Montreal? Why Not? Habs Struggling to Attract UFAs

Benjamin Franklin once said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. But if you ask anyone who has been the General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, they will tell you that there’s a third one: many NHL players want nothing to do with playing in Montreal.

Since taking over the job in the summer of 2012, Marc Bergevin has had the unfortunate reality thrown in his face in a few occasions. Every summer, reputable hockey insiders report that Bergevin is in on pending Unrestricted Free Agent yet, it seems like they all sign elsewhere. Just last summer, the Canadiens’ GM had tons of money to throw at pending UFA John Tavares but the former Islanders’ captain didn’t even want to grant Montreal a meeting. If that’s not enough to discourage a GM, I don’t know what is. But in spite of the setbacks, Bergevin keeps plugging away at it. Eventually, one will say yes, right? Right?

Again this past summer, insiders said that Bergevin and the Canadiens were one of the final four teams being considered by the highly coveted centre Matt Duchene and we know what happened: he signed with the Nashville Predators. Bergevin had to resort to signing Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet, a topic which he discussed recently with Marc Denis on RDS.

But why would that be? We’re talking about the NHL’s oldest and most decorated franchise in history. No less than 24 times have captains of the Canadiens lifted the Stanley Cup over their head at the end of the playoffs. And yet in the annual players’ poll done by the NHLPA, the Bell Centre is always amongst the top as a place where players love to play and on quality of ice. Well folks, there are several factors it seems.

TAXES

Here’s what is probably one of the biggest factors: Taxes. In order to compensate for the taxe aspect of the contract, the team often is having to overpay to get players to listen and even then, it’s no guarantee. Yet, they have the same salary cap, creating an uneven playing field.

Alexander Radulov chose the money.

For example, Alexander Radulov was offered the exact same contract by Bergevin and the Canadiens, hoping that the controversial Russian player would acknowledge that the previous year, they gave him a chance to get back to the NHL… to no avail. Based on the calculator on Capfriendly.com, the Habs would have had to pay Radulov around $8 million instead of the $6.25 million Dallas is paying him, in order for him to take home the same amount. That’s almost $2 million that the team couldn’t spend on other players and for what? Just to compensate for taxes! Yes, there are ways for players to write off some expenses but the same can be said in any other NHL City.

Until the NHL decides to have some sort of equalizer, it will stay the same. According to hockey experts and analysts, this is one of the major contributing factors as to why no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993.

WEATHER

How often have we heard players in Florida or in California saying that they love being able to get to the rink in shorts and t-shirts, or go to the beach after practice? You’re not going to do that in Montreal during hockey season! As a matter of fact, getting around in Montreal is a challenge in any season, but winters are particularly troublesome. Of the Canadian Cities, even Vancouver is better in that aspect than Montreal.

FISHBOWL EFFECT

While there are many media outlets in all Canadian Cities, Montreal is known as having the most. There are often more media members at a Habs’ practice than there are in many other Cities’ games. While the sheer number can represent a problem for some UFAs, it’s the dramatization and constant negativity that draws the most attention with the players. The Réjean Tremblay, Michel Villeneuve and Brendan Kelly‘s of this world are the TMZ of Montreal and players do take notes.

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Who doesn’t remember when Carey Price‘s wife, Angela, having to deny rampant rumours about her relationship with her husband, and taking onto Instagram to stop the stupid speculations? We touched on this very blog on other examples, which prompted yours truly to depict some of them as Les MisérHABS… Don’t think for a second that when a wife’s player comes out publicly like Angela had to do, it has no effect on players. It certainly does. If they don’t have to deal with those issues elsewhere, they’ll go there instead or at least, it will be an important factor.

And then, there’s the fans… self-proclaimed the most knowledgeable fans in the NHL, Habs’ fans can be relentless to say the least. As an example, just look at the constant bashing Bergevin receives from those who are still hot that he had the audacity to trade away P.K. Subban. Many won’t even acknowledge that Shea Weber is a better player, and certainly better in the dressing room as well. Players notice that as well folks. That’s not knowledge, it’s stubbornness, borderline harassment. For some, it’s more important to try saving face than admit that they were wrong, a terrible quality for people claiming to be fans of THE TEAM.

LACK OF PRIVACY

In Montreal, it’s a fact that players can’t go anywhere without being recognized. As fans, we tend to think that it comes with the territory but players in that situation may find it cool to start, it doesn’t take long before they think otherwise. They can’t take their kids anywhere, they can’t go to the restaurant, movies or any other “normal” activity without having a crowd around them asking for autographs.

Who here doesn’t remember when back in May 2013, Bergevin gave struggling Carey Price his full support after the team’s elimination at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in the first round? The Canadiens’ goaltender was quoted saying that the pressure was getting to him. He said he would no longer even go to a grocery store to avoid grilling from fans over his performances and that he sometimes felt like a “hobbit in a hole.” To which the Habs’ GM jokingly responded: “Maybe I can do his groceries for him.”

