Luck didn’t smile on the Canadiens in the years following their Stanley Cup victory in 1993. From 1993-94 until 1997-98 they only won a single playoff round, including the first failure in a quarter century to make the playoffs. The 1998-99 season was not looking any better.
On the eve of the 1999 trade deadline, there were few questions in the Canadiens’ locker room from the press about the game they just played, and more about the rumours of an impending trade. General Manager Réjean Houle, wanted to help boost the ninth-place Canadiens into a playoff spot. This, on the heels of Houle trading Mark Recchi a few weeks prior for Dainius Zubrus.
Lots of names were in circulation as part of these rumours, notably Stephane Quintal and team captain Vincent Damphousse. The reality was that Quintal and Damphousse were about to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, and with the financial struggles due to a weak Canadian dollar, the Canadiens would have found it difficult to re-sign them. Trading the aforementioned players for whatever they could get was a business decision.
The captain told La Presse “there have been a lot of rumours in the last few weeks, more than normal. We will see what will happen tomorrow.”
Having just played his 993rd NHL game, Damphousse was eager to get the trade deadline over with. He was also just two points shy of scoring 500 with the Habs, in just his seventh season with the team.
Prior to boarding a flight to Edmonton for their next game, Damphousse and Quintal were called into Houle’s office where he informed them that he was currently negotiating a trade for each of them, and that by the time they landed they would know their fates.
Quintal ended up remaining a Canadien until season’s end, eventually leaving the team via free agency. However, Damphousse was dealt to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a first-round pick (Marcel Hossa) and a fifth-round pick (Marc-Andre Thinel) in the 1999 draft, as well as a second-round pick in the 2001 draft (Columbus - Kiel McLoed).
The job of telling Damphousse that he was traded came down to Head Coach Alain Vigneault, who informed his forward during the flight, which resulted in a very lonely flight back to Montreal immediately thereafter. He was the sixth captain in nine seasons to be traded away.
Over three seasons, the Canadiens saw Patrick Roy, Pierre Turgeon, Marc Bureau, Damphousse, and Quintal leave the organization under Houle’s watch. The once mighty lustre of the organization’s great link to the Québec fanbase was slowly fading away, being replaced by aging veterans like Trevor Linden and Dave Manson, without the results to back up their hire in the first place.
Rejean Tremblay of La Presse wrote that “a losing club made up of dozens of francophones is still a losing club. But at least they would maintain the interest and passion of the fans. But a team made of indifferent mercenaries is not only a losing club, it’s also a club that does not hold the fans’ interest.”
Indeed attendance was dropping year-over-year since the team moved into their new arena, originally dubbed the Molson Centre, and the team was in a full-on identity crisis.
The other shoe drops
If the trade of some free-agents-to-be set the wheels in motion, it was the retirement of team president Ronald Corey on June 1, from a job he had held for over 16 years, that truly set the Canadiens franchise into uncharted waters.
Citing chronic stress as the reason, his departure was sudden, but not a complete surprise. The media began speculating almost immediately, name dropping Serge Savard, Pierre Lacroix, and Bob Gainey as potential successors. Behind the scenes a sale of the organization by Molson was preparing itself, and Corey simply didn’t have the desire to be part of it.
Heading into September, and a new season, the organization was in total disarray, having failed to name a successor. Rejean Tremblay of La Presse summarized it well
“This means that Houle doesn’t really know what his future holds, and the entire organization is waiting to understand their marketing and general direction. They are preparing themselves for another difficult season while James Arnett (President and CEO of Molson Breweries, owners of the Montreal Canadiens) looks for his ideal candidate.
“Perhaps the reason that the Canadiens are still without a president on the eve of a pivotal season is because good candidates for the post are simply not rushing to compete for the job. Perhaps the worthy men and women who would satisfy Molson’s requirements are conscious of the very real problems facing this franchise. Perhaps they know that the Canadiens don’t have any franchise players left, have only four francophones left to provide a link with the fans and the media, and that the prospects in Québec (Montreal’s AHL team) are less than ordinary.
“By naming a president at the end of the summer, they are certainly avoiding a complete change of management as it’s a little late in September to reboot the front office.”
A new direction
Two days before the start of training camp, former President and CEO of Bauer Nike Hockey Inc., Pierre Boivin, was named the new President of the Canadiens. Chosen primarily for his extensive marketing knowledge and experience in brand building, Boivin was the man who would be charged with building up the franchise for the impending sale.
