Over the past few weeks, most Montreal Canadiens fans have been quite happy with the recent internal housecleaning that has taken place. So far, I would give GM Marc Bergevin a meh for his efforts. Bergevin has basically taken care of the obvious. None of his moves to date indicate that he has taken one of those pills from the movie “Limitless.”
The hiring of Dominique Ducharme as an assistant coach and the likely promotion of Martin Lapointe to take on a greater presence in the front office appear to be good moves in terms of succession planning but they’re just not good enough. These are the types of actions that yesterday’s management teams tend to take. Who knows, what the Habs have done so far might work out long-term – and any move is better than no move – but a more proactive approach to succession planning is desperately needed.
Ducharme comes with considerable pedigree. He is like a first-round draft pick in terms of coaching talent. Is he a future Mike Babcock in waiting? That is, the gold standard? I’m not sure. What I do know is that Ducharme is green when it comes to working with professional hockey players. He has also skipped a level by not coaching the Laval Rocket in the AHL and could miss out on some invaluable seasoning. This may be just another example of Montreal missing the mark when it comes to development. Maybe. Time will tell.
Lapointe, if he continues to rise up the ladder is also another project in the making. Let’s pretend that he becomes Marc Bergevin’s heir apparent, it would be fair to say that he will still be green as far as GMs go. Lapointe will thus be vulnerable to making unnecessary rookie mistakes.
Both the GM and coaching positions are like walking through a complex series of landmines. Experienced GMs and coaches know how to navigate through them. No billion dollar plus enterprise (and national cultural trust to boot) should be placed in the hands of someone who is green.
I am not trying to rain on everyone’s parade here. What the Habs have done are Band-Aid measures. As I said though, any move is better than no move. However, there is a better way to cultivate talent and ensure a smooth succession in key positions.
What I’m about to propose here requires time and commitment. It also acknowledges the necessity of hiring bilingual talent while at the same time ensuring that the best and brightest from the province of Quebec are always readily available.
Before I get into some of the specifics of my succession plan strategy (beginning in this column and then elaborating it even further in my next one) let’s consider some of Montreal’s unique challenges. Sorry, but the Habs have complex challenges and they require complex solutions.
Before I start, let me get a few things out of the way. I am not going to criticize Montreal’s bilingual policies. The Canadiens in Quebec are considered a national cultural trust. I know that there is “Leafs Nation” but no one in Toronto or Ontario uses such terminology for their beloved team. Montreal Canadiens and French culture are intricately bound. Those of us outside this great province can’t understand why it HAS to be so. It just is. Resistance is futile.
The good news for us outsider fans, and for those in Quebec, is that there are plenty of brilliant hockey minds in this province that can be groomed for executive and coaching positions. All that is required is some time and commitment. And this is where team President and owner Geoff Molson HAS to step in and cultivate Quebec’s talent.
A Very Shallow Pool of “Human Capital”
Former team President Pierre Boivin once remarked in a Montreal Gazette article that the Montreal Canadiens “are severely competitively disadvantaged” when it comes to their policy of hiring only bilingual coaches and GMs. How disadvantaged?
“Other franchises have a pool of 90… We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? … that’s a huge disadvantage when human capital is your most important asset. That’s why we groom them,” said Boivin.
At the time, the former President was very concerned about the possibility of losing then-GM Pierre Gauthier – who despite having poor social skills (just ask Mike Cammalleri) was the only competent bilingual manager available at the time.
I know that many of you can’t stand him but the Chicago Blackhawks, an extremely well-run organization, properly utilized Gauthier’s scouting talents and he helped them win another Stanley Cup.
Boivin, realizing Montreal’s “competitive disadvantage” dilemma, started the grooming process by hiring Julien BriseBois as an Assistant GM and Guy Boucher as Head Coach to the then Hamilton AHL affiliate but Molson let things go in this key area and he is now scrambling to fix this huge strategic error. Molson became somewhat complacent after Bergevin (in the early going) appeared to be taking the Canadiens in a very positive direction. Mr. Molson, seeing how limited his options were with bilingual administrators at that time, gave Bergevin a seven-year extension and jettisoned any plans for a succession program. Rookie President mistakes.
