We are family | VailDaily.com

We are family

Tom Boyd

From a distance, standing outside of John A. Dobson Arena, they look like father and son. Only upon closer review of their flushed faces can one identify the lack of family resemblance. There is George Gillett, owner of the Montreal Canadiens. But the man he embraced, the man he is talking to blonde, light beard, Finnish accent isn’t his son at all: it’s Saku Koivu, one of the great hockey players of our time.For a moment, the pair seem oblivious to the swarms of fans, players and media that charged the otherwise empty air outside Dobson last Tuesday. Jose Theodore, last year’s Hart Trophy winner (for the National Hockey League’s MVP) is signing autographs and juggling media pundits from Canada and the United States. And burly rookies from the ranks of Canada’s junior leagues are gazing up at the multi-colored mountains, their hair still wet from the team’s last scrimmage before heading home to Montreal.Rookies, superstars, management or pundit, the Montreal Canadiens have an entirely different feel than they did before Vail’s Gillett purchased the team a couple of years ago. They have united under new direction, fueled by Koivu’s miraculous recovery from a form of stomach cancer, recharged by Theodore’s show-stopping ’02 playoff performance, and inspired by a new creed brought to the program by Gillett: WE ARE FAMILY.And if the new Canadiens are a family, Gillett is the doting father. But it wasn’t his idea, he explains, to bring the team to train on his home-town ice, less than five minutes from his Spraddle Creek home.”It’s a privilege, yes, but they’re not here because of me,” Gillett explains. “Selfishly, it’s special, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because it’s a perfect training camp.”The Canadiens aren’t the first to realize the potential of bringing a team to a small Colorado resort community for high-altitude training. The Pittsburgh Penguins brought their team to Vail in 1990. It was their first good move in a year that brought them the Stanley Cup.Then, in 1998, the Dallas Stars repeated the feat, beginning their year in Vail and finishing their year with a Stanley Cup. Hockey legend Guy Carbenneau was with the Stars at that time, and it was his idea, not Gillett’s, to come to the place he calls “one of the best training spots in the world.”The Stars have relocated to Breckenridge, but the Canadiens filled their spot here in Vail. The Florida Panthers have also jumped on the bandwagon, and are in town Monday through Thursday, Sept. 23-26 (admission to Dobson is free, and the team plans on practicing in the morning and scrimmaging each day around 4 p.m. Call 476-4470 for information).Have a cake and eat it, too?It was less than a year ago that the Montreal public, and the Montreal press, began to warm to Gillett. After all, Gillett was considered a Yankee an American businessman at the helm of a storied Canadian institution. The news of his ownership was met by harsh criticism by those who wanted a Canadian in charge of the Canadiens.Then, during Christmas of last year, Gillett learned that Koivu’s flagging health made him unable to take a commercial flight home to Finland for a Christmas that looked to be his last. Now when Koivu and Gillett talk and embrace it is with special affinity Gillett’s Christmas present to Koivu last year was the use of his private jet, which took Koivu to a special sort of homecoming.But until the Canadiens came to Vail, Gillett remained a mystery to most of the team members.On Sept. 14, all of that changed.Gillett welcomed every member of the team to his house for a barbecue and birthday celebration. His family even had a cake prepared to celebrate the birthdays of Theodore and Craig Rivet. Then the news came that another player, rookie and longshot Oliver Michaud, was having a birthday. But his name wasn’t on the cake. With every bakery in town closed for the day, Gillett asked a local bakery to re-open its doors and prepare a cake for the struggling rookie.And, on Sunday night, the team and staff were treated to one of Gillett’s famous blow-outs at the Saloon in Minturn.For Theodore, who was able to play golf at the exclusive and private Eagle Springs, the weekend was unforgettable.”I was telling Mr. Gillett that it’s too bad we are always playing hockey in the winter,” says the goaltender (who shot an 86, by the way). “Otherwise, I would like to come here and go skiing. But I will definitely come back here. I love it here.”Officials at Dobson Arena say they will welcome the Canadiens and other NHL teams in the future, and with their new expansion they have room for the 80,000 pounds of gear and equipment that the Canadiens brought with them from the Molson Centre.

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