When Marc Bergevin, the new GM of the Montreal Canadiens, retired from hockey, he called his old pal Dale Tallon and told him that he was making a list of guys he would like to work for in an off-ice role.
“And he said, guess what, you made the list,” Tallon recalled with a laugh Wednesday morning shortly after Bergevin’s hiring had been made official.
“Right away I said, OK, I’ve got to hire this guy,” the Florida Panthers GM said.
At the time, Tallon was with Chicago and Bergevin, a former Blackhawks player, explained that he’d had to work his tail off for every one of his 1,191 regular-season games and he’d do the same in whatever job he got after hanging up the skates.
“He was one of the first guys I hired. He’s just a wonderful guy,” Tallon said, adding that Bergevin didn't have to sell him on his qualifications.
Let’s be honest: When an NHL GM is hired without having had the benefit of being a GM somewhere else -- as is the case with the Bergevin hiring -- there is a certain amount of guesswork when it comes to assessing whether or not the move will pay dividends.
What we know of Bergevin, 46, who bested candidates including Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois and broadcast analyst Pierre McGuire, is that he knows the game and has ascended through the ranks with the Chicago Blackhawks. He played in more than a 1,000 NHL games, establishing himself as a hard-checking defenseman. He started as a pro scout with the Hawks and then acted briefly as an assistant coach to Chicago coach Joel Quenneville before becoming director of player personnel and then later assistant GM to Stan Bowman. He was with the Blackhawks when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Will he be a good GM for a team that finds itself in more than a little salary-cap distress, thanks to the work of previous GM Pierre Gauthier, who was fired before the end of the regular season?
Maybe. Maybe not.
No one takes over managing a team because the previous guy left it ready to start planning a Stanley Cup parade. Or at least rarely does that happen, and this is certainly not one of those situations.
But being the GM of the Canadiens is different than almost every other posting in sport. Yes, there are contracts and drafting models and free agents to consider, but the story of the Canadiens, especially as they exist now, is bigger, more complex. And in that regard, Bergevin seems well-suited for what will certainly be a difficult task.
Not only did the team flounder under Gauthier, missing the playoffs this season after being bounced in the first round last spring, but it also displayed an uncharacteristic lack of class.
Gauthier fired assistant coach Perry Pearn during the season when the Canadiens started to slide in a move that seemed small-minded. Then Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin, installing assistant Randy Cunneyworth as interim coach. Then the team took a knee when critics complained that Cunneyworth could not speak French. There was a tepid, embarrassing apology from the team, which made the Habs look weak and ill-prepared.
Gauthier, aloof and disdainful of the media, was also the architect of a culture of secrecy that permeated the organization.
While many GMs see part of their job descriptions as imparting information about their teams to the media and thus to the fans who buy tickets every night, Gauthier would go long periods without speaking with the media.
Part of the task for owner Geoff Molson in rebuilding the team’s front office and coaching staff has been in finding someone who will provide a stark alternative to Gauthier.
He appears to have found that in Bergevin.
Outgoing and gregarious, Bergevin was known as one of the league’s great practical jokers as a player. We’re not expecting he’s going to introduce whoopee cushions at press events, but we also suspect having spoken to former colleagues that he will create a more open atmosphere within one of the league’s signature teams.
Longtime NHL netminder Glenn Healy played with Bergevin on Long Island and said Wednesday there has been a disconnect between the Habs' management and the rest of the team and its fan base. Bergevin will help reconnect those parts, Healy said. He must. If he follows in the same path that Gauthier established, which pitted the media against management, then Molson will have failed in one of his important tasks in trying to restore the team’s standing as a marquee franchise.
Tallon certainly feels Bergevin possesses all the qualities that will make him a success in Montreal, including being able to communicate.
“I think it’s very important not just in Montreal but everywhere. It’s hockey, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be entertainment,” Tallon said. “Bergy’s got the right personality for that."
Sadly for Canadiens fans, there haven’t been many fun days in Montreal the past couple of years.
Still, Tallon believes Bergevin’s personality won’t just make him popular but successful as well.
“He never has a bad day,” Tallon said. “He loves people and people love him. He gets a lot of information. People volunteer information to him.”
Healy agrees, saying that Bergevin’s connection to the game, how players play and think, will put him in good stead.
The second and ultimately more important decision that now awaits the team is what to do about the head coaching job.
Here’s hoping that the choice will be Bergevin’s and that he will not be force-fed a new coach.
With the Phoenix Coyotes looking more and more like they are going to be staying in Phoenix -- a source told ESPN.com this week that a deal to keep the team in Arizona could be done in a matter of days, although that is a familiar refrain -- and not relocating to Quebec, there will be more and more discussion about whether Patrick Roy will become the next coach of the Canadiens.
The question of whether Roy, a Hall of Fame netminder who remains an iconic figure in Quebec, would be a good NHL coach is unanswerable at this point. He has had success at the major junior level, where he is part owner, GM and coach of the Quebec Remparts in his hometown of Quebec City. But we’ve seen Brent Sutter fail to translate junior hockey success into NHL head-coaching success. It has taken Pete DeBoer, now in New Jersey, time to find his groove. Dale Hunter struggled early on in Washington, although he has the Caps playing well this spring.
If Bergevin believes that Roy is the best man for the job, then here’s hoping he hires him. If not, here’s hoping the Canadiens understand the importance of not just hiring the right man but in letting him do the job as he sees fit.