Gillett ready to rebuild another sports icon

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.



It's two hours before game time for his Montreal Canadiens, and George Gillett is sitting in the conference room on the eighth floor of the Centre Bell tying up loose ends. Several newspapers are neatly arranged atop a table, along with an e-mail from 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan. But paramount among the paperwork is an announcement that Gillett's NASCAR entity, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, and Petty Holdings have agreed in principle to form a new team. Gillett, already the owner of two storied sports franchises — the Canadiens of the NHL and English soccer's Liverpool club — has added another crown jewel to his collection. "I don't think you can have too many relationships with great people," Gillett says. "It's not coincidence that virtually everybody that knows Richard Petty refers to him as 'King.' That's a testimony. That's a matter of respect. He's a great man. And by his example, he is a great leader. To associate with him is a rare privilege." Gillett, 70, uses the same word, "privilege," to describe the responsibility of nurturing Montreal's hockey team. "We hold this club in trust for the fans," he says. "I don't think we think of ourselves as owners. I think we are the holders of the flame. Others started it. There will be others after us. So we're the custodians of a great tradition." Gillett, a native of Racine, Wis. (and no relation to the Gillette family of shaving-products fame), bought the Canadiens in 2000 after first trying to buy the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets. A businessman whose background includes ski resorts, media holdings and meat production, he leaves the running of the club to his hockey people. "We don't directly run any one of our businesses," Gillett says. "We have professionals who are smart people. When we looked at NASCAR and where it was going, it was clear that there are really two sides of the business — the business side and the go-to-the-racetrack side." Gillett's love of racing began as a participant during his younger years growing up in Wisconsin. He admits to not having been highly competitive, but he went on to sponsor American Speed Association teams and was chairman of the Denver Grand Prix before purchasing majority interest of his NASCAR property from Ray Evernham in August 2007. With a deal with Petty Enterprises in the making and Evernham reducing his role to minority partner, Gillett Evernham Motorsports will be renamed. "Ray (Evernham) left us in very good shape in going to the track," Gillett says. "But the change of the business side of the sport happened so fast and the kind of demands it required happened so fast that it was clear that we needed a professional who is good at marketing and has a background in sales and marketing with a working knowledge of NASCAR and knows something about race cars." Enter Tom Reddin, a former Coca-Cola product manager and CEO of Lending Tree, who was named CEO of GEM last February. Gillett is quick to point out that Reddin is accomplished not only in the boardroom, but on the racetrack as well; he's a former amateur Sports Car Club of America racer. "He at least understands when someone says a car is loose or tight what that means," Gillett said. "And he loves competition. With the prospect of the Petty relationship, we have Robbie Loomis, who in terms of taking the (vice president and managing director of competition Mark) McArdle genius to the track, is extraordinary. "And now Mark has a great partner in taking the technology that has been in the organization that Ray left us and translating it into what we believe will be even better performance at the track."
"We don't directly run any one of our businesses. We have professionals who are smart people."

George Gillett
Back in Montreal, Gillett begins his ritual of walking the grounds an hour before the pregame ceremony starts. This one is special, for Montreal is playing its Original Six rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs. On this night Gillett doesn't want to dwell on the reportedly contentious relationship between himself and fellow Liverpool owner Tom Hicks, or to get into a discussion about NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He simply wants to savor one of the best rivalries in professional sports. He strolls past pictures of headliners Madonna and Celine Dion on the way past the offices of Gillett Entertainment Group, which produces more than 500 shows a year. He offers a quick hello to GEG VP and GM Jacques Aube, then slips into an elevator, passes through the media dining hall and up the stairs to where 302 press seats surround the arena. He points out the "Molson Ex Zone" — a party section designed with college students in mind. At 6:35 p.m., Gillett greets former Canadien Murray Wilson, the color man for the team's English-language radio broadcasts on CJAD. An Ottawa native who spent six seasons playing for Montreal in the 1970s, Wilson is an enthusiastic supporter of the Centre Bell, which replaced Montreal's legendary but aging Forum, which housed the team from 1926-96. "There's nothing like it in hockey — anywhere," Wilson says of the Centre Bell, which debuted with 21,273 seats — the largest capacity in the NHL. "I've been traveling with this team since 1972. I get asked all the time if you have the opportunity to see a hockey game anywhere in the world, there's only one place to go and that's Montreal. "The atmosphere is absolutely by far the best of any building in hockey." And the owner? Wilson digs into Canadiens lore for a story in support of Gillett. "We had a gentleman named 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion," he says, "and Boomer was around here a lot longer than I was. Geoffrion died at age 75 on March 11, 2006, the day his number, 5, was to be retired. "When he was here he told me there is not a better owner — there never will be — than Mr. George Gillett," Wilson says. On the ice, the Canadiens are far removed from their glory days. They own an NHL-high 24 Stanley Cups, but none since 1992. "It's not something that you can turn around in a year or two," Wilson says. He acknowledges the skepticism that accompanied the purchase of the team by an American. "Sure, there were concerns when he first came in. But he's someone that cares. He's fan oriented. He's open. He talks to the media. He's done everything he said he would do and I don't think you could ask for a better relationship with an owner than the fans here in Montreal have with Mr. Gillett." Gillett's philosophy of managing the Centre Bell experience comes, first and foremost, from being a fan himself. "Understanding the perspective that I come at this from, I think uniquely our family views themselves as fans," Gillett says. "We're first passionate as fans. We enjoy the process. We enjoy the experience. We enjoy the people associated with the things we're in business about." As fans recognize Gillett walking around the arena, he humbly acknowledges each one and graciously accepts New Year wishes and congratulations for rebuilding the storied franchise. Last season Montreal won its first division title since 1992. A fan lobbies for Gillett to acquire veteran forward Brendan Shanahan (who would later sign with New Jersey), but the owner quickly deflects the suggestion. "That's up to (General Manager Bob) Gainey," Gillett says. "I don't go there." Still, he and son Foster, 33, the team's managing partner, "have been very active in the drafts." Gillett can recite names and stats in a split second. With less than an hour before the opening puck drop, Gillett exits Centre Bell into the blustery Montreal night to check the efficiency of ticket lines. He turns the corner where fans without tickets line up for entry into La Cage aux Sports — the revamped bar/restaurant, slips through the door and down the stairs to another elevator that exits into ice level at the arena. A quick consultation with the team physician, Dr. David Mulder, brings Gillett up to speed on his injured players. His ailing captain, Saku Koivu, is working with a trainer a few doors down, optimistic he will return to skate with his team soon. After grabbing a house hotdog, Gillett settles into a seat by the ice seven minutes before game time. He enjoys the spectacle on the ice as the fans welcome champions past and present from the Canadiens and Leafs. He continues to receive accolades from fans. George Manares, a season-ticket holder seated behind Gillett, has nothing but admiration and appreciation for the current owner. "You know what, this man is a hockey fan," Manares says. "He's the best owner this town has ever seen. If he stays here, we will win many Stanley Cups." Once the NASCAR deal with Petty is complete, the comparisons with the Canadiens will be inevitable. Like the hockey team, Petty is the most storied name in its sport. But also like the hockey team, the recent past has not been particularly kind. Given that Gillett has been the owner of record for the Nos. 9, 10 and 19 Dodges for just 17 months, it would be unrealistic to expect a newly reconfigured team to be title contenders out of the box. And with the contract with Petty Holdings yet to be signed, it's unfair to dismiss the team's potential for the No. 43 Dodge before the ink dries. But if the Canadiens are any indication of the opportunities that lie ahead for the racing organization that will soon be branded under the Petty banner, then Gillett will have created an enterprise fit for a King.

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