Jeff Gorton faces tall task of modernizing Canadiens on and off ice

Montreal Canadiens Executive Vice President, Hockey Operations, Jeff Gorton responds to questions during a news conference in Brossard, Que. on Friday. (CP)

MONTREAL – It’s one of the most captivating scenes in television history, if you can stomach watching another Aaron Sorkin character go off on a tangent. When fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) berates a young woman for asking him to describe in one sentence why America is the greatest country in the world, in the opening scene of Sorkin’s The Newsroom, you can’t help but hang on his every word.

Given that McAvoy blurts out close to 1,000 of them in a little over three minutes, I’ll just summarize for you. After giving a few half-hearted, fluffy answers and being coaxed to go into greater detail by the host of this three-person panel before a jam-packed student auditorium, McAvoy concludes that America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. He spits out damning evidence to support his claim and mocks everyone in the room for holding to the ideal that the country is still “star-spangled awesome,” as he puts it. He says that America “sure used to be” the greatest country in the world and, in acknowledging what made it so, plants the seeds for how the country can redeem the title.

If you haven’t seen this masterpiece for yourself, mind the NSFW language and watch it here:

I had watched this scene many times since The Newsroom first aired on HBO in 2012, though not recently. It just happened to rush back into my head when Kent Hughes, during his introductory press conference as Montreal Canadiens general manager on Jan. 19, explained he was finally persuaded to take his job when Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin had told him there was no turning down the New York Yankees of hockey.

Yes, this remains the prestigious reputation of the 24-time Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens – even through a 29-year championship drought and in the midst of what’s shaping up as the worst season of the team’s 112-year existence.

The thing is, Hughes, a former long-serving NHL agent, wouldn’t have been sharing that anecdote from that stage near centre ice at the Bell Centre if that reputation was still based in reality.

Jeff Gorton, who hired Hughes weeks after Canadiens owner Geoff Molson shed his own idealistic view of his franchise, fired general manager Marc Bergevin on Nov. 28 and tasked Gorton with bringing the organization back to prominence, wouldn’t have been present either. The 53-year-old Bostonian holds the title of executive vice president of hockey operations, but the hope is that Gorton’s prior experience will enable him to also address all the other things that have had the Canadiens distance themselves so much from their reputation.

It has to be a thorough job because what’s happened this season isn’t just the product of a poorly constructed and broken roster. You can’t pin the Canadiens being so much worse than they were expected to be exclusively on the long-term absences of leaders Shea Weber, Carey Price and Joel Edmundson. They haven’t lost 40 of 49 games just because they’ve had to place more players in COVID-19 protocol and deal with more injuries than most other teams in the NHL. And they haven’t been listless through much of it just because of poor coaching. The problems extend beyond the ice, or even the hockey department.

It’s why Gorton hasn’t just been evaluating his players through his short time with the Canadiens. He’s also been evaluating everything else.

He knows there’s more to rebuild than just the roster.

“I think that there was a little bit of an old-school feel to this organization,” Gorton said in an interview with Sportsnet last Friday.

The soft-spoken, approachable, well-humoured, smart and analytical executive, as he’s been described by people who know him best, was being polite. Gorton knew before, and he knows even better now, that taking the Canadiens – a team that doesn’t even currently employ a skills coach or have an in-house analytics department — from analog to digital is going to be an enormous undertaking. He knows that they were the 15-minutes-early-to-a-meeting type who built their reputation over decades as industry leaders in nearly every department, but also that they’ve been running late for too long and must now sprint to catch up.

The pandemic has understandably helped put them in this position – both on the hockey side and on the player relations side. Multiple sources over the past few weeks intimated to Sportsnet that, in their opinions, COVID-19 and Quebec’s ever-changing (and mostly severe) restrictions had somewhat paralyzed the organization. “Communication was practically non-existent with families, and it really fell off since the start of last season,” said one person who requested anonymity. “Nutrition for the players has really slipped,” said another.

If the revelation that players were taking home bagged sandwiches from the team’s world-class practice facility was somewhat jarring, the one that Uber Eats and DoorDash had become meal providers of choice on the road was less so. As Gorton noted, the Canadiens, like all teams in Canada, had been bubbled for the majority of their time abroad since 2020—restricted to their hotel rooms and put in a position where leaning on room service and delivery became somewhat of a necessity.

