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Habs owner George Gillett considers options, including selling hockey club

MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens, already mired in a losing skid that could dash the team's playoff hopes in its centennial season, faced a new bombshell on Monday with a report the storied hockey franchise may be for sale.

American George Gillett, who bought the NHL team and the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre) in 2001, has retained financial firms in Canada and around the world to "optimize the value" of his holdings in sports, entertainment and other businesses.

That includes the possible sale of the Canadiens, although team president Pierre Boivin said the league's oldest franchise is in no danger of going out of business.

"The Gillett family has retained the services of financial advisers to assess various strategic alternatives to optimize the value of its corporate assets," Boivin said in a statement.

"In Canada, the family has retained the services of BMO Capital Markets and the process is underway."

Boivin was hounded by reporters as he entered a hotel room to give a lunchtime business speech but offered up nothing to reporters or the packed crowd.

"Today, many of you would have liked I would talk to you about the performance of the team or the news of the day in regards to the financial measures taken by our owner," Boivin said.

"But you will understand that I will abstain as it's not the time."

Team spokesman Donald Beauchamp said he doesn't believe Gillett or Boivin will comment further in the near future.

Gillett, 70, owns the Bell Centre outright and 80.1 per cent of the Canadiens.

He also owns 50 per cent of English soccer giant Liverpool and has interests in the Richard Petty Motorsports NASCAR team, event promoter Gillett Entertainment Group, ski resorts, car dealerships and agricultural companies.

Daniel Mason, a business professor at the University of Alberta, said he has little doubt the Canadiens will stay put, despite the dwindling Canadian dollar, because Montreal is a solid hockey market.

But if the club is put up for sale, there will be increased scrutiny on any potential owner.

"Because of the importance of the Habs to Quebec, there's probably speculation about the type of buyer who might buy it because there is a stewardship element to ownership," Mason said.

"Because it's such an important team and part of the fabric of the community, it's important for people to know and understand the intent of the owner."

Last November, Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie said the Canadiens were for sale, but Gillett vehemently denied that at the time.

Balsillie's is among the names being bandied about as the next owner. Others include billionaire Cirque du soleil owner Guy Laliberte, media giant Quebecor and Rene Angelil, manager and husband of singer Celine Dion.

But no one was willing to enter the fray on Monday, with Laliberte's spokeswoman saying the impresario doesn't comment on rumours.

Despite the tough economic times, a different type of investor could emerge for the Canadiens should they become available - including people who would not otherwise want to own a sports franchise.

"In Montreal, the Canadiens are recession proof," said Bruno Delorme, a Concordia University business professor.

"The arena is sold out every night ... their memorabilia boutique has had to be expanded due to increased sales so the team is a hot, prime commodity."

In December, Sports Business Journal reported that Gillett was looking to refinance a US$75-million loan he took out to guarantee his involvement in the purchase of Liverpool FC, which he co-owns with Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks.

Gillett bought the Molson Centre and his majority stake in the Canadiens for $275 million with the help of $140 million in loans from two banks and the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, the province's pension fund mamanger.

Forbes magazine valued the Canadiens franchise last October at US$334 million, making it the third most valuable in the NHL behind the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

But Mason said that number is likely a little high because the loonie has dropped in recent months.

"That is the one sort of wrinkle in this because the values of the Canadian franchises were driven up by the Canadian dollar because of the higher value of the dollar," Mason said.

Rumblings about a potential sale appeared to have little bearing on the ice Monday.

"I've heard vague rumours about what's happening," said head coach and GM Bob Gainey.

"I didn't hear that the hockey team was being sold. Have you? No. So it doesn't change.

"We're in March. Our budget's been set, our money's spent.....We have hockey games to play and it's about the competition."

- With files from Bill Beacon in Brossard, Que.


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