MONTREAL — It’s after assuring us he’s alright, not even 10 seconds into a brief phone interview on Saturday morning, that Marc Bergevin expels a dry cough that extends a couple of seconds and sounds as though he’s having the air sucked out of him by a vacuum cleaner.
From quarantine, one day after receiving confirmation that he’s contracted COVID-19, the Montreal Canadiens’ general manager, who keeps himself in as good shape as the players under his watch, provides an update on his condition and runs through what he’s been experiencing.
“Night sweats,” Bergevin said.
“Honestly, the shakes where you can’t even get warm, and then headaches and body aches,” he adds before saying he’s also experiencing back pain.
He expresses his gratitude for being double-vaccinated and says, “I can just imagine being not vaxxed,” and he explains he began to sense something was off while the Canadiens were in the process of getting pumped 6-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.
“I felt it a little bit, so after the game I didn’t even go downstairs,” he says. “After that—I hate to say it was a performance, because it wasn’t—I figured I’d take a step back and just talk to the coach the next day. Thank God I did that also because, obviously, I had it then.
“I think it got the worst the last couple of nights, but I think it’s turning the corner now.”
With only 15 minutes set aside for our conversation—a time limit justified by Canadiens senior VP of public affairs and communications Paul Wilson because Bergevin “isn’t feeling well and still has a couple more interviews scheduled”—most of our questions have to centre on how the Canadiens will turn the corner in a season that’s seen them win just four of their first 19 games.
But before we dive into that subject, we explain to Bergevin that we have two questions to ask him about his time in Chicago as director of player personnel with the Blackhawks in 2010, when prospect Kyle Beach was sexually assaulted by team video coach Brad Aldrich.
Bergevin had previously opted to not comment any further on the matter after the independent investigation he cooperated in produced a 107-page report that did not name him as a person in the know at the time, but he welcomes these questions—and all the others we jam in about the direction of the Canadiens, his expiring contract, his relationship with owner and team president Geoff Molson and what goes into doing his job.
Here is the interview in full, with some of it edited just for clarity.
SPORTSNET: I know you’ve said on multiple occasions that you didn’t know anything at the time, and obviously the investigators were satisfied with that—you’re not mentioned in their report—but as director of player personnel, why didn’t you know?
MARC BERGEVIN: That’s very easy to comprehend. When something happened like that, at the time they probably wanted to keep that as close-knit as possible. So, whatever the meeting was and whoever was in that meeting, which is said in the report, they were probably told that whatever was said in that meeting was going to be taken care of and nobody is to say a word. That’s what it seems was said there. They kept it close and that was it.
As a player personnel (director), what you do is you watch players either with your farm team or at other levels, junior levels or other teams, and you write reports, and you look at the players’ performances. If somebody had a fight with his girlfriend the night before, you don’t know about it. I know it’s not the same thing, but I’m just saying, you don’t know any personal stuff. You watch players and you evaluate, and you say either he’s ready or he’s not ready.
What happened to Kyle is horrible, but a lot of people in the organization were not aware of it.
SN: If you had been aware, how do you think you would’ve responded?
MB: It was not handled properly, obviously. Something like that happened, it needed to be addressed right away. You can’t just let that go by.
Obviously, people have paid a price for it.
SN: Moving on to your hockey team, I know you’re speaking to people and they’re going to ask you why the team finds itself in this position. I’m more interested in asking you about what comes next.
You’ve said on multiple occasions, regardless of your contract situation, that you’ll do what’s best for the team. What’s best for the team right now?
MB: Obviously, it’s winning hockey games and playing as a team. If I make one move to make one change, unless everyone else picks it up, it’s not going to make a difference. It’s well known that just making trades to make trades—especially with our situation with the cap—it just makes no sense to make a lateral move just to make a lateral move. If you’d like to make a move, it’s to make a move to make your team better. Just making a move to make a move, I’m never going to do that just to say I made a trade and here we go.
