Montreal Candiens sold to American businessman

Posted: Thursday, February 01, 2001

MONTREAL -- Uh-oh, Canada. An American is the new owner of the Montreal Canadiens.

George Gillett signed the papers Wednesday to become majority owner of the most storied team in professional hockey.

Now he must convince Canadians that he's not their worst nightmare -- an American owner who will take the NHL's most successful franchise south of the border.

Gillett wore a Canadiens tie and pin at the center-ice news conference Wednesday announcing the $183 million deal to buy an 80.1 percent stake from Molson Inc. and the Molson Centre arena where the team plays.

He then promised to return the ''grandeur of this team'' that has won 24 Stanley Cups and epitomized the French-Canadian pride and flair in hockey.

''Our vision is to restore the franchise as the greatest team in hockey,'' Gillett said, insisting that the agreement and the NHL served as significant safeguards against any possible move.

''We want to work with the fans and we want to work in harmony with the Montreal community,'' he said.

That was the small dose of good news in a story many Canadians awaited with dread. While other Canadian-based franchises have moved to the United States, the loss of the Canadiens would tear the social fabric of a nation that embraces hockey as the natural expression of its combination of grace, ruggedness and competitive spirit.

''The Canadiens will remain in Montreal,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. ''I could conceive of no condition under which a relocation of the franchise would even be considered.''

Just having an American own the franchise, even with guarantees it won't move anywhere, rankles many Canadians already distrustful of the direction the NHL has taken the sport.

They complain that only six of the 30 NHL teams are based in Canada, and at least two others besides the Canadiens have warned of a possible sale -- and move -- in recent years.

Canadian-based clubs pay higher local taxes than U.S.-based clubs, and players get paid in U.S. dollars, while revenue from ticket sales, broadcast rights and other sources comes in weaker Canadian dollars.

Sitting with former teammates Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur, Hall of Fame center Henri Richard said economic reality dictated the sale.

The Canadiens ''will stay in Montreal forever. I'm sure of that. But the money is in the States. They're all paid in U.S. dollars,'' he said. ''It's kind of sad, but there's not much you can do about that.''

The team lost its first game with its new owners, falling 4-2 in New York to the Rangers. But that didn't dampen the positive feeling or play a part in the loss.

''It didn't affect our team either way,'' defenseman Eric Weinrich said. ''Everybody was waiting to hear what would happen. Fortunately for us, we don't have to be bothered by the questions anymore.''

The City of Montreal provided a helping hand on Wednesday, cutting the $7.3 million annual local tax bill by more than $2.6 million.

Molson President Daniel O'Neill and Gillett called the reduction an important part of the deal, though O'Neill noted: ''It's still one of, if not the highest tax bill in the country.''

Asked why he would want such an investment, Gillett spoke of the chance to be part of a special franchise that has won a record two dozen Stanley Cups.

''Know that my family and I are assuming this responsibility with great seriousness, with great humility and with tremendous respect for the history and tradition that makes this perhaps the greatest sports franchise in history,'' he said.

The deal still requires NHL approval, which could take a month or longer to secure.

''For us, it's good news,'' coach Michel Therrien said. ''They've been talking about a sale for the last two years -- finally it's done. We're more than happy to get Mr. Gillett into ownership that has so much passion for the game.''

Molson Inc., the brewing giant that took over the franchise in 1978, made keeping the Canadiens in Montreal a requirement of any sale.

O'Neill said the company retained a special share with its 19.9 percent stake in the franchise to block any move. He also said Gillett showed him a genuine desire to rebuild the franchise, which has missed the Stanley Cup playoffs the past two seasons and is danger of doing so again this year.

''He recognizes this is not simply any team,'' O'Neill said of Gillett. ''This is ... a very special organization, a great history and part of a great Canadian heritage. We are entrusting him with this treasure and I feel comfortable he will deliver.''

O'Neill also noted that a lack of legitimate offers from any Canadian company or individual eliminated questions about selling to an American.

Gillett has an up-and-down career in business, at one point heading the fourth largest ski-resort operator in the United States and owning a major beef-processing company.

He also endured personal bankruptcy in 1992 after his holding company, Gillett Holdings Inc., defaulted on $983 million U.S. of junk bonds. Last year he led a failed attempt to buy the Colorado Avalanche.

A native of Racine, Wis., he describes himself as ''a sports fanatic since childhood.''

He briefly held a 22 percent stake in the Miami Dolphins in 1966, and bought and operated the Harlem Globetrotters in 1967. He also launched a chain of TV stations through Gillett Communications Co.



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