SBD/Issue 129/Franchises

Gillett's Possible Sale Comes At Bad Time For Reeling Canadiens

Gillett Currently Holds 80.1%
Stake In Canadiens
News that Canadiens Owner George Gillett could look to sell or refinance his stake in the team "could not have come at a worse time" for the Canadiens, and it is "nothing less than a dagger in the heart of the organization, the players and their fans," according to Red Fisher of the Montreal GAZETTE. The Canadiens yesterday confirmed that Gillett has "retained a number of financial advisors to determine the value of his sports and business holdings, which could be the first step in selling, refinancing or taking on partners in his properties." In addition to an 80.1% stake in the Canadiens and Bell Centre, Gillett's holdings also include 50% stakes in both EPL club Liverpool and in Richard Petty Motorsports. The Canadiens "rarely go public with matters of this nature," and they generally "skate miles to avoid it." But "not this time." The team has lost five straight games and is in "grave danger of missing the playoffs." How do the players focus on the team's remaining games "in view of the buzz created by Monday's disclosure about the possibility that the team will be sold -- a suggestion Gillett firmly denied as recently as three months ago?" This is all "about the economy." A hockey exec said, "Rich people aren't as rich as they once were." Fisher writes while it seems Gillett would "like to hold on to the team and building," the mere suggestion that they "could be sold is, at the very least, a disturbing development at this time of the season" (Montreal GAZETTE, 3/24).

NO OTHER CHOICE? The GLOBE & MAIL's Sean Gordon in a front-page piece writes though it "would appear no sale is imminent, the announcement comes at a time when the team's playoff future -- and the attendant millions it derives from postseason games -- hang in the balance." Sources said that while Gillett is "carrying considerable debt, it would be wiped out almost entirely were he to divest one of his marquee holdings such as the Canadiens or Liverpool." But so far no one "has been willing to meet the asking price for Liverpool and the Canadiens, which, along with the Bell Centre and Mr. Gillett's concert promoting business, are his best-performing assets" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/24). In Montreal, Pat Hickey reports while the Canadiens are "sold out for every game and Gillett has a thriving concert business based in Montreal, his other enterprises aren't faring as well," which is why he has "called in banks in four countries to evaluate his portfolio and advise him on the possible sale of assets." There is "no danger of the team following the Expos out of town," but there "has to be concern over who's next if Gillett leaves." Hickey writes RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie would be "on the top of my list of new owners," though sources indicated that Balsillie is "holding out hope he can buy any one of the many failing franchises in the U.S. and move it closer to his home" in Ontario (Montreal GAZETTE, 3/24).

Montreal Mayor Says Fans
Won't Let Canadiens Leave
NOT GOING ANYWHERE: Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay yesterday said that it "doesn't matter who owns the Canadiens so long as its remembered that the team is, in fact, the property of Montrealers." Tremblay said the team leaving Montreal "would be impossible because the fans will never let it happen and I will do everything that is humanly possible to ensure that it doesn't happen." Tremblay said of Gillett possibly looking to sell the team, "If we really want to continue to have this institution in Montreal, we have to put everything forward to make sure this happens as soon as possible" (Montreal GAZETTE, 3/24). The GLOBE & MAIL's Gordon notes there is an acceptance among Canadiens fans "of the realities of tough times," despite an "unswerving devotion to their iconic team." With the repeated assurances from team officials that the team will stay in Montreal, there is a "renewed sense it could return to Quebec hands" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/24). Univ. of Alberta professor Daniel Mason said that he has "little doubt the Canadiens will stay put, despite the dwindling Canadian dollar, because Montreal is a solid hockey market." Concordia Univ. professor Bruno Delorme: "In Montreal, the Canadiens are recession proof. 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" (CP, 3/23).

GILLETT WOULD BE MISSED: The GAZETTE's Hickey writes if Gillett is "forced to sell the Canadiens, he will be missed." There was "apprehension in 2000 when Molson" sold the team to Gillett, an American. But the brewer "couldn't find a Canadian, let alone a Quebecer, to buy the team," and Gillett has been a "good owner" (Montreal GAZETTE, 3/24). In Montreal, Dave Stubbs notes less than four months after he "absolutely, even aggressively, denied any interest in selling the Canadiens, the hugely diversified Gillett might dispose of the club and its Bell Centre home should a buyer park enough zeroes in front of a decimal point." However, Gillett and his family since acquiring the team have "proven to be passionate, caring owners, treating the Canadiens as a public trust." Gillett now is "respected, even beloved," for buying the franchise (Montreal GAZETTE, 3/24). Canadiens LW Chris Higgins said of a possible sale, "We all want the Gillett family to stay with us -- they've done amazing things for our team and the organization -- but it's not going to change the way we play. I don't think it will affect us at all." Canadiens RW Georges Laraque said, "It doesn't matter if the team is for sale or not. As long as the team stays in Montreal, whoever owns it doesn't matter" (CP, 3/23).

LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: In Toronto, Damien Cox noted the Canadiens would be the second NHL franchise to officially "go up for sale since the global economic crisis struck," as the Coyotes "have been for sale for several months." There also has been "great speculation about the future of the money-losing" Lightning. However, the Canadiens are an "entirely [different] proposition" (, 3/23).

STILL KICKING: In Manchester, Andy Hunter notes Gillett has been looking to sell his 50% stake in Liverpool for "over a year and is under increasing financial pressure as the July deadline approaches" on paying back a US$515.85M refinancing loan he arranged with Liverpool co-Owner Tom Hicks. However, it is possible Gillett could "strengthen his role" with Liverpool, as money acquired from a sale of the Canadiens "would allow Gillett to meet the personal guarantees in the Anfield refinancing deal and continue his controversial ownership of the club" (Manchester GUARDIAN, 3/24).

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