Why Canadiens chose ‘intuitive’ Kent Hughes to help lead new era

Faizal Khamisa and Eric Engels discuss the Canadiens hiring of former player agent Kent Hughes as general manager, what he brings to Montreal and how they think he’ll work with VP of hockey ops, Jeff Gorton.

MONTREAL — This was Kent Hughes’ job from the start, if he wanted it. That became clearer and clearer with every day that passed after Elliotte Friedman first reported on Hockey Night in Canada‘s 32 Thoughts segment that the Montreal Canadiens were interested in Hughes potentially becoming the 18th general manager in franchise history.

On Dec. 3, 2021, a day before Friedman advanced Hughes’ name, Jeff Gorton held his first media availability as executive vice-president of Canadiens hockey operations and suggested an agent could best complement his skill set as GM. Six weeks later, the one Gorton had in mind locked into the role for five years.

It was going to take that type of commitment from Canadiens owner Geoff Molson to lure Hughes away from the agency he helped build. The 51-year-old, who co-ran Quartexx Management with Darren Ferris and Giordano Saputo up until Monday, had an active client list worth close to $300 million, and he was initially reticent to give that up — along with the role he had dedicated his life to for over two decades.

While Hughes mulled over the opportunity, Molson, Gorton, part-owner Michael Andlauer and former Canadiens general manager and Hall of Fame player Bob Gainey interviewed several candidates for the position. They came away from the process impressed with Daniel Briere and Mathieu Darche and circled back to Hughes to re-engage him last week.

Hughes and Molson then met in Boston over the weekend and negotiations intensified until they wrapped on Monday. Then on Tuesday, it was announced the Boston-based agent would be returning to his hometown to take over the city’s most illustrious office.

“The process of finding our new general manager afforded us the opportunity to meet a number of extremely qualified candidates,” Gorton said in a statement Tuesday. “Kent stood out, and we believe he is the right person to be the general manager of the Canadiens.

“We also believe that Kent’s experience as an agent will be a great asset to the organization.”

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Gorton, 53, knows Hughes well.

The two have a long-standing friendship and have done business with each other on multiple occasions. The trust between them was established long ago, and it will be fundamental to their ability to bring the Canadiens back to prominence as they work in tandem over the course of their contracts.

Molson, who stepped up to lure Hughes away from Quartexx, said in Tuesday’s release that the organization is “very excited.”

“Kent is highly respected in the hockey world, having built an excellent reputation as an NHL player agent for over 25 years now,” he added.

Hughes had done it representing former NHL superstar Vincent Lecavalier, and more recently Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh Penguins star defenceman Kris Letang and Edmonton Oilers stalwart Darnell Nurse among others.

Ferris, whom we caught up with following Tuesday’s announcement, said his agency will miss Hughes.

“I had known Kent for years through the NHLPA meetings and then of course, subsequently, as I merged companies with him,” Ferris added. “He sold his company (MFive) to Quartexx and then I merged in at a later point. That’s where I spent more time with him and got to know him.

“The guy is a really intelligent guy, and that was clear from contractual situations but also handling the day-to-day operation of Quartexx. He’s really calm, and he’s methodical in everything he does. He’s a good people person, and that’s a testament to his ability to have such a great reputation amongst NHL GMs.

“Oh yeah, and he’s a shark. Did you see the Darnell Nurse deal?”

The eight-year, $74-million pact is one of many prolific deals Hughes has negotiated over the years.

Now he’s on the other side of the business, which Ferris feels highly benefits Gorton and the Canadiens.

He’s not alone.

Philippe Lecavalier, Vincent’s brother, has known Hughes since having his peewee hockey team coached by him 33 years ago. Lecavalier also began working for Hughes in the early 2000s and has gotten more acquainted with him than most in the hockey world.

“When Vinnie was looking for a new agent in his second year of pro hockey, he interviewed a lot of agencies,” Lecavalier said. “Kent called me and my father and asked if my brother would meet with him and I told my brother to give him a chance and meet with him. My brother gave him that opportunity after meeting everyone else first, and he left the meeting with Kent saying, ‘Hey Phil, that’s my guy. He’s going to be unbelievable for me and that’s the direction I want to go in.’”

When we asked Lecavalier why Hughes likely proved attractive to the Canadiens and how he might be best qualified to handle the other aspects of the job beyond contract negotiations and trades — the day-to-day management of the team, understanding the players and their families, having a feel for what’s going on in the locker room or why a six-game winning streak or losing streak is happening — he said, “No. 1, he’s very intelligent.”

“He’s intelligent, but he doesn’t think he’s the smartest guy in the room,” Lecavalier continued. “He lets people talk and lets them express themselves and he listens. He’s open to good ideas all the time. He’s very analytical. He’s a very intuitive person, too — if something’s wrong or not going well, he picks up on those things. He’s a great human being.

“Having all those qualities and having seen over the last 30 years what works with hockey players with different teams and different development systems and coaches, whether it be in college hockey, major junior, AHL or NHL, he just gets it. He’s got a really good understanding for every single part of the business.”

What Hughes might be missing — experience on this side of the table — will be gained alongside Gorton.

Gorton brings a wealth of knowledge from having worked his way to his position from the bottom of the corporate ladder. His most recent experience as general manager of the New York Rangers landed him in this role and with the power to make this all-important decision to hire Hughes.

Hughes, who grew up just 30 kilometres west of Montreal in Beaconsfield, Q.C., meets every qualification, including being perfectly bilingual. Given that he’ll be in the more public-facing role, that will help him fulfill part of the mandate Molson outlined when he fired GM Marc Bergevin and hired Gorton.

“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, are 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.”

Hughes will do that.

Gorton felt confident in that — and much more — from the day he took on his position.

With Hughes in tow, the two of them will fill out the rest of the hockey ops staff with an emphasis on diversity, and they’ll expand the team’s player development and analytics departments.

The heavy lifting — of the Canadiens out of the NHL’s basement — will come next.

“I think the tandem of him and Jeff Gorton makes the future bright in Montreal,” said Ferris. “If fans are patient and let them go through the process — because there’s a lot to unpack there and it’s not going to happen overnight — they’ll be rewarded. It’s going to take some savvy to manage that cap and that situation, and those two can provide it. I think the five-year deals speaks volumes to how much of a commitment Geoff Molson’s making here. It’s not going to be cheap — he’s hired two highly-qualified people.”

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