MONTREAL — There’s an air of excitement about Geoff Molson that’s palpable through the phone.
Over a 45-minute conversation with Sportsnet on Monday, optimism reigns — the owner of the Montreal Canadiens doesn’t know when revenue will start to flow again in a business that’s been checked face-first into the glass by the global pandemic, but he’s confident it will.
We ask him what his biggest concern is.
Molson responds, “My biggest concern? I don’t really think that way.”
The 49-year-old does have many concerns, however. The health of his family and his friends are top of the list, though he’s happy to report that, “despite a scare here or there, because we were in areas where other people had (COVID-19), we didn’t get it.”
Still, the virus has done significant damage to Groupe CH — the parent company to the Canadiens, the Laval Rocket, Evenko, Spectra and the owners of the Bell Centre and the MTelus, Astral and Corona Theatres. No hockey games have been played in their 21,302-seat arena since March, and a large portion of the 1,500 concerts, festivals and events the company hosts were cancelled and have yet to be rescheduled.
It was 13 days into lockdown that Groupe CH announced it was temporarily laying off 60 per cent of its employees and creating a $6-million assistance fund to top off employment insurance benefits. And in June, several more cuts were made — many of them permanent.
And those who remain have reportedly been taking reduced pay for months. From general manager Marc Bergevin to head coach Claude Julien to vice-president of communications and public affairs Paul Wilson to whoever’s working the coffee maker at the office.
“The honest truth is that everybody in the entire organization is contributing to getting through this,” Molson said.
Times are tough, but he’s still upbeat. His employees are, too.
“Those people can’t wait to get back to work,” Molson started. “We had a great conference call as a total company last week and everyone, I would say — I’m exaggerating when I say ‘everyone’ because I can’t speak for everyone — but everyone understands… this is really tough, it’s uncontrollable. It’s something that we will get through, but we need to be patient and we need to stay in touch and communicate with each other.
“I think that the spirit within the organization is really strong, given all the uncertainty and the reduced income and challenges people have had over the first seven months and over the next four or five months, as well. Or maybe more. Who knows? Nobody really knows.”
And that is what’s dogging Molson the most.
But he’s confident a vaccine will emerge and be readily available within the coming months, that his employees will return to the office and that business will go back to “sort of normal,” and he’d be really surprised if the hockey club wasn’t playing games early in the new year.
Molson’s even hopeful that they’ll be able to do so in front of a few thousand fans.
“I look around what’s happening around the hockey and sports world, and I continue to say we can do this,” Molson said. “Will we be sold out and playing 41 games in front of all our fans? I highly doubt that this year. But nobody knows the answer to that question, either, because nobody knows when a vaccine is coming. But, at the same time, I look at what’s happening in Europe (where the 2020-21 season has commenced) and what’s happening in the U.S. with football and baseball, and there’s a way to do it. I’m convinced (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman and the NHL will find a way to make sure that happens.”
If and when they do, a Canadiens team that’s been bolstered at every position — with Molson committing $79.6 million to newcomers Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli — will begin a new era. One the owner believes will be far more prolific than the one it’s emerging from, four playoff misses in five years later.
“We’ve got the foundation now for a team that can be good for many years,” said Molson.
And of this coming one?
“Marc filled every hole that he said he was going to fill, so I think that’s really exciting,” Molson said. “I’m really excited about this year coming up.”
“We have a team that should make the playoffs, I can tell you that,” he added. “And I think the team and the organization and the fans would be extremely disappointed if we didn’t. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we can. So, with that in mind, it would be disappointing if we didn’t.”
Though Molson didn’t say it, one could infer there’d be serious repercussions if the Canadiens fell short of that goal.
We asked if he’d discussed a contract extension with Bergevin, whose current deal expires in 2022.
“With two years left, I don’t think that’s very common,” Molson said.
We didn’t remind him that he extended Bergevin for five years in November of 2015. You know, when Bergevin still had close to two years remaining on the five-year deal he signed when he was named GM in 2012.
Molson continued: “I believe strongly that I have a very good general manager, so I’m not too concerned about (an extension). I know that he’s relentless and will be in relentless pursuit of giving our fans the best team we can possibly get, so I stand behind him.
“But two years is a long time.”
