Canadiens Sold to Colo. Businessman

Wednesday, January 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MONTREAL (AP) — The Montreal Canadiens, a national treasure of Canadian sports, are now American property.

Molson Inc., the team owner, sold 80 percent of the NHL club and all of the Molson Centre on Wednesday to Colorado businessman George Gillett for $183 million.

The brewery will keep the remaining 20 percent of the storied team, which will stay in Montreal.

``The team cannot leave Montreal,'' said Daniel O'Neill, Molson president and chief executive officer. ``There's no question about that.''

However, he said no offers came from any Canadian company or individual.

The NHL's board of governors must approve the deal, a process expected to take 4-to-6 weeks.

``I could conceive of no condition under which a relocation of the franchise would even be considered,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

``I have been advised that it is an express condition of the proposed transaction that the team will stay in Montreal, and it is my pledge that the condition will be enforced explicitly,'' he said.

Gillett, a Colorado entrepreneur, once owned the Harlem Globetrotters and a share of the Miami Dolphins. He tried to buy the Colorado Avalanche last year.

``I regard the team as one of the world's genuine sports dynasties,'' he said. ``I am committed to the Montreal Canadiens with the ultimate goal of restoring the stature of the franchise as the greatest team in hockey.''

The Canadiens and their heavily taxed arena were put up for sale last June.

``In the process to find the correct owner, we had to be sure that whoever it was, was committed to winning,'' O'Neill said. ``George Gillett's knowledge of professional sport franchises, his commitment to excellence and his superior operation and leadership skills are represented in many of his past and current business venture.''

Gillett takes control of a team that is last in its division and a long way from the days when it was synonymous with excellence. The Canadiens missed the playoffs the past two seasons and need a strong finish to make the postseason this year.

``Mr. Gillett will rebuild the Montreal Canadiens and restore a sense of excitement and public pride in the team,'' O'Neill said. This will give Montrealers and Canadiens' fans everywhere a reason to celebrate.''

The 62-year-old Gillett was born in Racine, Wis., and has described himself as a ``sports fanatic since childhood.''

``My philosophy is to build on quality and commitment to community,'' he said. ``I can't think of a better place to do that than with the Montreal Canadiens.''

With 24 Stanley Cups, the Canadiens are part of the social fabric of Canada. The sale to an American is a disturbing development in Canada, especially in Quebec, which embraced the team as a symbol of French-Canadian flair and power.

Now ownership of the team heads across the border and most of the blame is tied to problems facing all six Canadian NHL clubs — high local taxes and the weakness of the Canadian dollar compared to the U.S. dollar.

Last year, Gillett led a failed attempt to buy the Avalanche and was reported to be interested in buying the Florida Panthers.

He filed for personal bankruptcy in 1992 after his holding company defaulted on $983 million in junk bonds.

He briefly held a 22 percent stake in the Dolphins in 1966, acting as the team's general manager before buying and operating the Globetrotters in 1967.

He sold the Globetrotters and then bought a meatpacking firm in Green Bay, Wis., in 1978. He also launched a chain of TV stations through Gillett Communications Co.

Gillett acquired Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts in Colorado in 1985.