BROSSARD, Que. – Marc Bergevin is moving back to his hometown after nearly three decades away and he understands the massive task that lies ahead.
The 46-year-old who grew up watching the Montreal Canadiens parade the Stanley Cup down Ste-Catherine Street almost annually is now responsible for reshaping the struggling team in a city that will watch and pick apart his every move.
The new Canadiens general manager brings to the job 20 years of experience as a steady, stay-at-home defenceman for eight NHL clubs and more than seven years of scouting and management with the Chicago Blackhawks.
But his first job as an NHL GM comes with many challenges as he takes over a club that finished last in the NHL Eastern Conference this season.
”I took this job first of all because I know I’m ready,” Bergevin said after he was introduced as executive vice-president and GM by team owner/president Geoff Molson on Wednesday.
”If I wasn’t ready for this challenge I wouldn’t be here today.”
He said that despite the team’s dismal finish in 2011-12, it will not need a complete rebuild but will require some changes to make it a winner.
The Canadiens were hit hard by injuries, but they have a solid top line of David Desharnais, Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty and the makings of a second line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, as well as a young but decent defence and a talented goalie in Carey Price.
“I believe the pieces are really good,” Bergevin said. “Obviously finishing 15th in the conference, it’s a lot of work that needs to be done but you have a good base.”
While he offered only a few specific details of what will change, it was clear the easygoing Bergevin is a near opposite of Pierre Gauthier, the guarded, uncommunicative GM he has replaced.
“We were looking for a candidate with very strong leadership capability, great communication skills at all levels and someone with a clear determination and commitment to winning,” said Molson.
Gauthier was fired on March 29, near the end of a 31-35-16 season that saw the Canadiens finish miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
While he admitted he was a little nervous at a packed news conference that was being aired live in English and French on several television and radio stations, Bergevin kept his cool and even slipped a few jokes into his answers to reporters’ questions.
”I’m emotional because it’s the Montreal Canadiens,” he said. ”I grew up here watching the Canadiens.
“I’m proud of it and I’m going to enjoy it.”
His first phone call was to Randy Cunneyworth to inform the team’s interim head coach that he was now an interim assistant coach.
Controversy erupted when Cunneyworth, who was Bergevin’s teammate with the defunct Hartford Whalers in the early 1990s, replaced the fired Jacques Martin in mid-season to become Montreal’s first coach in four decades who couldn’t speak French. Molson issued a statement promising fans that the next coach will be bilingual.
Bergevin said he would begin looking for a new coach right away and whoever is chosen will decide whether Cunneyworth stays on.
The new GM is also in favour of increasing the French presence on a team, once known as the Flying Frenchmen, that had only two francophone regulars last season, Mathieu Darche and Desharnais.
”The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is here in our backyard,” he said. ”My vision is to put people in place to make sure we don’t miss guys from Quebec.
”The goal is to win, but there are good Quebec players all around the league and we’ll do the best we can to not miss them. Right now we have one Quebec scout. We’ll have more than one. It’s a priority for me. We’ll start with that.”
He said assistant GM Larry Carriere will stay on, but he has not yet decided whether other front-office personnel would be hired.
Bergevin also said amateur scouting director Trevor Timmins will stay. The Canadiens hold the third overall pick in the June draft.
And he said a priority will be signing potential restricted free agents, including goaltender Carey Price and defenceman P.K. Subban.
”It’s the first day, I’ll evaluate, but there are priority players,” he said. ”Carey Price is 25. I think he’s one of the best young goalies in the NHL. If you have a goalie like Carey Price, you’re ahead of the game.”
He had no answer yet for what is perhaps the top question hovering over the team: What to do with underperforming centre Scott Gomez? Many feel Gomez and his US$7.3-million annual salary cap hit should be bought out, which would still leave a substantial part of his pay on the cap, or send him to the minors.
And he skirted a question on whether former Canadiens star and current Quebec Remparts junior coach Patrick Roy would be a candidate for Montreal. He said the search for a new coach would be kept as quiet as possible.
Molson, who named former Canadiens GM Serge Savard to head a search committee to find Gauthier’s successor, said permission was granted by rival teams to interview 10 people for the job. In all, about 20 were considered.
“Today marks the first step towards bringing back a winning culture to our organization,” Molson said. “Our priorities are as follows: improve the team in the short-term, re-establish a winning a culture over the long-term, give our fans what they deserve, the best possible product on the ice, and establish stability in all areas of the organization.”
Bergevin retired as a player in 2004 and moved into the Blackhawks front office. He served as a pro scout before he was named director of player personnel in 2009.
Last June, he was named assistant GM to Stan Bowman in Chicago after Kevin Cheveldayoff left to become GM of the Winnipeg Jets.
As a player, Bergevin was a dependable defenceman known as a popular teammate and avid practical joker.
He was drafted 59th overall by Chicago in 1985 and later played for the New York Islanders, Hartford, Tampa Bay, Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh before ending his career playing nine games for the Vancouver Canucks in 2003-04.
He had 36 goals and 145 assists in 1,191 NHL games.
He grew up in the Pointe St. Charles district of Montreal and was a childhood friend and teammate of superstar Mario Lemieux, now owner of the Penguins.
One day after Lemieux came out of retirement on Dec. 27, 2000, the Penguins brought in Bergevin in a trade with St. Louis, although Lemieux insisted GM Craig Patrick made that deal on his own.
During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Bergevin served as coach of a team of NHL stars put together by agents Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry that toured Europe.
Otherwise, the married father of three has kept a low profile since his playing days.
Reaction to the move from his former teammates on Twitter was enthusiastic.
“Bergevin is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had and for sure he was one of the most liked and respected guys in the game,” former Blue Kelly Chase wrote.
“His sense of humour will help in the meat grinder of being GM in MTL,” added Wes Walz.
Former enforcer Georges Laraque wrote that it was “a good choice and not because he speaks French.”