Gillett in spotlight with Liverpool and Canadiens

Updated: October 31, 2008, 4:09 PM ET
Associated Press

LONDON -- George Gillett Jr. knows all about the problems that come with being an American owner of a team in a foreign country.

He saw it in 2001, when his purchase of NHL's Montreal Canadiens was greeted with suspicion in Quebec.

And while English fans were initially welcoming when he joined with Tom Hicks almost two years to purchase Liverpool, abuse began when supporters concluded the Americans undermined coach Rafa Benitez.

But the 70-year-old Gillett has also seen how time can heal any wounds.

These days, Montreal is a source of comfort to Gillett, with fans warming to the owner and his Colorado-based family. Last season's Eastern Conference title triumph raised hopes that the 100th season of Les Habs will produce a 25th Stanley Cup triumph, the first since 1993.

"In Montreal, there was deep concern that I had bought the icon of a whole province, perhaps the icon of the sport in Montreal, and I was American and didn't speak the language," Gillett said last weekend during an interview with The Associated Press.

"There was a level of suspicion: how could someone end up with this kind of money -- it must have been in an illegal or crooked way. My reaction was not to be upset with people who legitimately questioned us," he said. "Our comment at the time was, `Let's let time be the judge, and let's see if we can work together on it.'

"And it has worked. I don't think anybody is immune from criticism, and I don't think anyone is immune from making mistakes, but I think that to have an individual family or a partnership accused by the media ..."

Gillett stopped in mid-sentence, deciding it would be unwise to reopen old wounds involving Liverpool.

He feuded with Hicks last season, but Liverpool now tops the Premier League in its quest to finish first for the first time since 19990. Tensions thawed between Gillett and Hicks, owner of baseball's Texas Rangers and the NHL's Dallas Stars, although uncertainty lingers about any partial or total sale of Liverpool.

"With Montreal as an example, we proved that our intentions were pure, that we really were fans, and that we had the club and fans' interests at heart," Gillett said. "Time is an important aspect of all this."

Much of the supporters' anger in Liverpool centers on the 18-time English champion's debt and the delay in construction of a new stadium due to the credit crunch.

However, crosstown rival Everton's plans for a new stadium also have stalled and some are saying the London Olympic track stadium should be converted to a soccer ground after the games, evidence economic concerns aren't restricted to Liverpool.

"All the sports teams I know of are re-examining all of their futures, but I think it's a universal. not just a sports issue," Gillett said. "People making this straight-line connection between the world financial crisis -- and sports may be in trouble. It's more a story of needing to be cautious and it's not a time to be profligate and so forth, as opposed to saying, 'World financial crisis sports must be in trouble."

Gillett is moving to expand his sports ownership, submitting an application to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Montreal. Indian sports are on his radar after several trips to the subcontinent.

In the hockey rinks of North America and the soccer fields of Europe, Gillett's assets are thriving.

Trophies would help heal the owners' relationship with fans in Liverpool. Just 35 miles east of Anfield is Old Trafford, where Manchester United won Champions and Premier League titles not long after the Glazer family's acrimonious takeover caused fans to storm the stadium and battle with police.

"The most difficult thing to deal with is disappointing the fans," Gillett said. "In Montreal we missed the playoffs a couple of times while we built a good, strong young team, and that meant stepping back while we developed a strategy of building from within.

"Missing the playoffs and disappointing the fans was very difficult, but it was the right decision. I think I first learned that in Montreal when an entire province would have days of depression or days of non enjoyment caused by our losing, and I have seen and heard many times that same emotional experience over here."

Gillett was only willing to discuss his general philosophy, relating it to Montreal.

"We now have a club that will be successful in the long run, that can compete for the championship every year and doesn't depend on buying high-priced players every year," Gillett said. "We have a wonderful, built-from-within club that we supplement with superstars. We are not dependent on the superstars and that is a good system.

"It's a system that we believe in as a family. It's a system that we believe will sustain fans' support for the long run. That's important, that we have the fans happy and proud for the long run.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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