Marc Bergevin (Photo by Montreal Canadiens)

By Rick Stephens, Editor-in-Chief, All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — Before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, his first with the Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin preached the value of character in a hockey player.

“I played with players who had twice as much talent as me,” said Bergevin. “And some never made the NHL.”

Character was so important that it would guide Bergevin’s decision-making at the draft, when signing free agents and when making trades. How much character can a player have at 18-years of age? But yet, the word has been a staple of Marc Bergevin’s post-draft presser.

And that’s not the only time.

There are numerous examples to choose from but let’s take a look at the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. Bergevin made only one trade on the day itself, sending Devante Smith-Pelly to New Jersey for Stefan Matteau. In the only other transaction of the day, the Canadiens grabbed Mike Brown from waivers.

You would be forgiven if it slipped your mind that Brown was once a Canadien (a dead giveaway regarding the extent of his impact.) But when asked to comment on his acquisition, Bergevin once again delivered a line from his favorite mantra, saying, “Mike Brown is a character kid.”

Now, let’s fast forward to the 2018 trade deadline. In explaining the plan that guided his moves on that day, Bergevin stated that “the goal is to get younger, faster with character.” There’s that word again.

So for six years, Bergevin has been stockpiling a boat load of players with character. That is quite clear, according to what he has told us. That brings us to today’s press conference. And, in Bergevin’s estimation, what is the major problem that led to the Canadiens finishing 28th in the league this season?

Attitude.

“I honestly believe it’s the team attitude that has to be a lot better, and we won’t be in the same spot today next year,” said Bergevin. “It’s not going to happen.”

The general manager went further, saying “I believe an attitude changes a lot of things. Of course, players make things better. But if you have good players without the right attitude, I can bring anybody here and if the attitude isn’t better, we’re going to be in the same spot.”

So the general manager brought in character and attitude is now a major problem?

Now strictly speaking, character isn’t exactly the same as attitude. But is Bergevin trying to argue that he built his team with individuals of strong character who just happen to all have a bad attitude at this point in time?

Or maybe there is a much more simple explanation: it’s hogwash!

Today’s press conference was nothing more than a word salad, a string of mostly meaningless words and phrases strung together to hide the real warts of the team.

Geoff Moslson (Photo by Montreal Canadiens)

Ironically, Geoff Molson was there to point the finger at his most pressing team issue: communication. In the owner’s mind, it’s not that poor decisions were made, it’s just that management hasn’t been able to explain them well enough.

“Sometimes, when we communicate, we just communicate that we’ve done something, but we don’t give a little more color to it to make sure everyone really understands why we did it,” said Molson.”Why did we make the kind of decision we might have made? I think we have an opportunity to be a little bit more transparent there and to provide more information so our fans have a better understanding of why we’re doing things.”

So if management had a chance to explain their decisions more fully or maybe if the fans/media were a little smarter, there would instant recognition that they were way off base in thinking that mistake after mistake has been made. So looking back, the team would have made exactly the same moves, but we would all better understand the genius behind it.

If you are nodding in agreement with Mr. Molson, the NHL concussion protocol may have to be initiated for you.

You see, we aren’t really interested in Canadiens management having more opportunities to engage in spin. The NHL is a results-oriented business. Make your case on the ice and in the standings.

It would have provided so much more hope to Habs fan had they heard the real issues plaguing this team acknowledged in the press conference:

  • an impotent offence and a porous defence
  • one of the worst penalty-kills ever
  • a coach’s system incompatible with the current NHL and assets of the players
  • a disastrous off-season last summer by the general manager
  • a belief that language trumps merit

Instead, it was all about an attitude adjustment and communication. The only thing missing was Bergevin breaking into a little Hank Williams Jr.

It was an attitude adjustment
I guess it was his first time
An attitude adjustment
Now he understands just fine
He got bent out of shape
And he opened his mouth
And just one appointment
Straightened him right out
It was an attitude adjustment
Oh It’ll work every time

But if the main themes of the principals weren’t detached enough from reality, they didn’t hesitate about diving into the weeds to drive further into the land of the absurd.

For Molson, he announced that there would be no increase in ticket prices. And that you can now pocket that extra fee for printing tickets. As if correcting something that never should have existed in the first place is a big win for fans.

Molson also promised a much improved “fan experience” at the Bell Centre. Presumably that means better music, more chances to win the 50/50 draw and an extra creepy kiss cam! Convene the focus groups, commanded the owner!

But is that why Habs fans are there, Geoff?

At the same time, Bergevin seemed to be making a compelling argument why the general manager should have been fired at season’s end. Yes, it was that bizarre.

