- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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DENVER -- Somewhat painfully, George Gillett Jr. watched the Montreal Canadiens from a Pepsi Center luxury suite Wednesday night. The discomfort had nothing to do with the Canadiens' performance, which was decent enough if you forgive them for trapping, but with Gillett's looming Thursday morning appointment with his orthopedic surgeon to (ouch!) have both knees replaced.
Otherwise, as he watched among friends (including his orthopedic surgeon) and family, Gillett was enjoying himself, at least until the Colorado Avalanche came from behind to beat the Canadiens.
Nearly five years after he stepped into the void and acquired the Canadiens and what then was called the Molson Centre, the affable 67-year-old Gillett has managed to dispel the widespread concerns that followed the sale.
Not only was Canadian brewing giant Molson unloading its control of the arena and the most storied franchise in hockey, but the buyer also was none of the following:
(b) French-speaking, even as a second language;
(d) So mega-rich he could say, "Sign 'em all" in any language.
The resilient Gillett is a Wisconsin native and a longtime Colorado resident, a ski-area mogul also heavily into the meat-packing industry and other interests. He once had stakes in the Miami Dolphins and Harlem Globetrotters, but that didn't raise as many eyebrows as the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in his past. But he came back after the 1992 filing, and came back so strong, the Vail resident was a credible partner (with Broncos' owner Pat Bowlen and former quarterback John Elway) in a bid for the Avalanche, Nuggets and Pepsi Center, and then pulled off the purchase for the Montreal franchise hamstrung by a relatively weak Canadian dollar and onerous taxes.
It also was probably one of the biggest bargains in professional sports history, given that the cited purchase price -- $183.1 million for the arena and 80 percent of the team -- was less than the original cost of the cavernous new building in downtown Montreal. Gillett obtained a $140 million loan from the Caisse de Depot et Placement, a Quebec pension fund manager. Now, the building is among the most profitable sports venues in North America, and while the Canadiens have been struggling of late, they again are selling out the 21,273-seat arena.
"I'd had a setback a number of years ago," Gillett said in the luxury suite that resembled an open-house reception for his friends. "We're very private, we're a family. I know there were very concerned or suspicious, 'How could anyone come back that fast?' that led to that level of suspicion. I think that lasted, max, six months.
"I can't tell you, or speak for other people. But I had people calling me 'Uncle George' or joking and telling me I should run for mayor and so forth. It was a lot of kidding, but I think we have a wonderful relationship now. It's a great community and they've been warm and open to us."
Gillett's youngest son, Foster, has moved to Montreal and is listed as a special assistant to team president Pierre Boivin. Gillett himself attends roughly half the Canadiens' games in Montreal, where he has purchased property and plans to build a home.
"We're going to be spending more time up there," Gillett said. "I'm a boy from Wisconsin who loves Colorado, but Montreal is wonderful."
The responsibility is potentially daunting. This isn't just a team, a franchise, a property. Any businessperson who felt that way shouldn't have been allowed to go near it, much less buy it. There still is a bit of the Forum in the Bell Centre, and if Gillett couldn't hear the echoes and see the ghosts, that's more a cause for alarm than anything in a financial disclosure.
"Technically, we own it, along with Molson/Coors," Gillett said. "Really, I think we hold it in trust for the fans. I don't think we do a thing, and I'm including Bob Gainey or Pierre Boivin, where we don't think about the right thing to do for the fans."
Gillett cited ticket prices, which are $10 for 1,500 of the single-game seats available, and the team's continued involvement in area hockey programs.
There's no doubt Gillett has one major victory, and that's his winning over of his players. In late 2001, he essentially told Saku Koivu that if there was anything he needed during his battle with stomach cancer -- anything -- Gillett would provide it.
Koivu called Gillett's concern "amazing. He phoned me every once in a while and asked if there was anything he could do. I had a trip to Finland for Christmas, and I wasn't going to be allowed to go on commercial flights because of my blood counts. He said: 'No problem. Use my plane.'
"I don't think it's too often you can say you feel like you're talking to a friend when you're talking to an owner. But that's the way it is with me, and I'm sure it is for a lot of other guys in this room. You can poll the people not just in here, but in the team office. Since he came here, it's more of a family environment."
After the morning skate in Denver, goalie Jose Theodore said of Gillett: "Oh, he's been really, really good. Every time you see him, even if the team's not doing so well, he's smiling. You feel like he really likes everybody in the dressing room, and he's really close to his team. He's a fun owner to play for. He's a friend, he's been terrific."
Toss out Gillett's name to veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray?
"Oh, my God," Souray said, "he's been terrific. He took a lot of the heat when he first bought the team, being the guy from the States taking over the Canadiens. But I tell you what, since he's taken over, from 'A' to 'Zed,' the team has been revamped or upgraded in some way. He's just a first-class guy, and we know that he's been through a lot in his career in his own right, and I guess he understands the stress and pressures you could have."
Of course, the biggest issue is the on-ice performance of the team itself, which has included two playoff appearances in the Gillett ownership's three full seasons. Gainey's 2003 return to the franchise as vice president and general manager was a major step forward, both in terms of commitment and credibility. After a surprising start in the post-lockout season, the Canadiens are 6-13-3 in their last 22, have fallen out of a potential playoff spot and are hearing the predictable rumors of varying credibility about trades, including ones that would ship Theodore and his $4.5 million salary elsewhere.
"Oh, gosh, that's not a topic I've had any conversations on," Gillett said. "That's Bob Gainey's kind of conversation. At this point, though, Jose is the franchise."
When asked if he is looking to trade Theodore, who for the second straight game sat Wednesday night while Cristobal Huet got the start, Gainey said, "Well, we're looking to get Jose in the net. We signed him in the summer because we felt that to be a competitive team, we needed above-average goaltending, and that's what we believe he provides us. We're hardly halfway through the book. I think there's still a lot to be written, and on our team, a lot of it will and can be written by him."
Gillett said the Canadiens "clearly are building for the future. Our 100th anniversary is in four years. We'd like to be highly competitive sometime within those four years."
So, he plans to still own the team in the centennial season?
"As long as I'm in good health and my wife [Rose] and I can travel there on a regular basis, we'd love to own the team," he said. "We've got three sons active in the [family] business, so it's really going to be more their decision than mine. But if it were my decision, we'll own it a long time."
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."