Recently veteran Montréal sports reporter Michel Villeneuve revealed that coach Michel Therrien told a small private group at a golf tournament he believed Max Pacioretty was the “worst captain” in the Canadiens’ history. Therrien, General Manager Marc Bergevin and owner Geoff Molson all poured cold water on Villeneuve’s report, which another journalist confirmed.
Angered by the team’s response, Villeneuve threatened to reveal other damning information about the Canadiens upon his return from vacation. Before that could happen Sportstalk 91.9 FM fired him. Afterwards Villeneuve told La Presse: “Have they been subjected to pressure from the Canadiens? Perhaps because they negotiated hard to get broadcasting rights for the Montréal Rockets games” (a Canadiens farm team beginning next year).
As the Villeneuve saga suggests, the Habs have leverage over local media. The relationship between sports departments at newspapers or TV stations and the team PR department is close. Reporters rely on the team for access to players and coaches. Journalists often fly on team-chartered flights. Trying to be too independent or overly critical of the team can result in problems for a reporter.
Villeneuve’s experience sheds light on why Montrealers overwhelmingly support the Canadiens, not the Boston Bruins or Anaheim Ducks (or for that matter the Sherbrooke Phoenix junior team). In recent years these teams have had more success, more Québecois players and play (arguably) a more exciting brand of hockey. Yet Montrealers overwhelmingly stick with the Habs.
The reasons for the popularity are multifaceted and historically rooted. The choice of “Canadiens” when the term was associated with Francophones, the 1955 Rocket Richard riot’s contribution to Québec’s Quiet Revolution and the Habs’ historic success have all contributed to the club’s popularity. But the primary reason is that a $1.1 billion US corporation, part of a $15 billion league, promotes itself to fill a stadium, sell broadcasting rights and license retail shops, sports bars, condo towers etc.
To sell its various initiatives the team advertises heavily in local media. Additionally, the Habs’ large marketing department feeds reporters and broadcasters with stories and statistics, as well as organizing events, fan forums, team history commemorations. In one of a long list of major marketing initiatives, the Habs partnered with Montréal on “the City is Hockey” campaign through the 2000s. It associated the team with Montréal architectural references and delivered educational kits to schools.
Alongside the city of Montréal, many local businesses drive support for the Canadiens. The TV and radio stations paying to broadcast games have a substantial financial interest in promoting the team. So do a number of other media outlets with Habs partnerships. Hundreds of bars and restaurants across the city have informal team partnerships. Hoping to draw fans in to watch games, they decorate with Habs memorabilia. Many other businesses seeking to profit from the team’s popularity — while simultaneously driving it forward — contract players or name products after them.
Ranking just after general news and provincial politics, 12% of Québec news in 2013 was about the Habs. Two years earlier a study found that players, coaches and executives were among the most covered personalities in Québec. Incredibly, 12 of the 25 personalities who received the most media coverage in Québec in 2011 were Canadiens.
Given the tightly controlled information network devoted to promoting Habs mania, the team’s popularity is not surprising.
As a former junior hockey player and devoted Habs follower, it really doesn’t bother me that I am being manipulated by a “propaganda system” designed to create fans.
But it does make me wonder where else in our lives we are being manipulated in a similar fashion.
This was first published in the National Observer.