Ten years ago, whenever a new player was drafted or acquired by the Canadiens, you could be sure he'd mention three things in his first media interview. He'd invariably say something about the great history of the team, probably referring to its status as a member of the Original Six. He'd likely mention how great and passionate the fans are in Montreal. And he'd talk about the class of the organization and how it had built a reputation for doing things the right way.
In the Pierre Gauthier era, new players still talked about the history of the Canadiens and the passion of the fans. Few of them mentioned class anymore. With Gauthier's treatment of veterans like Michael Cammalleri, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, the Habs' shine was more than slightly tarnished. When players are told they're traded, but made wait hours to find out where, when they're required to pay for their own sweaters as keepsakes and when employees are forbidden to speak publicly about their work, word gets around. When that happens, suddenly, players start to remember it's been 19 years since the Habs won a Cup, they'll get dinged by taxes if they sign in Montreal and when things go wrong, they'll be lambasted for not speaking French.
The Marc Bergevin era gives the organization a chance to bring back the shine and the reputation it used to have as being the classiest in the league. He's started well, by bringing in front-office staff who are all known as hard workers and personable men. Most importantly, they've all played NHL hockey for years and will deal with today's players with respect and realistic expectations. There are questions about Michel Therrien as coach, because Habs fans' memories are long and the man's last stint in Montreal didn't end well. Even so, he and Bergevin will have the benefit of the doubt in the general goodwill of a new regime.
Bergevin is also opening the secretive doors of the upper floors of the Bell Centre and gamely answering questions. The Cone of Silence that had been draped over the building under Bob Gainey's and Gauthier's tenure has been lifted and information is now allowed to flow freely. This direct approach will serve Bergevin well in his effort to polish up the image of the Canadiens, both for the fans and for potential players. By dealing up-front with the inevitable rumours and sensational pseudo news stories that crop up in Montreal every year, Bergevin kills them where they stand. Honest answers mean there can be honest debate about issues, but innuendo can't grow in dark corners and pollute the dressing room.
Another important move toward building a more solid and cohesive team is Bergevin's decision to follow the lead of so many other clubs who recognize young men in their late teens and early 20s need guidance on the sometimes-rocky road to becoming professional hockey players. The introduction of a comprehensive player development team within the organization will help players transition better and hopefully limit the disillusionment of guys who go on to find success elsewhere, with the idea that they'd never received a proper chance in Montreal.
These are small steps, but they count in helping build a road back to championship form. There's so much more Bergevin and Habs ownership can do. First, and the GM has said he'll be addressing it, is the scouting department. A wealthy team like the Canadiens can afford to have the best scouting group in the league, starting with better scouting in their own back yard. If Bergevin wants local representation on the team to re-build that sense of hometown pride, he's got to start improving the department that searches for those players.
Of course, there can't be local players to draft if there aren't players signing up for the sport as kids. The Canadiens used to sponsor a whole network of minor league teams back in their glory days. That began to fall by the wayside with the introduction of the NHL draft in the '60s. What was the point, after all, in developing a whole bunch of sponsored talent, only to have it become fair game for all the other teams? Today, while team sponsorship is no longer feasible, it would benefit the Canadiens to be more active in enabling local kids to have access to the game. They are doing well in partnering with community groups to build open-air rinks, but fees for registration and ice time are prohibitive, and many parents can't afford the costs of travel and equipment. Children of single parents, low-and-middle earning classes and new Canadians might never have a chance to play the game without financial assistance. It wouldn't cost the Habs much to sponsor kids who need a hand, and might help increase the number of children learning the game in Quebec.
Another thing the Canadiens could do to help shine up their reputation is take advantage of their own history. If Serge Savard is around the team, there could be a really great opportunity to have him work one-on-one with the yet-to-be-named defence coach and a guy like P.K.Subban once in a while. Or have Henri Richard offer David Desharnais a few insider tips on how to succeed as a little guy in the NHL. The old-timers are probably willing to help if they're asked, but they should be formally asked. The Canadiens built that reputation for class by building a strong, family-like organization. They passed the knowledge of how to win on from generation to generation, but somewhere in the last two decades, that knowledge has been lost. The team would do well to take better advantage of the guys who can help bring it back.
The next important step in the return of class to the Canadiens will be in choosing the right player at Friday's draft. The team hasn't chosen this high since 1980, and the player will come with great expectations. It's important for the kid they pick to be someone with the character to match his skills. He doesn't necessarily have to be the best player in the draft, but he's got to be someone the team is proud to introduce to its fans as a hard worker and good person, as well as being a good hockey player.
Classiness is like any good reputation. It's of great value and worthy of admiration when you have it, but terribly hard to regain when it's been lost. So far, Marc Bergevin is showing signs of rebuilding that most elusive of qualities in Montreal. It will take hard work and generosity, but he's made a promising start.