Dave Stubbs, The Gazette (Montreal) June 11th (today)
George Gillett Jr. searched for a way to describe watching his Liverpool soccer club play for the Champions League title May 23 in Athens.
"I think the birth of our children was more worrisome on one hand," the Canadiens majority owner and father of four sons said finally. "And more pleasurable on the other. But short of that, it was pretty exciting."
Liverpool wound up a goal short, defeated 2-1 by AC Milan. But the loss did nothing to tarnish the lustrous finish on his latest investment, as much a public trust as a team that, like the Canadiens, is steeped in rich tradition and impressive success.
Liverpool had advanced to the final with a 1-0 home-field shootout win over Chelsea.
"It was magical," Gillett said of that May 1 night, "like attending the greatest sports event you ever go to on steroids. Nothing can compare to it."
He had bought Liverpool FC three months earlier, partners in the deal with Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks. The purchase price of an estimated $907 million (Canadian) bought out shareholders, assumed debt and will finance a new stadium in Stanley Park.
Gillett spoke radiantly of the Liverpool brand and said all the right things, perhaps trying to allay the fears of the team's passionate fans to whom foreign - worse, American - ownership was a three-headed beast. Rewind to 2001, when he bought the Canadiens, and you'll recall the same emotions in this city.
In just four months of signing soccer cheques, Gillett has learned there are many similarities between Liverpool and the Canadiens.
"Primarily, the passion of the fans - their knowledge and interest," he said in a recent discussion from his office in Vail, Colo.
"I don't think in hockey there's a group of fans who know more about sport or are more emotionally invested in their team than in Montreal. The same is true for Liverpool. To some extent, both communities have a chip on their shoulder. They've been through a lot and both are coming back nicely.
"Montreal is doing well economically, we've got an outstanding mayor and a new (provincial) government that seems to be doing well. There's some of the same in Liverpool, one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe."
The personal side of soccer ownership, he said, is also not far removed from that of hockey; in both sports, Gillett enjoys getting to know his players.
In Athens, he arranged for tickets for three special guests, all friends of Finnish-native Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia: Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and his Minnesota Wild brother, Miko, and for-now Canadiens defenceman Janne Niinimaa.
He speaks glowingly of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, both as field boss and businessman, and downplays any talk of Benitez lighting a fire beneath himself and Hicks to spend lavishly on new talent in a league where the phrase "salary cap" does not exist.
"I read that Rafa (Benitez) is throwing hand grenades at us and making demands ... that there's a tension or disagreement between him and the Gillett and Hicks families," Gillett said. "Nothing could be farther from the truth.
"As far back as February, Rafa laid out a program for us. Each one of our sports businesses has a core concept. You can't just flop around looking at opportunities here and there, go left, go right. It has to be part of an integrated plan. We have one at Liverpool, as we have with the Canadiens, one we understand 100 per cent, believe in and support.
"The plan involves us spending money, but it will be part of a plan, not just spending like a drunken sailor."
In the past week, Liverpool has signed four high-profile players important to its future: captain Steven Gerrard and defender Jamie Carragher through 2011, and goalkeeper Pepe Reina and midfielder Xabi Alonso through 2012.
Having gone to the Champions League final two of the past three seasons, Benitez - and his bosses - would love to see improvement on English soil. Liverpool is without a Premiership title since 1990, and finished 21 points back of Manchester United this year.
"Hockey and soccer are all about teamwork, and Rafa believes in that very strongly," Gillett said. "It's the same in almost all of life - it's about partnership, teamwork and communication. It's not all about money.
"In all candour, the Gillett and Hicks families have to say we've been pretty lucky to arrive on the scene and enjoy this first-season success. It's heady and a lot of fun, but it sure would be a mistake for us to try to act like we had anything to do with it.
"This is the work of (former chairman and life president) David Moores and (chief executive) Rick Parry and Rafa and the players. We were the fortunate beneficiaries of circumstance."