Habs on the offence

The Canadiens franchise is too testy with some members of the sports media, critics say

by Lucas Napier-Macdonald & Matthew Parizot

The Montreal Canadiens are under a lot of stress. Despite an impressive start to the season, the team has been dealing with an irate fan base generated largely by the P.K. Subban trade, so much so that in the annual Ultimate Standings ranking from ESPN, the Habs dropped 44 places to number 98 among 122 major pro teams in North America.

“The Canadiens’ drop in the rankings is largely based on the fans’ perception of the team,” wrote Gazette sports columnist Pat Hickey in October. “Some of it is unfair, but it speaks to a feeling of resentment from some elements of the fan base.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that despite his insistence that the trade was best for the team, owner Geoff Molson has been known to let off steam when criticized, as he did in late September when the team played the New Jersey Devils in the first hockey game of the pre-season.

Stu Cowan, veteran Montreal Gazette sports columnist, there on assignment, noticed that an unusual amount of seats were vacant when the game began. He pulled out his phone and shared what he thought was an innocuous observation.

“I’ve never seen this many empty seats at the Bell Centre for a #Habs preseason game #HabsIO. Looks a little more than half-full at puck drop,” he tweeted.

“[Stu Cowan] why do you write these things?” Molson responded in a tweet. “Did you see the crowd once the game started?… very disappointing and misleading.”

Soon, the tweets were flying among Molson’s 100,000 Twitter followers.

“…of all things that were said in the past year, a journos obvious tweet is what touched a nerve Geoff?!?! LOL (sic)” wrote user OfficialZee.

“Are you really questioning the integrity of a respected journalist like [Stu Cowan]? You’re better than this [Geoff Molson],” wrote Sulemaan.

Cowan himself was perplexed at the exchange.

“It was surprising that at the first game of the preseason that there would be so many empty seats to start,” he said in a phone interview from his office. “But it was also surprising that the owner of the team would respond in the way that he did.”

“Maybe the Canadiens are throwing their weight around a bit. I just sent out an innocent tweet.”

Christopher Curtis, in his beige corduroy jacket, talking sports reporting in the square behind the Gazette offices. Photo by Pat Cahill
Christopher Curtis, in his beige corduroy jacket, talking sports reporting in the square behind the Gazette offices. Photo by Pat Cahill

Gazette reporter Chris Curtis, who had briefly covered the Habs in 2014-2015, saw it as a billion-dollar hockey franchise trying to silence a lone critic.

Of all the “number of ways” Molson could have reacted, Curtis wrote in his self-described “giant twitter rant,” he chose to “get mad [and] publicly shame Stu.”

Sitting on a bench behind the Gazette offices on an unseasonably warm day in November, Curtis looked very much the inquisitive young journalist, with a poppy pinned to his beige corduroy jacket and a messenger bag by his feet.

His opinion of the Habs front office was exemplified by a particular experience. The day professional basketball player Jason Collins came out of the closet, the first openly gay player in the NBA, Curtis had been at business luncheon media-scrum held by Geoff Molson and asked the Habs owner how he would react, given similar circumstances on his team.

Molson “answered brilliantly,” Curtis said. He spoke about inclusivity and acceptance, “things we wouldn’t have heard 10 or 15 years ago.”

At the same time, a Habs employee phoned the Montreal Gazette’s managing editor Michelle Richardson to complain about the ethics of the journalist’s question, claiming that it was unrelated to sports.

Then Curtis found that if he asked hard questions or had a testy exchange with the coach, the Habs, “would stop answering my emails requesting access to a certain player,” he said. “I wouldn’t hear back from them for weeks. I’d ask again, nothing.”

Then there’s the case of radio reporter Michel Villeneuve, who in September reported on the 91.9 FM sports show, “Du sport, le matin,” that Michel Therrien, the Canadiens’ coach, had been overheard at a social event referring to Habs’ captain Max Pacioretty as “the worst in the history of the Canadiens.”

Once the story had broken, both Therrien and Molson denied the claim and, under fire, Villeneuve threatened to release even more damning information. But the revelations were never made public: claiming that their reporter refused to reveal the source of this damaging information, the radio station fired Villeneuve.

Max Pacioretty, “the worst captain in Canadiens’ history.” Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Criticism of team captain Max Pacioretty led to a firestorm of accusations.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Following Villeneuve’s dismissal, Réjean Tremblay from Le Journal de Montreal and Martin Leclerc of Radio-Canada both came forward to corroborate Villeneuve’s story and confirm the validity of his source.

In an interview with La Presse, Villeneuve posed the question: “Have [my bosses] been subjected to pressure from the Canadiens? Perhaps, because they negotiated hard to get broadcasting rights for the Montréal Rockets games” (an American Hockey League affiliate of the Canadiens that will officially begin playing in Laval in 2017-18).

Maxime Truman, of francophone sports blog DansLesCoulisses that first published the Villeneuve termination story, concurred. Sometimes in cases like these, he wrote in an email, the Canadiens don’t apply direct pressure, but pay visits that “signify everything by their very existence.”

Donald Beauchamp, senior vice-president of communications with the Montreal Canadiens, maintained that his organization had nothing to do with it.

“What 91.9 FM told us—and what they said publicly—is that they elected to let him go because of exactly what was in the paper. We weren’t involved at all,” he said.

Whichever position is accurate, one thing is undeniable; the Canadiens’ popularity is steel-plated. They are the second highest-valued franchise in the NHL.

And they have many supporters among sport journalists, who see covering a sports franchise as taking the good with the bad. Jack Todd, who has been writing sports for the Gazette since 1986, describes himself as having been “ferociously critical of [previous Habs owner] Ronald Corey, of his successors, of the ownership, the coaching, the general managers, the players. Never once in that time was I pressured to back off by anyone connected with the Canadiens, nor was pressure put on the newspaper,” he wrote in an email.

Todd called Molson the best owner since he’s been on the job who “usually reacts to everything with equanimity.” Molson’s response to his colleague Cowan’s tweet, he says, must have been a “one-off.”