Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin tries to separate his heart from his head as he conducts the business of his job. With Brendan Gallagher, it wasn’t that easy.
“You don’t want to be emotional when you’re negotiating a contract,” Bergevin said during a video conference Thursday, his eyes moistening. “But since my first day as GM in Montreal, I have watched [Gallagher] play and I’m proud to have him here.”
Less than a day earlier, Bergevin had signed Gallagher, a cornerstone of the organization and one of its most popular players, to a six-year, $39 million contract extension ($6.5 million average annual value) that locks him up through the 2026-27 season.
In French, then in English, Bergevin fought his emotions as he discussed what Gallagher means not just to the team, but to him.
“He’s a player we want, that’s it,” Bergevin said, haltingly. “He means a lot to our hockey team. You saw the playoffs. He got cross-checked in the face and he didn’t want to miss a shift, he didn’t want to leave. You have guys in the past I’ve seen, they get slashed, they’ve got a fingernail missing, and they’re finding a way not to play. This guy just does everything you want from a hockey player and that’s what I love about him. …
“Certainly, when you extend a guy’s contract for [six] years, you expect certain things. Gally just knows one way to play. What we like most about him is maybe what could hurt him over the duration of his contract. But it’s a risk that I’m prepared to take.”
Bergevin was referring to Game 5 of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round against the Philadelphia Flyers on Aug. 19. Gallagher’s jaw was bloodied and broken by the high stick of defenseman Matt Niskanen, ending his playoffs, the Canadiens eliminated in Game 6. Had Montreal advanced, Gallagher was almost banking on team doctors giving him a green light to play in the Second Round, behind a cage.
It’s this attitude that Bergevin adores, having played 1,191 games as a defenseman for eight NHL teams from 1984-2004. He knows the League’s dressing-room culture, of leading by example on and off the ice, and even within the constraints of the business of the League, in the Canadiens’ executive suites, a player remains very much alive inside him.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Gallagher’s contract talks had stalled and broken off between the Canadiens and Gerry Johansson, the player’s Edmonton-based agent. Shockwaves immediately were felt in Montreal, quickly clouding the ambitious work that Bergevin and the Canadiens had done by making three trades, luring a coveted free agent in Tyler Toffoli to Montreal and signing important defenseman Jeff Petry to a four-year extension.
“It’s bad information that you received, I won’t comment on something that’s past,” Bergevin began evenly, addressing reports of the stalemate that essentially was deemed a misunderstanding between the two sides.
But within moments, the emotion was bubbling to his surface.
“In eight years here in Montreal, [Gallagher] has never complained about anything. And when things don’t go well, the first person he looks to is himself. It’s not the coach or his teammates. It’s himself. There aren’t many players like that.”
Bergevin spoke of Gallagher’s character, of the work ethic and sacrifice he saw before either had joined the Canadiens.
“Oh, his character,” he said. “Eight years I’ve been here and every time I [pass] him either on the bus, on a plane, it’s always, ‘Hey, Berg,’ and he just walks by. There’s high maintenance, middle maintenance, low maintenance. And no maintenance, which is Brendan Gallagher. He just loves that he’s a hockey player through his bones. And that’s what I love about him.”
Gallagher, at home in British Columbia, connected on video conference after Bergevin’s session, working out in the gym when his GM spoke.
“That respect goes both ways,” Gallagher said. “I can’t talk about Berg without talking about passion, and every time he speaks to us it’s clear. He has one goal, and it was the first thing he said to me when called me (on Wednesday): ‘Alright now, this is over with, let’s go win,’ and that’s the common goal.
“The respect that Berg shows me, it goes right back his way. I have a tremendous appreciation for everything he’s done for our team but especially for me. Everybody needs someone to give them an opportunity, to give them a chance. His first year here was my first year here and he was a part of the group that was able to give me a shot in this league and give me that opportunity. I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
Having locked up a vital member of his team, the Canadiens’ offseason mostly done, Bergevin looked happy and very tired at the end of his 40-minute conference, counting the minutes until vacation. His final thought about Gallagher was perhaps his highest praise, and it wasn’t that of a general manager who had just seen a signature put on a contract.
“I would have liked to play with a player like Brendan next to me,” he said. “I would have loved it.”