Canadiens’ Hughes the ideal fit for Molson’s desired structure

Eric Engels spoke to new Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes on his expectations of the current team, working alongside Jeff Gorton, what the biggest challenge of his new job will be, and more.

MONTREAL — It was easy to jump to conclusions when Geoff Molson first said that being a general manager in today’s NHL was too big a job for one person and that he would be hiring someone to work in partnership with Jeff Gorton, whom he had just named executive vice-president of hockey operations.

Back on that day in late November, I wasn’t the only one immediately thinking of specific candidates to fill the one quotient Gorton couldn’t. Any of the 10 or so I came up with could serve as the public-facing, French-speaking spokesperson of the team while Gorton, a unilingual anglophone who was signed to a five-year contract, would wield the power, craft the vision and execute the tasks to eventually bring that vision to life.

Molson knew, based on the questions being asked, that no matter what he said, most everyone who follows the Canadiens was thinking about the same people and envisioning the same dynamic I was. He tried to dispel the assumptions — even if he acknowledged it was highly probable the prerequisite of being able to communicate with Canadiens fans in both English and French limited the talent pool to first-time general managers — and kept repeating that both Gorton and the new GM would work in tandem.

My skepticism didn’t subside. I thought eventually there’d be a disagreement in the front office and Gorton, with his title and his experience of working every notable job in hockey operations through the years and most recently serving as GM of the New York Rangers, wouldn’t be taking direction from whatever rookie would eventually fill this vacancy.

What I didn’t know then was that Kent Hughes was a candidate. And what’s patently obvious now, after Hughes signed a five-year deal Monday and was formally introduced as the new GM Wednesday, is that Molson found two people who can actually make this unique concept work.

I thought this job would go to a Daniel Briere- or Mathieu Darche-type; a person who had worked their way through hockey operations in another organization after a successful NHL playing career; a person who could handle the day-to-day interaction with the players in a way Gorton, who had never played in the NHL, couldn’t; a person who could easily deal with the media and the public-facing aspect of the job with intelligence and charm in both English and French; someone who’d be comfortable allowing Gorton to handle the big decisions in the shadows while they looked after explaining them under the spotlight; an affable, non-confrontational person who would sit back, listen, learn, and then eventually grow into taking on more tasks and authority.

Eleven people interviewed for the job, and Briere and Darche turned out to be finalists — no doubt because they proved in the interview process that they were ideal candidates for all the reasons listed above.

But on Wednesday, from a makeshift stage stationed near centre ice of the arena they hope to eventually raise more Stanley Cup banners to the rafters in, Hughes showed why he was hired.

The Beaconsfield, Que., native called this “a homecoming of sorts.” He referred to himself as “a hockey junkie,” and then he distinguished himself from the other candidates in the way he answered every question directed to him over 45 minutes.

But there was no moment more telling of Hughes’ viability for the role Molson had actually envisioned than the one he spent answering a question that actually wasn’t directed to him. The one that had him dispelling the notion that he was hired because Gorton already knew him well and had essentially settled on him before even going about the interview process with others.

“I can assure you I wouldn’t be here today if I wasn’t confident in my ability to be the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens,” the 51-year-old said. “The second part is I am happy and glad that they went through a process, and I fully expect that if I weren’t the best candidate for the job I wouldn’t be here today.”

Hughes interjected to make clear he had earned this. In doing so, he made it clear he didn’t leave the agency he helped build, the lucrative stipend earned through negotiating close to $300 million worth of active NHL contracts and the superstar clients he represented to pretend to be GM of the Canadiens and serve as Gorton’s puppet.

Saying what he said was important. And the way he said it was equally important because the job he’s filling isn’t for the meek or subservient and there was nothing meek or subservient about that answer.

Hughes did more than just come across as confident he can fulfill his mandate. He showed off intelligence without arrogance, and he was poised and articulate — particularly in expressing his vision.

“I want to build a team capable of winning for years,” he said. “not a team that has to do it this year, or two years from now, or in one specific year. I aim to establish an organization and processes that will inspire confidence we can compete for years and years.”

When asked what style the Canadiens would do it in, Hughes said, “In a perfect world, we would be an offensive-minded hockey club.”

“I don’t think you can be successful in the National Hockey League today without being a defensively responsible team,” he added, “but we see teams in the National Hockey League — I think all of us can identify some where the focus is strictly defensive, and others are more creative.

“I envision a team that plays fast but plays fast with the puck. I think fast, as a word in itself, is probably a little bit overused as a term in hockey (but) I envision a team that plays fast with the puck, that’s a possession hockey team.”

Hughes said he’d invest more in analytics to build it, which is what you’d expect a modern GM to do.

When asked about other things that make a good GM, based on his varied experience dealing with bosses from around the league since the 1990s, Hughes said, “They always have a plan and the patience not to react short-term.”

“They have vision for the organization,” he continued. “They find ways to integrate all the different divisions within hockey operations and unite them. They have a good eye for talent and know how to manage people, too.”

Based on the way those closest to Hughes described him to me on Tuesday, it sounded like he was talking about his own experience operating his agency.

When Hughes actually did describe himself, he said people are right to assume his experience as an agent will serve him and the Canadiens well in negotiations — a natural strength for him. He added that knowing how players think but also how agents think will be advantageous.

“But I think it’s also the hockey side,” Hughes said. “Like I said, I’m passionate about the sport. I’ve spent a lot of time in my role as an agent scouting. I’ve worked on the player development side (he has coached at various levels), be it on skills or off-ice training or conditioning, and I’ve also studied players’ games to know their strengths and understand how to help them.”

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What Hughes knows is how to work with people.

When I caught up with Hughes after for a one-on-one chat for Sportsnet, I asked him how him and Gorton would divide the tasks, and his answer aligned perfectly with the partnership Molson had initially proposed.

“Rather than dividing and conquering and Jeff doing one thing and I’m doing another thing, I actually think we’re probably going to be better off doing a lot together, consulting and discussing,” Hughes said. “I think two minds are better than one. When I got married, we didn’t decide that somebody was going to have the ultimate decision-making power; we went about becoming parents and trying to guide our kids. And I see the same thing here. Jeff and I are going to work together.

“We’re going to disagree, and we’re going to work through disagreements just like husband and wife or business partners.”

Together they’ll fill out the rest of the hockey operations staff, meet with the players and get to know them better and understand their intentions before crafting a plan to execute the changes they know are necessary. They’ll prepare for the upcoming trade deadline and the draft, to be held in Montreal this summer, to follow.

Many of us didn’t see it working that way when Molson first expressed this vision. But he said we’d understand in due time, and that time has come.

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