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Canadiens, Liverpool each bring winning tradition to Gillett's sports empire

Each is among the giants in its sport - Montreal for its record 24 Stanley Cups in hockey and Liverpool with its 18 English soccer league titles, six FA Cups, seven League Cups, four European Cups and three UEFA Cups. In their heyday, they dominated all rivals.

And soon, they are to share an owner in George Gillett, the Colorado meat packing and ski resort magnate who bought the Canadiens in 2001. Gillett is in the process of purchasing Liverpool with fellow American sports team owner Tom Hicks.

The Canadiens and Liverpool both sport a proud heritage, drawing on talent from around the globe and boasting a tradition of excellence.

The Habs are home to players from Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Russia, Switzerland and the U.S.

Liverpool features players from Australia, Brazil, England, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Wales.

Legendary coaches include Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley at Liverpool and Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman in Montreal.

The pantheon of marquee names at Anfield include Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Michael Owen and now Steven Gerrard.

Players carry on the rich tradition, touching a sign above them that reads This is Anfield as they descend the stairs leading out to the field.

In Montreal, the Canadiens dressing room wall carries a passage from the poem In Flanders Field: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."

That torch has been carried by the likes of Howie Morenz, Rocket Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy.

Gillett and Hicks, who are awaiting board approval of a 218.9-million-pound (C$510.2 million) deal to buy Liverpool, got a word of support from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday.

"If you're a fan of the Liverpool franchises, you can take great comfort in knowing that George Gillett and Tom Hicks will be owning these franchises," Bettman told The Canadian Press.

"They're fan focused, they believe in stability, they believe in running a franchise in a first-class way; which is why they've both had tremendous success with their hockey franchises."

After the announcement Tuesday in Liverpool, Gillett flew back to Montreal and attended the Canadiens game against the Carolina Hurricanes. He didn't speak with reporters at the Bell Centre, but was scheduled to meet with the media there Wednesday.

It was a hop from one legendary club to another.

Liverpool was founded in 1892 when chairman John Houlding stayed behind and formed his own team when the Everton club moved out of Anfield.

The Reds won their first FA Cup in 1965 and their first European Cup in 1977.

They dominated English soccer through the 1980s and, although they haven't won a league championship since 1990, one of their greatest moments was in 2005, when they erased a 3-0 halftime deficit to defeat AC Milan in the Champions League final.

The Canadiens were founded in 1909 and won their first Stanley Cup in 1916, the year before the NHL was formed.

They dominated the NHL through the late 1950s, when they won five Cups in a row, as well as the 1960s and the 1970s. Their last Cup was in 1993. No other Canadian NHL team has won since.

The Canadiens and their red, white and blue jersey are celebrated throughout the hockey world as the sports' oldest and most successful club, while Liverpool stands for excellence in English soccer.

But both clubs have horror stories.

On March 17, 1955, Canadiens fans rioted after their greatest star ever, Richard, was suspended for the end of the regular season and the playoffs due to a stick-swinging incident in a game against Boston.

Richard had to go on radio to appeal to enraged fans to stop the violence. Some see that night as the birth of Quebec's independence movement.

Liverpool has Heysel Stadium in Belgium - the European Cup final on May 29, 1985 - when their supporters rushed some fans of the Italian club Juventus and many were suffocated in the pile-up of bodies. It left 38 Italians and one Belgian dead.

The incident brought the issue of hooliganism to public attention and prompted many of the measures now in place to control spectator violence.

Another dark day on April 15, 1989 saw 96 Liverpool supporters crushed to death at an FA Cup semifinal match at Hillsborough against Nottingham Forest when too many fans were squeezed into one section of the stands.

These days, Liverpool remains among England's strongest clubs while the Canadiens are clawing their way back after a spell of bad management in the late 1990s.

Both teams have fervid followings and fans who pack the seats and sing and chant through matches.

Gillett stepped forward in 2001, after no local money came forward when Molson Breweries put the Canadiens up for sale.

Fans feared an owner with no bond to the traditions built up from nearly a century of Canadiens hockey, but Gillett proved to be an involved but not meddlesome owner, who lets his managers make hockey decisions.

And he hasn't tampered with tradition or made any sweeping changes in the team's look or style.

So it is highly unlikely that it will be Gillett who decides whether Steven Gerrard plays in central midfield or on the right.

Canadiens defenceman Craig Rivet says Liverpool fans have nothing to fear from Gillett.

"George is an amazing person," Rivet said. "He's the best owner you could have.

"He puts a smile on everyone's face when they're around the man. They're pretty lucky to have a man like him in their organzation now."

The Canadiens seem delighted that Gillett is buying Liverpool, none more so than defenceman Janne Niinimaa, who grew up rooting for the Reds.

"The tradition in soccer in England is unbelievable," said Niinimaa, a friend of Liverpool defender and fellow Finn Sami Hyypia.

"I'm sure he knows what it's about there. It's not just a sport, it's a religion - a lot like hockey here, but just a bit bigger. With Liverpool being my favourite team, good for him. I hope he brings them championships."

Forward Mike Johnson, who played soccer for the North York Cosmos in Toronto into his teens, became a fan of Liverpool's archrival Everton in childhood, when a relative brought a shirt back from a trip to England.

"It's Liverpool, now, obviously. but growing up it was Everton," Johnson said with a laugh. "I grew up watching soccer. Now I look forward to travelling to England and hitting (Gillett) up for some tickets."

Soccer is in the Johnson family. His sister Jennifer went to Florida on a soccer scholarship and used to play on Canada's national development team.

About a dozen Canadiens stay loose before games playing two-touch with a soccer ball outside their dressing room. Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec are said to be quite adept.

What ties - marketing or otherwise - could form between the Canadiens and Liverpool is unclear.

"It can't hurt being part of a family that includes a team with the history and tradition of Liverpool, just like the history and tradition here," added Johnson. "The best part of soccer is the fans - the banners and the songs. I hope they bring that over here."


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