BROSSARD, Que. – It has been a week of turmoil for the struggling Montreal Canadiens.
It started Monday with a trade that landed veteran defenceman Mathieu Schneider, then saw star winger Alex Kovalev banished from the team for two games only to return on Friday.
Now it’s a published report that three other players hung out with a man facing criminal charges.
“We are very, very concerned,” general manager Bob Gainey said Friday of a report in Montreal La Presse that said brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and defenceman Roman Hamrlik had social ties with Pasquale Mangiola, who was arrested Feb. 12 as part of what police called a crackdown on outlaw bikers and street gangs.
Mangiola faces charges including conspiracy and possessing and trafficking cocaine. The allegations are not proven.
The report is being investigated by the NHL’s security department, which meets with each team annually to caution them about personal associations and other issues.
“The NHL is aware of the reports and is in the process of gathering information,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.
Gainey said the team was not aware of any socializing between his players and Mangiola.
Coach Guy Carbonneau said the team has to “deal with the allegations and try to protect our players better.”
The report said none of the players is suspected of any criminal activity.
Andrei Kostitsyn told La Presse he knew Mangiola but that he didn’t know anything about his situation. Neither Andrei Kostitsyn or Hamrlik were made available to the media Friday.
Sergei Kostitsyn wasn’t at practice because he was sent down to the team’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton earlier this week.
“I heard about that, but I can’t comment at this time,” he said during a brief meeting with media in Hamilton on Friday. “Yes, it surprised me. I didn’t expect that.”
Gainey elected not to meet the players individually, but addressed the team at their suburban training facility before practice on the need to be careful choosing friends.
“We get requests from charities,” said Gainey. “But there are also not good people who are looking for trophy friends or the possibility of being close to someone who earns $1 million-plus.”
Gainey said that if a player is suspected of being involved in questionable activities, it is investigated by team security officer Louis Laframboise. Canadiens rookies are also briefed on their off-ice behaviour in camp after they are drafted.
Only last week had there been reports that some Montreal players were partying hard at night in bars.
Gainey warned that players cannot allow their social lives to diminish their performances on the ice.
“I can only go on what I know today, and what I know today is not good,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect well on our team or the individuals.
“It must be extinguished as a possible inhibitor to our performance. Our message today was that we want to do things as players and individuals to come as close as possible to our potential, or surpass it.”
Gainey only occasionally meets with the media, but he did it twice this week.
The Canadiens are 3-11-1 in their last 15 games and their hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot is in danger of slipping away.
The general manager reacted by trading two draft picks to Atlanta on Monday for 39-year-old Schneider, who had a goal and an assist in his first two games.
Gainey then sent Kovalev home on Tuesday, so he did not travel with the team for games in Washington and Pittsburgh in order to rest and reflect on his poor play of late.
There was speculation that last season’s team scoring leader had played his last game for Montreal, but Carbonneau confirmed he will be in the lineup Saturday afternoon against the Ottawa Senators.
Kovalev said he has been battling fatigue and flu and needed time off.
“I didn’t agree with Bob’s decision, but I woke up the next day and I felt good about it,” said Kovalev, who didn’t get time off for the all-star break last month because he had to play in the all-star game. “Mentally and physically, I feel better.”
Kovalev said he hopes to stay with the Canadiens for the rest of the season. The NHL trading deadline is on March 4.
The Senators went through controversy over partying players last season, so their star centre Jason Spezza understands the Canadiens’ situation.
“You never want to speculate because, for the longest time, everybody was talking about how this team had a drug problem, with drinking too much, and it couldn’t have been farther from the truth,” Spezza said in Ottawa.
“So you have to give those guys the benefit of the doubt because when stuff starts getting talked about, it seems like it always spreads and you hear more names involved that aren’t really involved and it becomes a big problem.”