LANGUAGE

And here we go… sensitive topic as always, the language issue in Montreal resurfaces from time to time and this is one of them. A constant but delicate topic, whether it’s for the choice of a coach or GM, the so-called lack of QMJHL players selected by the Habs at the Draft, the language the team captain speaks… Who amongst you have already forgotten the outrage over Randy Cunneyworth‘s appointment as interim coach, replacing Jacques Martin, back in 2011?

Whether we agree with it or not, protests like the one shown above make their turn around the league and NHL players watch that, shake their head and they become contributors in their decision to come play in Montreal or pick a different destination once they reach free agency.

Many players have a wife and kids and when a player becomes a UFA, he is consulting with his spouse and wants to do what’s right for the family. The kids’ education is very important and giving them the option to the best school (in English) is a factor. Granted, some of their beliefs are misconceptions but to them, it’s legitimate. The issue is that often, players won’t take the time to listen to Bergevin and the team, giving them a chance to answer their concerns. That’s a fact, a reality that exists, regardless of if WE think it’s important or not, if it’s legitimate or not. It is to them and ultimately, THEY are the ones making the decision.

SOLUTION

Some of the above-mentioned factors are more prominent than others and as we know, some are simply misconceptions. But there is no denying that it takes a special type of character to play in Montreal. If one tends to succumb to pressure, they will rapidly sink in a Habs’ uniform while others thrive under that same pressure.

It seems like the only way to convince players that Montreal isn’t as bad of a place to play hockey as some seem to think, the Canadiens have to trade for them to give them a taste. Jeff Petry, after being acquired at the trade deadline in 2015, has signed a six-year contract extension with the team and he seems to truly enjoy playing in Montreal. Perhaps paying a bigger price at trade deadline to give those key players a taste, would be the way to go? I mean look at what Max Domi has to say about the Habs, their fans and the atmosphere of playing in the biggest pressure-cooker in the NHL:

Which leads me to the final point: the narrative of “it’s the GM’s job to convince free agents to come to Montreal”. There are very few narratives being more far fetched than that. It’s an attempt at simplifying a very complex situation, one that most fans can read right through. It’s mostly being used by people who have an agenda, an axe to grind against the GM, and who will use any means in their arsenal to put him down, to prove their point. They likely don’t even know how ridiculous such statements can be. But we know who they are, right Habs’ fans?

Enjoy the rookie camp, the golf tournament, the main camp and the pre-season games folks as for the first time in a very long time, the Canadiens and their fans have a lot to be excited about. Go Habs Go!

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Beyond Politics is a Habs’ Reality

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A never ending topic, a discussion coming back to the table periodically, is the one about the need for a bilingual coach and for the number of players from Quebec with the Canadiens. Back when they won Stanley Cups, the Quebecois contingent was always strong and many were important contributors. Of course, the beloved Habs are fortunate enough to have the most diversified fan base on the planet and in Canada, where you stand on the topic is, more often than not, based on the primary language that you speak, with little to no respect or understanding towards the other side’s wants and needs.

This year, the Canadiens started the season with only two local products in their ranks: David Desharnais and Torrey Mitchell. We have to thank the injury to Tom Gilbert to have a third one when Mark Barberio was called up. We all know the story of how Desharnais is the scape goat of many fans and media members, particularly in the Anglophone portion of the fan base, and Mitchell and Barberio are escaping the blunt of the crowd. Ironically, only one has a French name…

But why is this happening? A few years ago, some “influent” people met at a summit on hockey to discuss the topic. It is a fact that the QMJHL didn’t seem to be competitive at the Memorial Cup, and that there has been a decline in the number of players from the “Q” being drafted for several years now, an issue that Gilles Courteau doesn’t take lightly, and neither is Hockey Quebec. It is also true that there are fewer and fewer Quebecois in the NHL but the teams who have them seem to appreciate being able to count on them. Whether it’s Luongo, Burrows, Perron, Després, Duclair, Vermette, Bergeron, Talbot, Deslaurier, Danault, Beauchemin, Tanguay, Savard, Demers, Huberdeau, Lecavalier, Scandella, Ribeiro, G. Bourque, Gélinas, Brassard, Pageau, Chiasson, Letang, Fleury, Vlasic, Marchessault, Paquette, Parenteau, Perreault and even Drouin (3rd overall pick), we’re talking about players contributing to their team’s success!

But why this phenomena?

Is it due to the economy? Is it because kids now days have so many other choices of sports? The economy and the choices are similar in other provinces, and those provinces don’t seem to suffer as much, at least not when looking at Team Canada Junior’s overall success and at at the number of players drafted from the WHL and OHL. Unfortunately, some prefer crying discrimination, choosing to blame others instead of facing the problem by looking in the mirror.

