Canadiens president and chief executive officer Geoff Molson stated at the team’s golf tournament Wednesday, “The 30 owners are standing together and are united and they support Gary’s (Bettman’s) approach.” Another boiler-plate affirmation of solidarity.
Does he really believe this stuff? I doubt it. But the gag order is on and he risks a million dollar fine if he goes against NHL front office talking points. We’re not likely to hear any differently.
Considering their NHL history, what is happening to the game has to be very troubling to the Molson family..
The Molson family has been involved with the Canadiens off-and-on since Senator Hartland Molson blocked Ontario-based money from buying the franchise by purchasing the team himself in 1957. Seven years later, in 1964, the Senator turned things over to his cousins. David Molson quickly became the most respected of the league’s governors during an eight year tenure during which he was a key figure in engineering the biggest league expansion in the history of pro sports, the doubling of the NHL to twelve teams in 1967. After a seven year absence in the 70’s, the Molson family, through the brewery, came back into the picture when it purchased the team in 1978, and it was David Molson’s brother (and Geoff’s father), who led construction of the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre) at no taxpayer expense.
With this heritage, I just can’t see Molson being emotionally invested in the present day actions of the league. As we endure day five of the second ownership-induced lockout in eight years, the image of the game is clearly the last consideration of league’s ownership group and Molson is only one voice of a group of thirty, twenty three based in the US and owned by millionaires who, for the most part consider hockey as an “investment” . It’s a reflection of the ethic of the times. The rich want to get richer and sharing the wealth with those without their immense revenue streams is a socialism at it’s worst. And so, we have another lockout.
The other day I was reminded of a time when “the good of the league” overshadowed self-interest and it directly involved the Molson family.
In the mid-50’s the Canadiens had built up the arguably the deepest well of talent in all of sports. At the same time, the Chicago Blackhawks were the basket case of the original six franchises. They were averaging six thousand fans a game in massive Chicago Stadium, had no farm system to speak of and a talent level that kept them out of the playoffs eleven of thirteen years.
The story goes, the Canadiens singlehandedly stepped in to bail them out.
Whether the Habs were acting out of charity or something else is debatable. The results however speak for themselves. It started with an out and out sale of forward Eddie Litzenberger to Chicago in December of 1954. In four months Litzenberger went from a Canadiens spare part to a Hawks point-a-game player and the Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year. Even with him in their lineup the Hawks won only thirteen of seventy games.
The next four seasons the Hawks continued to struggle until the combination of Senator Molson and general manager Frank Selke completed a series of cash deals that finally re-established the team. First to go was defenseman Dollard St. Laurent in June 1958. Ten months later Bill Hay, a college graduate who had no chance of cracking the Canadiens centre ice combination of Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom and Phil Goyette, was sold to the Hawks for 25-thousand dollars. Months later, like Litzenberger, Hay won the Calder Trophy. Two months after the Hay transaction Murray Balfour was transfered in another cash deal.
The only meaningful “trade” in the sequence of Canadiens/Blackhawks dealings saw Abbie McDonald and Reggie Fleming head west in return for four minor leaguers. McDonald was being booed in the Forum and trading him to Chicago was an act of mercy.
These players, along with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, became the core of the team that ended the Canadiens five year Stanley Cup reign in 1961 and ignited the rebirth of hockey in Chicago. Litzenberger was the Hawks captain. Balfour and Hay joined Hull on the famous “Million Dollar Line” and McDonald was a key part of the “Scooter Line” with Mikita and Kenny Wharram. In the 1961 Stanley Cup semi-final against the Canadiens Balfour scored the winning goal in the infamous triple overtime that led to the pivotal game three Chicago win in what was a six game semi -final series victory that ended Montreal’s five game Cup winning streak. St. Laurent teamed with Pierre Pilote on defense in front of Glenn Hall as the Hawks shutout the Canadiens in each of the last two games of the series.
Now, it can be argued that the Canadiens weren’t acting out of charity with the players they sent to the Hawks. After all, they received cash. On the other hand, Litzenberger, St. Laurent, Hay and Balfour had trade value as well and the Canadiens never put them on the market and all the Canadiens received in return for McDonald and Fleming were players destined for their farm system.
Times change. It would be naive to think anything like this could happen in today’s thirty team league, where there are ten “basket case” franchises. But there are other ways that team ownership can help each other. There simply isn’t the will.