Messier (And Not The Player) in Montreal
Could it get any worse these days for the Montreal Canadiens in the middle of what is supposed to be a celebration of their centennial season?
Apparently, yes it could.
With the Habs in freefall on the ice with five straight defeats, a report today in La Presse suggests that owner George Gillett is looking at selling the team as he searches for ways to deal with financial challenges to his diversified interests.
"We're not hiding it," team president Pierre Boivin told La Presse. "We're going through a very difficult economic period."
This report comes four months after the same newspaper reported that Gillett was considering selling the team to Jim Balsillie of Blackberry fame. That report was immediately denied by both Gillett and Basillie, and Balsillie went so far as to offer and apology to the Canadiens' owner.
Gillett bought the Canadiens for $275 million in 2000 at a time when no other investor, either local or Canada-based, was willing to purchase the famous hockey club. Since then, the Habs have consistently sold-out the Bell Centre and led the league in attendance, and this year hosted the NHL all-star game and are hosting the NHL entry draft in Montreal.
Gillett has many different interests, including co-ownership in Liverpool of the English Premier League, as well as stakes in NASCAR, ski resorts, marine transportation, golf courses and an auto dealership chain.
He has become a popular figure in Montreal, often seen walking the streets after Canadiens home games, or dropping in a local establishment to talk hockey with fans.
If the club is put up for sale, the question would again arise as to whether any Montrealer or Quebecer would want to buy it.
It would then become the second NHL club to officially go up for sale since the global economic crisis struck. The Phoenix Coyotes have been for sale for several months, although there has been talk recently that a group has stepped forward with interest in buying the franchise. There has also been great speculation about the future of the money-losing Tampa Bay Lightning, sold last year to Hollywood producer Oren Koules and former NHLer Len Barrie.
The Canadiens, of course, are an entirely differently proposition. Last year they were valued by Forbes magazine as the league's third most valuable franchise. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly insisted that league revenues are up and business is surprisingly good, but if Gillett puts the Habs up for sale it would be a significant dent in the NHL's "business as usual" stance.
Gillett borrowed $240 million of the $275 million to buy the Habs in the first place, and heavily leveraged transactions are among those most under duress these days because credit has become so tight. That said, this could also be about luring investors out of the weeds, or even forcing a renegotiation of some kind. like on the city's property tax charges on the Bell Centre.
Just last October, Gillett said in an interview with the Star that he believed in the NHL despite the world-wide economic woes.
"I don't know if I'd use the word 'concerned' yet,'' said Gillett. "The general state of the NHL is quite healthy. The six Canadian teams are fundamentally sold out. As far as ticket sales in the U.S., season tickets I'm told are up 4 per cent and game day sales are up 12 per cent.
"That's quite positive. That's an indication of the growing popularity of the sport.''