SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/Families In Sports Fathers And Sons

Owning the Canadiens creates ‘a mutual learning process’

The story of George Gillett’s purchase of Canada’s national sporting treasure climaxes like a classic bit of film noir, set in midwinter at a Rocky Mountain ski lodge, where the protagonist and his son end a day on the slopes in an office with a man they have only recently come to know.

George Gillett (right) with Foster, the most
active of four sons in the Canadiens
The man reaches into his pants pocket and emerges with a sheet of paper, folded and crinkled. He hands it to Gillett, and asks, “Would you do this deal?”

And the lives of Gillett and his son, Foster, change forever.

“Our family loves hockey. Loves hockey,” said Gillett, who bought the Montreal Canadiens in June 2001, adding the team to a portfolio of family business interests ranging from meat packing to ski resorts. “And, [owning] the team, there’s a mutual learning process going on that has created a personal relationship between the boys (Gillett has four sons), and the boys and me, that is truly different than anything I’ve had in any of our other businesses.

“The other businesses are great, and we have wonderful people running them. But the level of passion in hockey is unique.”

Gillett’s quest for the Montreal Canadiens began in June 2000, on the day after Molson announced that it was putting the team up for sale to concentrate on its beer business. Foster Gillett read the report online, printed it, and brought it to his father’s office. A day later, they traveled to Molson’s Toronto headquarters to check out the Canadiens.

Gillett quickly realized that Molson wanted to turn the sale into an auction. Gillett had already been on the losing end of one of those as part of a group that tried to buy the Avalanche and Nuggets. He didn’t want to go down that road again, so he bowed out.

Six months later, the Canadiens still hadn’t sold. Gillett got a call from Molson CEO Dan O’Neill, who was visiting a resort near the Gillett home in Vail, Colo. O’Neill suggested the two families spend a day skiing together.

When they were finished, O’Neill suggested they head to Gillett’s office, where the Molson CEO produced that crinkled sheet of paper. Gillett read the terms on the sheet and showed them to his son.

“No,” George Gillett said.

“What would you do?” O’Neill asked.

The Gilletts stepped out. When they came back, they handed O’Neill their own sheet of paper. He looked it over and extended his hand.

“We had to work out a few conditions,” George Gillett said. “But the money was almost identical to what we agreed to very quickly that day.”

Gillett points out that each of his four sons holds an ownership stake in the Canadiens. But it is his youngest son, Foster, who is the most active, making his home in Montreal during the season and representing the Gilletts in the day-to-day business of the team.

“Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to understand how we do business, how my dad has been successful, how we operate and run a business,” said Foster Gillett, 30, whose title with the Canadiens is special assistant to the president. “There are no classes for that. One of the great things that this provides us is a common language. It allows him to have a template to transmit to me how the Gillett family does business.”

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