Marc Bergevin brings people skills, sense of humor to Canadiens GM post

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

You didn't need to speak French or English to know Marc Bergevin won his introductory news conference Wednesday. All you had to do was listen for the laughter.

Mostly in French, a little in English, the new general manager of the Montreal Canadiens cracked one-liners and made jokes as he outlined his vision. Though he referred to reporters as "fine people" at one point, he wasn't playing to the crowd. He was being himself.

"I enjoy people," he said. "I'm a people person."

In other words, he's not Pierre Gauthier. He's the opposite of his predecessor, a humorless recluse known as "The Ghost." He's funny. He's outgoing. He's the Habs' Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd – a Ghostbuster.

Style goes only so far without substance. Winning news conferences means little without winning games. No one will chuckle if the Canadiens, Les Glorieux, the 24-time Stanley Cup champions, cannot climb out of the Eastern Conference cellar and become contenders again. Bergevin lacks GM experience. It remains to be seen how well he will do the job.

But style might mean more in Montreal than any other market, thanks to its unique blend of history, pressure and politics, and style can have a practical impact on your chances of success.

It can help you connect with people inside and outside the organization. It can help you build a front office, coaching staff and roster. It can help you earn the benefit of the doubt – breathing room in a suffocating environment, at least for a little while.

There is a reason Canadiens owner Geoff Molson listed "strong communication skills" as he explained why he selected Bergevin. Gauthier had no communication skills, and it hurt him and the team.

"Whatever happened before, happened before," Bergevin said. "I'm sure there were some good things. It's not for me to comment on that. So moving forward, yeah, I mean, you'll see this is who I am. What you see is what you get."

In many ways, this is what Habs fans wanted to see. The majority of them speak French, and many of them revolted when Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin in December and replaced him with Randy Cunneyworth, a unilingual Anglophone.

When Molson fired Gauthier late in the season, he said ranked hockey highest in importance, ahead of language, while acknowledging language was still extremely important. He lived up to that in the search process, as he should have. Almost immediately he contacted Jim Nill, the Red Wings' esteemed assistant GM, who doesn't speak French. Nill interviewed twice and was interested, but couldn't leave Detroit.

There is undeniable value in Bergevin's background, though. He grew up in Montreal. He sat on his cousin's shoulders to watch a Canadiens Cup parade. Not only does he speak French, but his English has a French accent. He intends to scout Quebec better so the Habs have a better chance at finding homegrown players, and you've got to think he will weigh language heavily when he selects his coach.

Bergevin played 1,191 games for eight teams over 20 NHL seasons. "My luggage was always a team behind," he cracked. But as he said, "all the baggage" helped make him who he was. He acquired a lot of knowledge, a lot of connections, plus a reputation as one of the game's great pranksters.

Now, it's funny just to think of a prankster leading the proud, staid Montreal Canadiens. Former St. Louis Blues teammate Brett Hull tweeted: "Marc Bergevin will be a great addition to the remarkable Canadien tradition! #nopracticaljokesberg" You wonder if people won't take him seriously.

"No way," said Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik, when he heard his former teammate had landed the Habs' job. "Are you kidding me? Old Bergy? … Funny guy. Really funny. Likes to have fun in the locker room. … Wow. I never thought he would become GM of Montreal."

But while Bergevin once played a practical joke on his GM – helping slip a fake news story into the daily clips for the Blues' Larry Pleau – that doesn't mean he will play practical jokes as a GM. He toned down that act as he rose through the Chicago Blackhawks' organization, from assistant coach to scout to director of player personnel to assistant GM.

Bergevin became known as a talent evaluator. "He's got a good eye for players," said Blackhawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman, who worked closely with him in pro scouting. "He's got a lot of energy and ambition."

When it was time to be serious, Bergevin was dead serious. "One thing that a lot of people don’t get to see … is that he's a very passionate man when it comes to his opinions and his beliefs," said Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who worked with him in Chicago. "I think those will translate well as he makes decisions for the Montreal Canadiens."

Bergevin has spent only one season as an assistant GM. He has admitted to having a limited knowledge of the salary cap. His biggest challenge will be administration, and his most important task, as it is for every new GM, will be to surround himself with the best supporting cast he can.

His personality, combined with his travels through the hockey world, have given him a huge Rolodex. His friends include the likes of Mario Lemieux. At least in theory, he should be able to find good executives and good coaches. He should be able to relate to agents and free agents.

"That will probably be his strength," said one NHL exec.

We'll see. Though the Canadiens have a base that starts with goaltender Carey Price, they have issues that start with veteran Scott Gomez and his albatross contract. This will not be easy. He's going to need his sense of humor.

The Ghost haunted himself more than anyone else. Why were people so quick to criticize Gauthier at the first sign of trouble? Why were they so vicious about every poor decision?

Even though Gauthier deserved much of what he got – if only for the way he sullied the Canadiens' reputation for class, from firing coaches before games to trading a player during a game this season – the critics' complete lack of restraint was remarkable.

Maybe it was because they had nothing to lose, considering he never gave them much access, anyway. But maybe it was also because they had no insight into his thinking, and in that vacuum, they assumed the worst.

Bergevin can start by busting through that toxic distrust. Maybe he has already. He was switching from French to English during his news conference Wednesday when he lost track of his thoughts.

"What was I saying again?" he said.

The reporters laughed. Even those who had no idea knew this: At least he was saying something.

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