Still, he’s not running from the reality that in addition to affecting day-to-day operations of the hockey club and putting a massive dent in the revenue it was earning, the pandemic served as a stress test that exposed pre-existing problems in the organization that required intervention.

Molson clearly understood, hence the turnover in the front office.

Since it’s happened, Gorton has been meeting with his players to not only get to know them and gauge whether or not they wish to move on or remain with the team, but also to gather feedback on what the Canadiens can improve. He and Hughes have been taking notes, and he’s come away from those conversations saying, “There’s got to be a different way of thinking from us.”

“I think the players have to know that we care about them on and off the ice,” Gorton said. “It’s the way the world works now. Listen, this is a huge part of the game. I think you do have to make sure the players know that we’re fully invested to do everything we can to take care of everything off the ice that they need, which includes their families. And it’s the little things, but they’re big things – whether it’s taking care of their living arrangements, they need doctors. … Whatever they need, they need to know that we’re able to handle that. Ultimately, I think the thing to say is, we can take care of everything away from the ice and just let them concentrate on being good hockey players. And I think when they show up every day and it’s a positive environment, that we’re taking care of their nutritional needs and their workouts, that’s something too. We’re going to have the proper planning in place with everything so that everyone understands that we’re doing the right things on and off the ice. And we need to take care of the families.

“I think one of the reasons why I was brought in here was to address that off-ice piece. And having my background be in New York and Boston – a couple of organizations that are known for how they do things off the ice, as well as for their players – that’s going to help us as we move forward.”

The former GM of the Rangers, who previously worked his way up from intern to interim GM of the Bruins, detailed more of what that will involve.

Hiring more people to serve in concierge roles is part of it. Not that the Canadiens don’t already employ anyone like that – someone to help with travel questions, to offer guidance to families new to Montreal on where to get what, to connect players and their significant others to key services – it’s just that it’s a job for more than one person.

The same applies to the rest of the organization.

“Listen, I think there’s a lot of good people here that are in their roles,” Gorton said. “I’ve noticed that people are working really hard. I just think that, in some areas, we’re spread a little thin.”

This is most evident in hockey operations, where Molson has tasked Gorton and Hughes with expanding amateur and professional scouting, analytics and, the most neglected department of player development.

“In player development, we have a couple people in place that are really good at what they do,” Gorton said. “Rob Ramage is great, Frankie Bouillon is great, but we need much more. They’re getting contact with the players and keeping in touch with them, and that’s great. But the other piece is building out development plans. And we need the skills part, too. We need much more of that.”

Molson, who is currently paying Gorton and Hughes on five-year contracts, paying Bergevin and former coaches Claude Julien and Dominique Ducharme for the remainder of their contracts, and paying new coach Martin St. Louis through at least the end of this season, will spare no expense. Not on this, and not in diversifying the front office, improving communications and building out a mental-health team, as he pledged upon hiring Gorton.

“From my first meeting with Geoff, he was very clear that he knows we need to make changes,” affirmed Gorton. “He said, ‘You need to go find the best people to surround yourself with and build a first-class organization.’ It has been great, and every time I’ve talked to him, he wants to know what might be next and what I need. He’s been really supportive.”

The owner made a progressive move hiring former RDS reporter Chantal Machabee as vice president of communications in January, and she’s already helped the Canadiens out of the dark ages by facilitating more one-on-one interviews in a six-week period than anyone before her has over the last 40 years — a fact she proudly shared with us last week after consulting the team’s kept records on this. Bringing on Gorton and helping to hire Hughes was more forward-thinking action from Molson.

He knows they’ll need time to push the Canadiens ahead in their departments.

As Gorton explained, he and Hughes have already started. For example, he said they’ve met with many candidates to head up their analytics department. He said that’s a priority but also assured they have sufficient access to analytics to carry them through the March 21 trade deadline. And he added that even if they’ve met with “several bright people,” and would like to put someone in place soon, they aren’t rushing to hire before ensuring they have the right person.