“From the start of the season, from game one, if you talk about the regular season, we were never in the playoff race or position,” said Bergevin. Well, who’s job was it to assemble a team to contend for a Cup? If the Canadiens were never in a position to contend for a playoff position “from game one”, that’s on the general manager.

And if you recall, Bergevin said at the start of the season, that the 2017-18 edition of the Canadiens most closely matched his vision. He acquired every member of the team with the exception of Mac Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price.

And this year’s team was a dud.

“I never felt like we were a team that competed every night,” said the GM. Could coaching not be blamed for that, at least, in part?

You’ll also remember that Bergevin famously claimed that this year’s defence was better than in 2016-17. But today, he was singing a much different tune.

Bergevin said that he may have misjudged the strength of the defence because he is just a good ‘ole, glass half-full, kinda guy. It shouldn’t have been too hard to determine that Mark Streit and David Schlemko were not going to be the solid replacements for Andrei Markov that Bergevin claimed at the annual golf tournament.

And Bergevin had no problem blaming his better-than-last-year’s defence, saying that no one stepped up in the absence of Shea Weber and this hurt the team. Fact-checking the GM, Weber played 26 games and when sidelined by injury, the Canadiens were in 25th place.

The defence, and the rest of the team was bad from day one. To be more precise, they were bad in the pre-season. And that is on the general manager.

The evidence was rather damning with Bergevin adding additional justification for firing the GM. But Molson wasn’t biting.

“I’m very confident that with all the changes we have to make, I have the right person in place,” said Molson. “Even if there will be changes, to have Marc in charge of turning the page is the right decision.”

What makes you so confident, Geoff? The evidence does not support the conclusion that Bergevin is capable of making the moves necessary to turn the ship around (particularly when he cannot accurately diagnose the problems.) Simply stating that retaining Bergevin is the “right decision” does not make Canadiens fans believe it.

It seems that ‘telling the truth’ isn’t going to be part of the new communications strategy.

Molson trotted out the tired, old list of talking points for recruitment that hasn’t been true in some time. Despite the owner saying that Montreal is one of the “prime places to play hockey in the world,” it is clear that our city is no longer a preferred destination for free agents.

He went on to say that the Canadiens have the best fans in the world. Well, every team, at every level, in every sport says that. And didn’t you say earlier that Habs fans needed help understanding your team’s decisions?

Molson added that Montreal has the best media. Really? Free agents being recruited deserve a prize for keeping a straight face if these are the Habs talking points.

If there is any hope of landing John Tavares, better to trash those notes and play heavy on the hockey friendship with Carey Price and Shea Weber.

Then Molson went too far, using the “no stone is left unturned” line. In fact, we know that the overwhelming majority of stones are left unturned when it comes to hiring the general manager and head coach. His claim was just utter nonsense.

The presser took another bizarre turn when Bergevin asked the media why he couldn’t release contract details upon signing a player? If he doesn’t control the policy, who does? And isn’t it a question that he could have asked Molson sometime in the past six years if he disagreed with the policy?

With all this focus, by the team owner no less, on communication, it can’t be a coincidence that the Canadiens Senior Vice President of Communications, Donald Beauchamp announced just 10 days ago that he was leaving the team to spend more time with his family. And just another coincidence, I suppose, that Rejean Tremblay wrote a blistering piece in Le Journal de Montreal about the Canadiens communications department just one day before Beauchamp’s announcement.

Whatever the truth is with respect to Beauchamp, it’s clear that Molson is intent on changing the way that the organization handles their communications. Being more accessible to tell people why they are wrong, seems to be the approach. Next season expect different iterations of saying ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?’

And don’t forget about that brand new fan experience package at the Bell Centre. In addition to selling the past, the Canadiens seem to be looking to mesmerize fans with dazzle helping them to cope with the mediocre on-ice product.

But the most interesting part of the exercise will be the purge of bad attitudes from the roster. No doubt there will be scapegoats to pay for the sins of the owner, general manager and head coach. They will likely come in the form of moving their captain and dismissing the staff in Laval.

All in all, the press conference was a disaster for Molson and Bergevin who appeared completely tone deaf to the real causes that torpedoed the Canadiens season. The simple fact is that the general manager assembled a bad team and chose a coach that only exacerbated its faults.

And fans are left to trust that this management crew has what it takes to turn this team into a Cup contender. About this season, Bergevin said, “The most disappointment for me is, for our fans, it was never fun.” Unless the general manager hits a few grand slams this summer, don’t expect on having a whole lot of fun next season either.