It took three seasons — and a fortuitous bounce or two — to get to this phase of the reset plan Bergevin sold to Molson in the lead up to the summer of 2018.
The opportunity the Canadiens were handed by the NHL and the NHLPA to participate in this past summer’s tournament for the Stanley Cup was a sharp turn in the road, and they gained speed coming out of it — with a four-game, play-in round upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins that Molson deemed “thrilling” and a six-game, Round 1 loss to the top-ranked Philadelphia Flyers he felt “could’ve gone either way.”
“And here we are now,” said Molson. “We saw a team come together, through youth and veterans, and it was impressive. I think it’s the point in time that I think Marc said, ‘I can now see the depth at the veteran level, and I can see the depth at the youth level.’”
As for how the Canadiens arrived at this juncture at this specific point in time, Molson explained that no plan he and Bergevin discussed would guarantee it.
“Was it sold to me that it would take three years? No, never,” he said. “It was sold to me as we need to do these things (trade several players and collect an abundance of draft picks — the Canadiens have drafted the second-most prospects in the NHL and used several more picks in transactions over the last three years) and we need to do them now and start building a team that has the potential to be a championship team again.”
It’s clear Molson believes that’s what he now has on his hands. It’s a belief that’s only been bolstered by decisions Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher recently made to remain with the Canadiens long-term, but certainly also by Allen, Edmundson and Anderson choosing to skirt free agency and sign lengthy deals, and by Toffoli turning other teams down to move to Montreal for the next four years.
“Two years ago, any unrestricted free agent would’ve looked at our organization and said, ‘Do I want to be part of a youth movement where they’re sort of resetting?’ Two years forward to today, I think those unrestricted free agents are saying, ‘Oh, this looks pretty good. This looks like a team that’s going to be good for the next little while,” said Molson. “I think that’s the most important thing. When UFAs are attracted to Montreal, it’s when we’re at our best, and I think we’re heading in that direction.”
Hence Molson’s sunny disposition.
OTHER NOTABLE EXCERPTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION:
-On internal expectations and being willing to talk about the Stanley Cup, Molson said: “It sort of happens naturally. If two years ago anyone walked into the dressing room and said, ‘Guys, this is the year we’re going to win the Cup…’ You have to manage expectations as a team and know that it’s a process. And even with a great team… I was listening to Brendan Gallagher the other day—and everyone wants to win the Cup in our organization, there’s no doubt about that; we all want that every year—but you have to compartmentalize a season. It starts with training in the summer and getting ready for the first game of the year, and then you start thinking let’s have a really good start because with a good start will have some momentum going into the fall, and it’s a process. And then you can’t think too far ahead. You have to think every step of the way.
“But I don’t think anyone in the dressing room, on the coaching staff or in management doesn’t want to win the Stanley Cup every year. You don’t just wake up in the morning and start talking about that. It’s a process, and when you get to a point where you’re making the playoffs and you’ve got a team that you think can win, everyone in the room has that vision for sure.”
•On eventually re-opening the Bell Centre (and all other Groupe CH venues) Molson said he’s 100 per cent confident they’ll be prepared for a safe experience if and when fans are permitted to be in attendance, that they’re implementing designated areas for hand-washing and re-jigging things to ensure all social distancing measures are respected. And he said that they’ve invested in touchless payment processing technology as one of several key innovations.
•Plans are in place to deliver what Molson said will be a “significantly enhanced and more interactive” experience with the Canadiens’ application and from a broadcast perspective thanks to the advent of a 5G network.
•Without going into detail, Molson also said, “Diversity and inclusion has become a very important part of our company,” and that, “it’s certainly taking on a much higher importance, and there’s many initiatives around that which will be new and different for our employee base.”
•On all questions pertaining to the potential roadblocks to the owners and players agreeing on how to proceed with an abbreviated 2020-21 season — as of right now, the players have conceded 20 per cent of their salaries to escrow and agreed to a 10 per cent deferral of their remaining pay, but sources say they expect to be paid 72 per cent of their salaries whether one, 48, 60 or 82 games get played — Molson said he wouldn’t speak for the league but that he was confident Bettman, the owners and the players would do everything necessary to proceed with a season in any format.
•Eventually, Molson did say what his biggest concern was: “It would be that we’re not able to have a season.”
“Do I think that’s going to happen? No,” he said.