We're very, very concerned: Habs GM

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

MONTREAL -- It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Not this year, not this season.

A centennial celebration that started with energy and promise is now a sideshow, the people of this city now waiting to find out what will next befall their beloved Sainte Flannelle.

The club's on-ice struggles are bad enough -- they have won only three of their last 15 games and a playoff spot is no longer assured -- but the grim face yesterday of Canadiens GM Bob Gainey reflected how seriously the club is taking the latest turn, the legendary "CH" now being linked in headlines with organized crime, drug rings and street gangs.

Gainey, in a clinic on crisis management, confronted head-on yesterday allegations in La Presse newspaper that three players -- brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and veteran defenceman Roman Hamrlik -- are acquaintances of a man arrested for drug trafficking following Project Axe, a police probe into street gangs and organized crime in Montreal.

According to the La Presse story, police reportedly recorded conversations between the suspect, Pasquale Mangiola, and the Kostitsyns, but the players are not suspected of any criminal activity.

Andrei Kostitsyn told La Presse Thursday night in Pittsburgh he knew Mangiola, but didn't know of his criminal activities.

So, a couple of kids and another guy, who should probably know better, fell in with the wrong guy. They're not accused of anything at this point but bad judgment. The optics are bad because there is always the whiff the players could somehow become beholden or blackmailed and who knows what happens then?

The story, which attracted the usual large horde of media to the club's suburban practice rink yesterday -- actually turned out to be less than the rumours and innuendo that had been swirling like the snow which blew among the buildings here yesterday.

Nonetheless, the story put a dent in a Canadiens organization which prides itself on its class and generations of excellence.

"We're very, very concerned," Gainey told a packed news conference. "We know this person who became involved with the players is not the only person trying to find a place to enter the inner area of our hockey team. We turn people away every day ... they're looking to find a way inside the team and get access to the players or the Canadiens as an organization.

"It's not surprising if you have a sense of how many people would like to get their tentacles into not only our players, but our organization. Most of them are good organizations, but there are also not good people, looking for trophy friends or being close to someone who earns a million-plus dollars."

Gainey said he met with the players as a team yesterday morning to remind them again to be wary of who they befriend. He said they spoke about "general lifestyle choices and aquaintance choices."

The NHL's security department has become involved, Gainey said.

When asked if the controversy swirling around the club and the rumours of an impending expose could have affected his team's performance, Gainey replied:

"I can only go on what I know today and what I know today is not good for our team. It doesn't reflect well on our team or our organization. It can't be extinguished as a possible inhibitor to our performance."

Gainey, who has faced so many great personal challenges as a parent in his own life, no doubt struck a chord with others yesterday as he touched on his disconnect with Generation Y.

"The generation of 18-22 year-olds is completely different from me. They have different problems, situations that are difficult for me to completely understand," he said.

The only player available to speak to the media yesterday was Alexei Kovalev, coming off a two-game sabbatical, and he wasn't allowed to talk about anything but hockey.

"I've been in the business a long time and there's always rumours. Some are true and some are false," said Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau. "I've had meetings with a lot of individuals about things that I've heard. I've had a lot of meetings with groups about what I've heard. They were warned. We thought whatever was there was dealt with.

"With the rumours that have been out there the last couple of weeks, I'm sure it affected mentally some of the guys. It's going to be a distraction until everybody finds out everything, because you guys, I'm sure, are going to look for it. We're going to hear about it every day. If we start winning 10 in a row, maybe it will slow down."

Maybe.

But the celebration of past glories, of the class, excellence and glory of teams and players and years gone by now is starting to serve only as a reminder of the growing calamity this 100th season is becoming.

CHRIS.STEVENSON@SUNMEDIA.CA


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