LAVAL, Que. -- The sale of the Montreal Canadiens is close enough to completion that owner George Gillett shed some tears as he informally passed the keys to incoming boss Geoff Molson on Thursday.
Only small details remain to be ironed out for the sale of the club to the Molson family to become final in the next few weeks, subject to approval by the National Hockey League.
"To be known as owners of the Montreal Canadiens -- there's nothing quite like it," said Gillett, his speech halted at times by sobbing. "The Molsons knew it before. They were great owners. And now the next generation is here and they're fully prepared and we couldn't be more enthusiastic.
"We have shaken hands. I will again, both literally and symbolically, welcome Geoff Molson."
Molson and his brothers Andrew and Justin are the lead investors in a group that will pay a reported US$575 million for the storied National Hockey League club. Geoff Molson will be chairman and chief executive officer.
"It's a fantastic opportunity to continue the tradition we've always had of being great fans and owners of the Montreal Canadiens and we can't wait to embark on this opportunity," Molson said as he and Gillett met with reporters at the team's annual charity golf tournament at the Laval-Sur-Le-Lac club.
The group's structure was finalized when the Quebec government approved a $75-million loan it had offered to any Quebec-based individual or group that purchased the franchise from Gillett, the American businessman who paid C$275 million for the Canadiens and their arena, the Bell Centre, in 2001.
The brothers are the fourth group of Molsons to own the club since the 1950s.
The ownership group includes Canada's largest communications company Bell and the Woodbridge Company, owned by the Thomson family which controls Thompson Reuters. Both have large stakes in CTVglobemedia (Bell 15 per cent and Woodbridge 40 per cent), whose television holdings include TSN and its French-language cousin RDS, which broadcast Canadiens games.
Others in the group are the Quebec Labour Federation solidarity fund; Michael Andlauer, a French-born, Montreal-raised businessman who owns the Canadiens top farm team the Hamilton Bulldogs; and Luc Bertrand, former head of the Montreal Stock Exchange. Two-thirds of the partnership is based in Quebec.
Molson said it was a private transaction and would not divulge what percentage of the team each group member holds.
As well as Gillett's majority stake, the group will also buy the 19.9 per cent held by the Molson-Coors brewery, which will stay on as a sponsor.
The sale includes the team, the arena and Gillett Entertainment Group, a concert promotion company.
There will be no changes to team management, as both president Pierre Boivin and general manager Bob Gainey were confirmed in their jobs.
"They bring a great tradition and history, but they're a new group," Gainey said of the incoming owners. "Just their desire to be involved in the team that has such an important position in Montreal and Quebec I think is a statement that wasn't there 10 years ago, and is a strong statement of how we feel about our team here."
When the Molson company put the team up for sale eight years ago, no local buyer was willing to risk what was deemed a steep price for a team that paid out most of its expenses in U.S. dollars but took in what were then weak Canadian dollars at the gate.
Some longtime fans were dismayed to see the 24-time Stanley Cup champions fall into the hands of an American, but Gillett proved to be an active and popular owner. With a strengthening dollar, the 2005 introduction of an NHL salary cap and a surge in fan interest, the Canadiens became profitable and an attractive investment.
Gillett is not so popular in Liverpool, where his purchase of one of England's top soccer clubs with Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks has been criticized by fans for burdening the club with debt.
But he said the Canadiens sale was "totally independent" of financing problems with Liverpool and had only to do with planning his estate.
"I don't think there was ever an issue of one versus the other," Gillett said. "This is more than an asset.
"Our relationship with Montreal has transcended anything in business. This was a very difficult decision, but it was independent of anything else in our family."
The team went up for sale in the spring and several groups expressed interest, including Quebecor, a rival of CTVglobemedia.
An agreement was reached in June to sell to the Molsons, but it took longer than expected to assemble the ownership group. The last piece was the loan from Investissement Quebec, a provincially owned company that invests in Quebec businesses.
"These things take time," said Gillett. "There was never a moment in our discussions when either of us felt we weren't going to accomplish the goal that the Molson family would be our successor as owner of the team."
Gillett's main regret was that during eight years of ownership, the team did not win a championship.
"In sport, the ultimate measurement is your success on the ice and we never won the ring," he sad. "And I have to say to myself, my family, our fans, that I apologize for that. How much more glorious it would be for all of us to leave with the big, sparkly ring on our finger."
The Molsons will take over with some fans and media voicing concern over the diminished presence of French-Canadian players on the team. After Gainey's thorough overhaul of personnel in the summer, only three remain -- Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre and Georges Laraque.
Molson said it was difficult to maintain a mostly French team like the Stanley Cup sides of the 1950s or 1960s in today's NHL and that Gainey is in charge of personnel decisions.
"We know it's important," said Gainey. "We do extra work in recruitment to make sure we're aware of Francophone players who might be available, but it doesn't trump our need to supply the best athletic and competitive team possible."
He said the criticism was "part of the landscape, and for certain people the Montreal Canadiens are a vehicle which they can drive their points with. That's part of the spice, you know."