Let’s pretend that come July, Julien BriseBois becomes the new GM of the Montreal Canadiens. What could possibly go wrong with his hiring? In hockey circles, is he considered the best of the best? What’s his highest upside? Is it at an “A” level? I seriously doubt it.
The way that I see it, if BriseBois is left on his own like Bergevin was, he will make mistakes – potentially big ones. After all, new general managers, even super smart ones, need a period of seasoning. The problem with taking on the job of GM for the Montreal Canadiens is that it is like learning to play the violin in front of the public. Bergevin would have been better served running a smaller, less media intense market than Montreal. His rookie mistakes have cost him a lot of political capital. The mistakes that Bergevin made could have been avoided had he had more experience. If he is let go, some future organization will be very thankful that these errors of judgment on his part happened in Montreal and not with their own franchise.
In baseball, for example, the Atlanta Braves are highly appreciative of the seasoning that Montrealer Alex Anthopoulos received working for the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers. Sticking to the Blue Jays for a minute, it took the great Pat Gillick 5-6 years of on the job training before he became amazing at his craft. The moment he stopped being “Stand Pat” and fully trusted his abilities, Toronto went onto MLB Championship glory.
Greatness takes time. It needs to be cultivated. Unfortunately for Hab fans, the Canadiens have forgotten this key principal. This has to end.
Why would the Montreal Canadiens, a billion dollar plus business, hire someone who is not on par with the upper tier of experienced NHL GMs? Expecting a Stanley Cup by hiring green GMs is untenable. What if, God forbid, Claude Julien gets hit by a bus tomorrow? Would Ducharme be ready to take over the reigns? Would they instead have to beg and plead the recently fired Alain Vigneault to come back at some ridiculously high salary? The time has come for the Habs to go a more prudent route.
Restock The Pool
The Canadiens need to develop coaches and general managers – and lots and lots of them. So many, in fact, that there will always be a plentiful supply of these people throughout the NHL to draw from. They need to restock the pool. They have to do this. The reason being things will only get worse if the Quebec Nordiques enter the fold and start eating away at the limited Francophone food supply that right now is being shared by the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. The Habs must plant seeds now, or potentially starve in the future.
The good news is that that the province of Quebec has a population of 8.4 million well educated and sophisticated people to draw from. The talent abundantly exists here and if some of its best and brightest receive additional advanced training, the tiring language debate issue that has split its fan base might finally be put to rest.
If my proposed workaround is done correctly, the Habs will likely significantly increase their pool of coaches and general managers within 6-10 years. A decade later, this pool should be massive.
Six Year Training Program In Conjunction With The “Molson Academy of Hockey Excellence”
Very simply, the Montreal Canadiens, under the leadership of Geoff Molson, NEED to initiate a six-year training program for the best 8-10 bilingual QMJHL coaches and general managers.
Upon completion of the first phase of their training, in what will be called the Molson Academy of Hockey Excellence (two years from the start date- hopefully 2018), a select few of the trainees would then get hired onto the Habs’ minor league affiliates as coaches while the those who are general managers would get jobs as assistants with the Canadiens. The Academy would operate in partnership with McGill University. (More on this below).
Two years later (2022), on merit, the coaches would get promoted onto the next level of clubs. That is, the AHL coach would move onto the Habs as an assistant while the ECHL coach would take on the position in Laval. Those hired as Assistant General Managers in 2022, would continue to get two more years of further training/seasoning as assistants with the big club in Montreal.
In year six, 2024, most, that’s right, most, will be let go and hopefully find work and further develop/make most of their “mistakes” elsewhere in the NHL. Then, whenever Montreal is in need of new “human capital,” it will have a well-stocked pool to draw from.
Think of this proposed strategy along the same lines as the development process of prospects where most take 5-6 years upon being drafted to have a significant impact on the main roster.
In the long run, this strategy will likely save the Canadiens a tremendous amount of money as they will no longer be held hostage by the limited supply of quality bilingual coaches and general managers demanding large salaried, multi-year contracts. It will also be easier to cut bait when a hire is underperforming. In addition, it would have every future Hab GM or coach constantly looking over their shoulders and perhaps think twice about hiring friends instead of higher-end talent to support them. This increased competition and their shortened employment contracts would keep them honest.