I have my theory… Several years ago, Canada went through a dry spell at the international level and Hockey Canada searched for answers and reasons. Seeing the level of skills in Europe, they looked in the mirror and realized that not enough time was spent on developing skills and too much time was allocated for games. They also recognized that in order to develop those players, coaches have to be qualified. That’s when they implemented the Program of Excellence, which Wayne Gretzky (amongst others) was part of. If someone wants to coach minor hockey in Canada, they need to take some extensive coaching clinics and the suggested ratio practice to game has since been increased to four practices for every game played!

Someone told me a few years back that Hockey Quebec didn’t want to follow suit, preferring to keep the status quo without Hockey Canada’s help. We saw them eventually change their mind, some 20 years later than the rest of Canada, and scramble to catch up, looking for solutions, by creating summits of their own. It goes to show that sometimes, one can learn just as much relying on others’ experience instead of waiting to experience it themselves, while being just as efficient and mostly, learning quicker.

How can the Canadiens help?kids

Even living in British-Columbia some 4,000 kilometres away, I can recognize the importance and even the need to have players from Quebec playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

You see, Montreal is different than any other NHL city if only from the fact of the language spoken and that, whether fans want to agree with it or not. Yes, many in Quebec (especially in Montreal) are bilingual but a vast majority in the rest of the province, including children, don’t understand English. They do want to be able to not only understand, but relate to the players, to have some sort of connection with them, with the team.

It is just as important when looking at marketing, as all 82 Habs’ games are televised on TVA Sports and RDS (French station, French commercials for French speaking people), as well as for corporate boxes at the Bell Centre when the majority of the investors are French and do business in Quebec, in French, not counting the publicity sold by the organization in and out of the rink.

As for the attachment and commitment to French speaking Quebecois, it’s nothing new as if we go back in history, going all the way back to the conception of the Montreal Canadiens, to the root of the team, it was created in the mind set of creating a rivalry, having a team of French players, playing against the English, the Maroons.

Later on, Maurice Richard was not only a great player but foremost, he was the idol of a nation, Quebec, a symbol standing tall against the English, an ordinary guy from home, a neighbour who was the best in a sport that we loved, playing for the Montreal Canadiens! And it was a similar feeling towards Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur after him.

I remember about 45 years ago when I started playing hockey and growing up through the minor hockey systems in Sherbrooke, I had the privilege of being able to associate myself, to relate to players like Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, Yvon Lambert and Mario Tremblay amongst others, players who gave me the hope of a dream… I did not speak or understand a single word of English. If you were to ask the younger ones, they would tell you that they lived similar situations by looking up to Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Claude Lemieux, Stéphane Richer, Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon and Eric Desjardins… If those players from my neighbourhood, who speak my language, can make it big, why can’t I dream of doing the same, was I thinking to myself?Lafleur

You see, it’s more than admiring hockey players. But as young boys playing hockey (or liking the sport) and as a Habs’ fan, it was a motivation, an example that young boys from Quebec can succeed, achieve their dream of one day, wearing the red, white and blue and have their turn at being idolized, admired by young hockey players as they did themselves.

And the support

Having said that, with everything that has happened in recent years, it is evident that one needs a particular personality to succeed in Montreal as in today’s NHL, they fill your pockets with money at the very beginning of your career, you are recognized everywhere in town, puck-bunnies and all, and everything that comes with what I call “vedettaria”, an illness which swells the head of its victims, giving them the impression that they’re bigger than what they really are. It looks like the only cure is to send them to another city by trading them, which has for effect to take down the swelling and bring back the work ethics that saw them get the success that brought them to the NHL to start with. According to some, Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre are the most recent ones to have suffered from it but we find other similar cases over the years, guys like Mike Ribeiro, José Theodore and Pierre Dagenais amongst others…

While we can point fingers to players from Quebec, it seems like every young player coming to play in Montreal is subject to it. We saw guys like Higgins, the Kostitsyn brothers and Price falling to it, with some recovering on time it seems and we’re hearing similar stories about Alex Galchenyuk today. That’s why it’s crucial to find great veterans to mentor those young players, to teach them the ropes, what to avoid and teach them how to become true professionals on and off the ice.

In spite of what some may think, it is very important to have local players (from Quebec) on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster but even more important is the selection of those players as well of how they are supported. You need to have a certain quality, a define personality to succeed in Montreal and it’s even more true when it comes to local players.

Don’t people remember the fiasco surrounding the Randy Conneyworth interm coach promotion? Even the owner, Geoff Molson, recognizes the need for it. Thankfully, Habs’ GM Marc Bergevin also recognizes the need.

So if you think that by trying to justify your need to put down locals behind the team’s performances, you will change simply by getting rid of the French speaking coach or players, you are fooling yourself but you are not fooling those who have been following this team long enough. Pierre Turgeon, Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau (the player), even Lafleur were chased out of town. So were Alain Vigneault, Claude Julien, Guy Carbonneau (the coach) and Michel Therrien the first time. Now you want Desharnais and Therrien gone again? If history has proven one and one only thing, it’s that you won’t be satisfied with the next French speaking guys either. Do some soul searching and for everyone having to listen and read your constant complaints, give it a rest.

Go Habs Go!!!