(The players) have to pick up their games. They have to play better. That’s on them.
SN: Why is it the best thing to do for you guys to be winning games?
MB: Players have pride, you don’t go out there just to blow up games.
That’s insane to think that way. If I go out there and manage like a GM that wants to lose games, I should be let go right away. That’s just not right.
That’s just not the way it is, and it’s just not in our DNA.
SN: There’s precedent of teams selling it to their fans that you have to suffer a bit of short-term pain for some gain, and you’ve expressed it the same in prior years that you go through a lot of pain to end up with high draft picks. You’ve also said that the only way to succeed is to build through the draft.
You didn’t choose to be in the position that you’re in now as a team, but you’re in it.
MB: Yeah, but I’m not going to manage to have the team get the best draft picks. The draft is (unpredictable)—you could look through past drafts where the first pick overall is not as good as the fourth pick overall. That’s the business we’re in. Unless there’s a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, which there’s some probably every 10 years, you don’t manage that way.
And we don’t even have 20 games played, so there’s a lot of hockey in front of us. We have to play better.
SN: You’ve talked a lot over the years about not having guarantees—especially pertaining to the draft—but you do have to deal in probabilities. Realistically, you’ve got to pick up 85 points in the remaining games you have to make the playoffs and that means winning at a clip that only a handful of teams have been able to in the last decade.
How do you instill belief in the room, given the way things have gone, that it can be done?
MB: The players have to play every game. They have to play a game tonight and their mindset is to win a hockey game and then go onto the next game. As a player, you can’t look at the big picture. And as for me, I’m managing the team and I’m looking at players’ performances. Their responsibility, like every other player in the NHL, is to perform.
To go out here in November and say the players are going to not play hard for each other… They have pride. For them, it’s not a business; it’s playing to the best of their abilities every night because that’s what they have to do. That’s their mindset, and I’m not going to sit there and change their mindset that they don’t have to play as hard now. It makes no sense to do that.
SN: How can you guys best develop your young players that are with the team right now in this situation?
MB: If they don’t get hurt by playing in the NHL, then I have no issues with keeping them. If they play well and I feel that they’re not getting hurt by the way they’re playing, then it’s fine. If they fall behind and I see they’re not getting any better, that’s when decisions need to be made.
Player development for me, sometimes it’s used as an excuse. You can look at every single team in the NHL and find examples.
Like, why is Thomas Chabot, who was 15th overall (actually 18th in 2015) or whatever it was, playing in the NHL when Logan Brown (drafted 11th in 2016) is on his second team? Did Ottawa do something different with them?
They did not. It’s just some players take the next step, some don’t, but the same tools are provided to every player.
Look at New York (the Rangers). We were there not too long ago and they’re talking about (Kappo) Kakko (second overall in 2019) and (Alexis) Lafreniere (first overall in 2020) not being where you’d think they’d be today. That’s just the business we’re in. Some players take longer than others. I’m sure these players will be good sooner than later, but some take more time than others and that’s just the way it is.
SN: Do you have to put more of an emphasis now, though, on giving younger players opportunity considering where you are in the standings?
For example, you were down 5-0 going into the third period against Pittsburgh on Thursday and (22-year-old) Ryan Poehling didn’t play his first shift until five-six minutes in. He plays a few shifts and ended up with roughly 10 minutes in ice time.
In games where it’s not happening, does there have to be a strategy to get these guys out on the ice more and get them into situations against quality competition?
MB: Some nights, players, based on the first two periods, may not be playing their game. And the coaches need to make a decision that a player isn’t going that night, so they want to pull him back.
At this point, we’re trying to win hockey games. This is the NHL, where we have to win hockey games and not only develop players. There’s a possibility that, at some point, we feel different, but we’re in November and coaches coach to win hockey games.
If they felt that Ryan wasn’t up to par, then you want to pull him back a bit not only to help the team but also to maybe not hurt him, and that’s a coach’s decision.
