veterans who stood up in our room. I think the Corey Perrys and Eric Staals, Jake Allen and Eddie and (Shea Weber) Weby had things to say that were important. It also takes some luck, and we won’t deny that, but everything seemed to go alright. And with the way we’re performing right now, I’m very proud of our team.”
Bergevin’s confidence in his work, too, has been reinforced on this run.
“The guys we brought in -- sometimes it does work, sometimes it doesn’t work,” he said, “but we knew we were bringing guys with character, and like I mentioned to our team in our first meeting in Toronto before the season started, these guys who won Stanley Cups, they were not brought in by accident but by design. And I think it’s paying off now.”
Bergevin reminded the Canadiens are only halfway to where they want to be, but he also said they have no intention of stopping here.
“Our team, regardless of all the trials we went through, we were able to overcome them,” he said. “Today, and over the last few months, I’ve sensed a team that’s together, a team that been strengthened and a team that’s really enjoying playing with each other. The enthusiasm in the room really feels special between our veterans and our youngsters.”
It’s there in the front office, too, in spite of all the different ways 2021 has challenged Bergevin.