The first step towards that goal would be to review the on-ice product. The new president met with Houle and Vigneault prior to the press conference where he was introduced.
“They seem to have a good understanding of what happened during last year’s disappointing season,” Boivin said. “I liked their attitude. But at the end of the day they have to deliver the goods. Put up or shut up. It’s like that in any business. I’m giving myself until Christmas to meet everyone and gauge the situation. By then I’ll have a good idea.”
As for the concern that the Canadiens were faced with losing their francophone identity: “It’s a subconscious desire to find francophone players. But the reality is that things have changed. The talent pool is now on a global scale, and there are 28 other teams who are competing for the best players.”
And with those words, Boivin set the Canadiens on a new course: to no longer just be the franchise of choice for francophones in Montréal and Québec, but to truly take the Canadiens name, and build an international brand, competing in Canada with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and also with other sporting brands in new international markets.
An appropriate new captain
When training camp started up a few days later, the process to determine a new captain began. The organization decided that the next captain would be chosen by player vote rather than by management directive. La Presse had chosen the favourites to be Shayne Corson, Turner Stevenson, Eric Weinrich, and Saku Koivu
“It’s best to hold a vote. We want to have a united team,” said Houle, announcing the voting process.
The vote was held behind closed doors on September 30, 1999. A day later the Canadiens announced that Saku Koivu was named the 27th captain in team history, beating out Shayne Corson by a single vote.
Koivu became the first European captain in Canadiens’ history, and only the third non-francophone captain since Toe Blake in 1948. Memories of the language controversy surrounding another former captain, Mike Keane, were still fresh in the minds of Quebecers, and therefore the selection of Koivu was approached with much trepidation.
Boivin was asked about Koivu becoming the captain, and his inability to converse in French.
“We primarily ask him to act as a captain on the ice and in the locker room. In an ideal world Saku would learn French. I’m not really worried though. Europeans are very open in that regard. Saku already speaks two or three languages. We could even lend him a hand to learn French. It would certainly benefit his dealings with the media.”
Guy Lafleur was quick to defend Koivu’s lack of French-speaking skills.
“Irrelevant. We’re no longer in the 70s or 80s, but in 1999. The Americans have changed the game, and there are more and more Europeans in the league. I think that a captain needs to be a leader who has the players’ confidence first and foremost. He also needs to be the intermediary between the players and the office.”
The French language was now second to the urgency of improving the on-ice product above all else. Something that Maurice Richard alluded to when he said: “it’s a good thing that Koivu was elected captain. It will help him deliver better results than last season.”
As it stands, Koivu more than proved his worth over 10 years as captain of the Montreal Canadiens, tying Jean Beliveau’s record. Koivu became one of the few iconic players to emerge from the early 00s; a period commonly regarded as the worst in franchise history.
Koivu could have been strung up and quartered given the team performance as they failed to reach the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, while the organization continued to flounder under the ruins of Houle’s management. But Koivu remained a highly respected figure, on and off the ice, with a calm demeanour, humble in life, and exciting on the ice.
The acceptance and adoration that Koivu was highlighted by the ovation he received upon returning to the Montreal Canadiens after a season-long battle with cancer in 2002.
Houle was fired as general manager two months into the 2000-01 season, leaving behind a legacy of a man who was not suitable for the post that was bestowed upon him by Corey, dealing with existing players poorly, drafting terribly, and repelling potential free-agent talent, despite all his best intentions. Houle has remained the chairman of the Montreal Canadiens Alumni Association to this day where he participates frequently in public events, his image seemingly rehabilitated.
Was it Worth it?
If money was the issue identified in keeping Damphousse, it was questioned very quickly afterwards as the Canadiens signed their new acquisition Trevor Linden to a four-year extension worth $15 million. Comparing that to Damphousse’s four-year, $18 million deal with the San Jose Sharks, one begins to wonder whether his exile from Montreal was really necessary.
Damphousse put up 70 points the following season with the Sharks, while Linden put up a meager 30 in Montreal. Perhaps it came down to personalities, as Damphousse had a strained relationship with Alain Vigneault, which might have sealed his fate with the team.
“In my last two months in the organization, we didn’t speak to each other a single time,” said Damphousse.
If there is any silver lining in all this, it’s that this trade could be considered the watershed moment for the Canadiens franchise to emerge from its previous identity as a local institution, and eventually blossomed into a truly global brand. Currently worth $1.175 billion, the organization has a local presence stronger than ever, boasting international stars who all compete for the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge, and a fan base that stretches across an endless list of countries.