The progress of trainees will be monitored based on reaching defined high-quality benchmarks. Those who do not reach them will be let go and new candidates will be brought in. The selection and monitoring of these candidates will be done by Geoff Molson’s board of hockey advisors. I would also recommend that the Habs’ scouting staff be involved in this undertaking. After all, these people are the ones in the know as to what’s really going on within each team in the QMJHL.
Simultaneously, some of these individuals should be offered to take one-year paid sabbaticals from their current jobs in order to further hone their skills by assisting NCAA, top-tier CHL, and European hockey teams. In addition, all would also be given a minimum of a week (seven days) of actual one-on-one meetings with either coach Julien and GM Bergevin spread out over each season and another week during the summer to talk shop and receive constant feedback by Montreal’s scouting and development staff.
A Brain Trust With McGill
The Molson Academy of Hockey Excellence should work in partnership with McGill University. McGill could provide advanced training in both the business and science of sport. A high-end educational institution like this university has the intellectual resources to introduce coaches to innovative ideas and strategies. It would show them the importance of always being one step ahead of their competition.
Stanley Cups are not won by using old and antiquated systems and motivational techniques. They are won by excellence in all facets of the game. Just look at how McGill helped alumnus coach Mike Babcock. Perhaps Montreal might also be able to convince this university to hire more bilingual coaches on its university hockey team – thereby further increasing the pool of potential bilingual NHL talent.
It would also not hurt to have as many of their management trainees (those with academic qualifications) work towards receiving a Masters Degree in Business Administration. After all, the NHL is not what it used to be. Managers need to see the game from as sophisticated a perspective as possible. This is no longer our dad’s NHL. The “ma and pa,” “use your gut” approach to management is no longer an option. University educations help train minds to see things from richer, more complex perspectives. Montreal’s competition is getting smarter and smarter each passing day. So must its administrative personnel.
Let My People Go
If you look at the vast majority of the current pool of Francophone candidates, they owe their first big break to either the Montreal Canadiens or to a lesser degree, the defunct (and soon to return?) Quebec Nordiques as well as the Ottawa Senators.
Most of these people, though, were rushed into their jobs as “rookies” with little seasoning – more often than not at the Habs’ expense – hello Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, and Claude Julien. That is, these individuals made the bulk of their rookie mistakes with the Canadiens and then moved on to other organizations to fine tune their skills. Even Michel Therrien, as mediocre a coach as he was, was able to work his way back to the Habs because of the lessons that he learned while in Pittsburgh.
At this point, some of you might argue, “Isn’t this a total waste of money? Why help out other franchises? What if they never come back?”
I can simply answer these very logical questions by saying that you have to think long term. If the Quebec Nordiques re-enter the NHL, this team, along with Ottawa, will likely poach from the current pool of 6-8 candidates. Doing nothing now will only lead to MORE problems in the future. It’s better to have a bunch of qualified candidates out there than less than a handful. The more of them, the merrier.
Most of these coaching trainees need to leave the Canadiens feeling like they “owe” the Habs something for giving them their first big break. Montreal has to treat these people in a first-class manner from the get-go and ensure that if they leave, it’s on absolutely good terms. All this investment in human capital cannot be wasted by any bitter divorce.
This strategic plan is “long-term” In nature. Most of the trainees hired today should be in their early 30s and 40s. This means that upon graduating from the Habs, they will be in the hiring system for multiple decades. If the Canadiens continue doing this development, that is, they do not go cheap or get complacent as was the case with Bergevin, then the pool will only continue to grow. So for these reasons and more, then, if Mr. Molson builds this development program, he will increase the likelihood of sustained greatness for years to come.
This is my plan in a nutshell. It’s great to see that the Canadiens have woken up and now realize that succession plans matter. But what they have done is still too old school. It’s just not enough. I know most Hab fans are happy but we’ve been on a bread and water diet and Marc Bergevin has now given us a jar of peanut butter. What we need is steak.
The Habs have to be more innovative. They need a more comprehensive strategy. Montreal’s moves these past few weeks have been good but not good enough. That’s why I give them a big fat meh. Give me some steak, Mr. Molson.
In Part II of this series, I’ll give you the full details as to how my succession plan should be implemented. See you then.