SN: Since you are trying to win every game you continue to play, are Dominique Ducharme and the coaching staff doing enough to enable that right now?
SN: Do they need to make changes to what they’re trying to do?
MB: The messages (already) get sent differently because it’s been a while now. It’s been a month-and-a-half that we’ve been struggling, so they use different messaging and they’re going to keep doing that.
But their job is, every day, to keep making these players understand.
Not too long ago, the same coaching staff took that team to the Stanley Cup Final. So the message, the system and everything works, it’s just right now the players aren’t applying it and they’re not mentally sharp enough to get that done. That’s on them.
SN: When you look at your own situation here, a lot of people are assuming this is your last year as GM in Montreal. Is it?
MB: I don’t know. It’s my last year of my contract, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the near future.
SN: I know you’ve said on multiple occasions you have a very good relationship with Geoff Molson and that you’re dealing with each other every day, but how is that dynamic comfortable for you right now?
MB: I see no issue whatsoever. We have a hockey team that I run, Geoff makes business decisions. That’s what he does, and I respect my (superior), which is Geoff. I have no issue with that.
If things are meant to be, they will be. If they’re not, they won’t be. Honestly, I have no issues whatsoever with that, and I don’t think Geoff does either.
But I can’t speak for him.
SN: You don’t take it personally at all that he was willing to spend more than a $100 million on the roster last year but was unwilling to give you the contract you wanted after the team went to the Final and before the season started?
MB: Not one bit.
SN: What makes a good GM in this league? What are the key components to being a good GM in the NHL?
MB: Being a good GM, obviously, is about putting a team together, but that’s not that complicated.
What’s hard is to do what you’re trying to do. Like, there are teams that need left-shot D or right-shot D, but it’s to manage how to get that asset. Because if that team has that player, it’s about how are you going to get him. If he’s that good, why would they move him? And, if they’re moving him, is it because his contract is expiring?
I’m just saying, there’s a lot of moving parts.
I think, also, that a good GM is managing people. You don’t only manage the salary cap, but you manage human beings. It’s how you manage them, how you make them feel.
Just to be a GM to go to the draft and get players would be the easiest thing to do. I think there’s a lot of things to be a good GM, and every good GM—I think there’s a lot of them in the league—makes mistakes. If you do make a mistake, you have to move on and try not to compound things by making another one. There’s times you have to bite the bullet and move on, and that’s just the reality in the NHL today with contracts that are all guaranteed. In other leagues, if you do make a mistake, you can walk away, but in the NHL that’s not possible. You have to be able to recognize your mistake and move on.
SN: How crucial is it to have existing and established relationships with other executives in the league before stepping into a GM role?
MB: It’s very important because everybody’s different. Every GM works different, every agent works different, and there’s a lot of things that take time to feel comfortable with and know how everybody operates. You could talk to an agent during the summer, and you know how he operates, which helps you make a deal or not make a deal. That experience comes into play.
SN: What is the key to being GM in Montreal? What makes it unique?
MB: The job’s the same for everybody, it’s not because it’s Montreal that it has to be different. It’s just the noise that people make around you, either from the media or the fans, is more.
But the job is the same. You have to be able to block that out and do your job. You can’t have other people managing for you. You can’t have the media or the pressure from the fans influence your decisions.
A small example: When we got (Ilya Kovalchuk) here (in 2020) and he played very well for us, people were saying you should sign him to a three-year extension. We all knew, in my assessment, that Kovy was a good player but he was near the end. If I would’ve listened to the media and the fans, I would’ve signed him for three years.
Like I said, Kovy was very good for us, but we felt that Kovy’s better days were behind him. So, you have to be able to make the decision even if it’s not popular and move on.
SN: Before we run out of time, what’s the earliest Carey Price will be back in games?
MB: No idea, no clue. I can’t tell you that.