“Some of them are brilliant but don’t have a hockey background or a feel for the game,” Gorton said. “It’s hard to have that all in one, but you need that overlap. I believe you have to have some hockey background, really know the game. You have to have a deeper understanding of how it all works to be able to sell to each department on what you think is important.”

Hiring the people the new head of analytics will be talking to is an active pursuit, but one somewhat delayed by circumstances beyond Gorton or Hughes’ control.

“The timing of everything is always difficult right here in the middle of the season,” Gorton said. “Some of the best people work for other teams. Maybe they need a promotion, and they have to go to another team to get one. So, just not jumping in with just anybody here; we’re trying to build the very best, top-of-the-line program.

“It’s been a little slower than I probably would have thought, but it makes sense with people working; a lot of people don’t get the freedom to leave their teams, not everybody gets permission mid-season. And I totally understand, especially in amateur scouting. That’s the draft – there’s privacy issues about their lists and everything. I’ve been on the other side, and I get it.

“We’re making changes that are going to happen – whether it’s this week or a month or two months or six months, whatever, they’re going to happen over time.”

Once they do, the emphasis will be on harmonizing each silo of hockey operations.

“Both Kent and I really understand the importance of everything aligning,” Gorton said. “It’s up to us to build an aligned operation that understands how important everything is. We need to align everything, and we’ve started to. I think we’re very open with our staff in meetings; we talk all the time about the importance that we all need each other.

“Each department is gonna intertwine here, and I don’t think it’s gonna be hard. I really don’t. I think the way hockey is now, everyone has this thirst to get better and move together. We all understand the importance of analytics, we understand the importance of player development; it’s just a matter of building both the right way and bringing it all together.

“For example, we now have Marty, and I think Marty is really good about wanting to know what else is going on in the game. He’s asking us about players in the minors and everything, so he’s going to be part of it too. The coaching staff has to understand and know everything eventually about the development plans and everything we’re doing with the development staff. To me, the modern coach is going to want to know the history of the player – from the time we got him until the time he gets up with the team.”

Modern is the operative word there, and Gorton has shown no fear of breaking with convention to help modernize the Canadiens. His decisions to bring on Hughes (who had no previous experience in hockey operations) and St. Louis, the Hall of Fame player who had never coached above the pee-wee level, speak to that.

The former is here long-term, and Gorton wants the latter to be as well.

“I just think Marty is just a special person,” he said. “You meet a lot of people in this world. Some people you meet, you just know that whatever they do they’re going to be successful. That’s Marty. He’s going to help with culture, the team, everything.”

As for changes coming on the ice, Gorton said there will be many, but added he’s not intending to strip the roster down to the screws.

“I came to a team that just went to the Stanley Cup Final, so obviously there’s some really good players,” he said. “And it’s a weird set of circumstances that have happened and piled up this year, and I totally get that. I don’t think we’re in a position where we just blow everybody out of here and start over, because that’s unrealistic. You have a lot of players that are good players that for whatever reason, whether it’s injuries or COVID, (this season) just hasn’t been up to their standards. What’s that tell you? That their value is probably a little lower than it usually is. To trade everybody at a lesser value than they really are, even though they have some term left, I don’t think we’ll do that.

“I think what we do, and what we’re doing, is we’re gauging the value of our players. Figure out, ‘Okay, is that worth it now? Or is it worth it maybe later?’ Right now, we’re in that feeling-out transition phase of getting the value of everybody in our organization. That’s a natural thing that you do anyway. But yeah, we’re not gonna go scorched earth here and completely blow up everything. We have good players here. We just have to identify which ones to move forward with.”

In conjunction, the intention is to build a robust and healthy organization. “A first-class one,” and “a skilled, fast, really competitive hockey team that is a tough every night and plays hard,” Gorton said.

“Once it becomes like that, it’s going to stay that way for a while,” Gorton added. “We’re going to build it so that we can sustain success.”

Step 1 – recognizing there is a problem in order to solve one, as McAvoy surmises in that great opening Newsroom scene – has already been taken.

Several more steps must be walked for the Canadiens to redeem the place they previously held in the hockey world for so long.


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