It was a week when everything seemed to conspire to remind me of the days when I was first writing sports columns back in the mid-1990s — and to remind us all that the times are a-changing.
The nostalgic mood was struck first by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. appearing at the Olympic Stadium wearing number 27. His father (a no-show for his son’s debut at the Big O) was a splinter at this age, but apart from that there are many similarities, including the fact the younger Guerrero never saw a pitch he didn’t like. When he hit a walk-off home run for the game’s only run in the ninth inning Tuesday night, it was as though he were all younger, livelier, more hopeful.
But even then, the changes hit home: the home run was hit for the Blue Jays, not the Expos. The younger Guerrero will begin his career in Toronto, not Montreal. And while Stephen Bronfman hit a hopeful note in his remarks to the press, the Expos (at least for now) do not exist.
Later in the week, we learned Canadiens PR maven Donald Beauchamp is hanging them up after 25 years in what may be the toughest job in this city. Caught between journalists who demand every scrap of information there is to be had in both official languages and Canadiens management, which would prefer they get nothing at all, Beauchamp steered a masterful middle course for a quarter-century.
Beauchamp and I were friends and occasional antagonists for two decades. More than once, a quiet word from Beauchamp kept me from embarrassing myself in public even more than usual. He will be missed.
Then came more somber news: former Canadiens defenceman Lyle Odelein was in serious condition in a Pittsburgh hospital with as yet undiagnosed health problem. The 49-year-old Odelein was a lively, funny, plain-spoken and thoroughly genuine athlete when I first came on the beat, my first go-to guy in the room, possessor of a fierce crush on Shania Twain and a ready wit.
There are dozens of Odelein stories we could tell, but the one that comes to mind was the time Eric Lindros pounded another Canadiens defenceman (who shall remain nameless) into the ice. I noticed Odelein skated up and said something to the big guy afterward, so I asked Odelein what it was.
Odelein laughed. “I said: ‘Why’d you go and do that? Now I have to fight you for him, and I hate that $@*%*@#!”
Finally, there was this note posted by sports columnist Stu Cowan — and it was not an April Fool’s gem: On April 1, 1989, Patrick Roy completed an unbeaten season at home, going 25-0-4 as the Canadiens tied Philadelphia at the Forum, 2-2.
I had to blink twice as I stared at that statistic: 29 home starts in one season, zero losses. Try to connect numbers like that to Carey Price and today’s Canadiens. It’s unthinkable.
All in all, our nostalgic reverie points to one conclusion: the times are a-changing, and the Canadiens are not changing with them. Or at least they’re not changing fast enough. Under Geoff Molson and Marc Bergevin, the once-great CH is becoming one of the most hide-bound, conservative organizations in the game. It isn’t serving them well.
Grant McCagg, the hockey scout who has teamed up with Brian Wilde on recrutes.ca to offer some of the most astute observations on all things Canadiens to be found, posted this on Twitter: “Bergevin is old school and his two main assistants in (Larry) Carrière and Rick Dudley are eligible for pensions. Hired (Claude) Julien, almost signed (Milan) Lucic, picked up (Karl) Alzner for a top-4 role. Those are outdated decisions.”
McCagg pointed to the Leafs analytics guru Kyle Dubas (age 31 and tipped to succeed Lou Lamoriello as GM as early as this coming season) as an example of the new blood the Canadiens need. “Not one offensive-minded teacher in the organization,” McCagg said. “It’s time to move into the 21st century. The game is evolving.”
I think there’s still room for a wise old head or two in front offices and I’m not necessarily sold on whiz-kid GMs with analytics backgrounds, but there is no doubt: the game is evolving and it is time to move into the 21st century.
Yet the Canadiens seem to prefer to wallow in nostalgia as they try to work their way back to the formula that succeeded when they had Patrick Roy, the best money goaltender of all time, between the pipes. Whatever else he may be, Price is no Roy and even if he was, there’s no indication the formula works in today’s NHL.
Instead, the Canadiens need to find coaches who can unlock the potential in Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk, and front office people who understand the days when you can carve out a pretty good NHL career while skating like Hal Gill or Guillaume Latendresse are over. The league is not only changing, it’s changing fast. If you get left up the track, it could take a decade or more to recover.
Nostalgia is fine for aging sports columnists and Jefferson Airplane cover bands. For sports organizations, it can result in a lengthy stay on the can’t-compete list.