MONTREAL -- Some hockey teams go on the road when the circus arrives.
For the Montreal Canadiens, the circus never left town.
There always was some hot issue, some scandal, some outrage -- perceived or real -- that kept the pot boiling and kept the media hordes howling.
Note the use of the past tense. The situation has changed.
First as general manager, and now as GM/coach, Bob Gainey has instituted a sense of focus that, by definition, has eliminated all the sideshows and transformed the Bell Centre into a circus-free zone.
For example, there was a brewing controversy in February involving goaltender Jose Theodore's equipment. Gainey, himself, was solicited by the media to add some fuel to the fire.
"That's a dead issue," he said flatly. End of story. End of sideshow.
But Theodore single-handedly provided one ring of the circus and it's no coincidence Gainey shipped him out. With the controversies about his family, his girlfriend's family, his biker friends, his equipment, his hair-restoring drugs, and so on, Theodore always was the centre of attention. And a centre of distraction.
He simply didn't fit with the kind of atmosphere Gainey is trying to create -- an atmosphere that matches the visible Gainey persona -- calm, composed and capable.
In the post-game meetings with league officials, he can be forceful and demanding, but for public consumption he remains staid and stoic.
The Canadiens don't harass referees because their coach doesn't do it and he won't stand for anyone else doing it. After all, other than an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, or the animosity of an official, what is to be gained by it?
Gainey makes his points to referees, but always does so while exhibiting a degree of respect. It's his belief -- and it's a valid one -- that if a coach is blaming the referee for everything that goes wrong, then the players have a built-in excuse.
And any experienced coach knows that if you give a player an excuse, he'll take it.
Gainey entered the league playing for Scott Bowman, who had a similar focus. The more talented you were, the more you dictated the day-to-day factors involved in your game.
If you didn't want to practise hard, or required a king-sized bed, or felt constrained by the curfew, fine. But now you'd better produce, because you have no more excuses.
Gainey wants his players to concern themselves with doing their jobs as well as they can. The remainder is irrelevant.
This approach was evident during the stretch run of the regular season. The Canadiens didn't qualify for the playoffs until the penultimate night. As the season wound down, Gainey was peppered with questions about his team's chances, the likelihood of an Atlanta Thrashers charge, the implications of the schedule, and so on.
Gainey's approach never varied. In so many words, he said the same thing again and again. "We just worry about ourselves. If we win our games, none of the other factors will have a bearing."
Again, it was a means of maintaining the focus, a means of breaking away from the peripheral issues that used to plague Montreal.
The message is getting through. On Monday, the Carolina Hurricanes changed goalies in the first period. After the game, a 6-5 Canadiens win in overtime that put Montreal ahead 2-0 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final, Alex Kovalev was asked how he adjusted.
"My point of view is that I really don't care who they have in goal," Kovalev said. "That's their game. That's their changes. Whatever they do, I shouldn't focus on it at all."
Kovalev simply concerns himself with his game and does his job. No sideshows, No histrionics.
It's the Gainey way and it's paying dividends. The Canadiens' focus is now on a cup, not on three rings.