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Habs owner won't apologize for zealous fans

by Dan Rosen
Montreal Canadiens owner George N. Gillett Jr. believes in the numbers, not in the hooey that critics say led to the Habs having four representatives in the Eastern Conference's starting lineup for NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 25 at the Bell Centre.

Gillett told Wednesday from Madison Square Garden that Mike Komisarek, Andrei Markov, Alexei Kovalev and Carey Price received more than 5.675 million votes combined in the XM NHL All-Star Fan Balloting presented by 2K Sports only "because of the passion of the fans."

"There is obviously some suspicion that something nefarious was going on and I don't think so at all. I think it was just tremendous fan interest," Gillett said while his team was on the ice for its morning skate. "You have to remember Montreal is a city of about 3.7 million people and the Province (of Quebec) has 7.5 million and they are huge hockey fans. There are 186,000 junior hockey players up there and those kids love it so they all voted.

"Did we have a marketing program going on? No. This is natural passion."

Gillett went on to admit that "there were players that were perhaps not selected to the starting lineup that you might say, 'Hmmm.' Like (Alex) Ovechkin, right? But, the fans spoke. There is a level of passion and interest there and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. That is why we get such huge television ratings and so forth."

Gillett, an American entrepreneur who grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in Vail, Colo., admitted that when he took ownership of Les Habitants in 2001 he underestimated the passion of those who bleed bleu, blanc et rouge.

"It's extraordinary the passion of the fans, and also their knowledge," he said. "Oh, I had no idea. People would say things to me, 'Do you understand this and this?' I'd say, 'Oh sure, oh sure,' but you really don't until you feel it. It's visceral."

That's what has made the 100th anniversary so special to Gillett. The celebration allows him to loosen his tie and step away from the board room table.

"I'm a fan," he proudly proclaims, adding, with excitement, that he can't wait to be in Montreal for All-Star Weekend.

"Absolutely," he said. "Oh yeah. Wednesday through Sunday. Oh, you bet."

Gillett identified the Patrick Roy jersey retirement night as one of his highlights of the Centennial Celebration so far, but his smile grew when he talked about witnessing the history of the club come to life in the vintage jerseys the Canadiens have been wearing on special nights this season.

Montreal has already worn jerseys from 1915-16, 1945-46 and 1970-71 this season. It is planning nine more Centennial Jersey Nights until the Centennial Game on Dec. 4, 2009, the official 100-year anniversary of the franchise's founding.

"Going back and looking at the history, it's just really amazing," Gillett said.

NHL All-Star Weekend will be another way for the Habs to celebrate their history, but Gillett feels it's also going to be a salute to the city itself.

"It really, in many ways, is celebrating Montreal and what it means," the owner said. "It's not just about hockey. It's so much about being able to showcase the beautiful city. That is going to be something very special."

So, too, would an outdoor game next season. Gillett believes it can happen, even if it's not on New Year's Day and isn't called the NHL Winter Classic.

"Hopefully we'll be doing something in November, either an outdoor or a semi-outdoor game," he said. "It's all part of the same celebration."

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