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Canadiens’ Bergevin says tanking rest of lost season would be ‘insane’

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MONTREAL — It’s after assuring us he’s alright, not even 10 seconds into a brief phone interview on Saturday morning, that Marc Bergevin expels a dry cough that extends a couple of seconds and sounds as though he’s having the air sucked out of him by a vacuum cleaner.

From quarantine, one day after receiving confirmation that he’s contracted COVID-19, the Montreal Canadiens’ general manager, who keeps himself in as good shape as the players under his watch, provides an update on his condition and runs through what he’s been experiencing.

“Night sweats,” Bergevin said.

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“Honestly, the shakes where you can’t even get warm, and then headaches and body aches,” he adds before saying he’s also experiencing back pain.

He expresses his gratitude for being double-vaccinated and says, “I can just imagine being not vaxxed,” and he explains he began to sense something was off while the Canadiens were in the process of getting pumped 6-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

“I felt it a little bit, so after the game I didn’t even go downstairs,” he says. “After that—I hate to say it was a performance, because it wasn’t—I figured I’d take a step back and just talk to the coach the next day. Thank God I did that also because, obviously, I had it then.

“I think it got the worst the last couple of nights, but I think it’s turning the corner now.”

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With only 15 minutes set aside for our conversation—a time limit justified by Canadiens senior VP of public affairs and communications Paul Wilson because Bergevin “isn’t feeling well and still has a couple more interviews scheduled”—most of our questions have to centre on how the Canadiens will turn the corner in a season that’s seen them win just four of their first 19 games.

But before we dive into that subject, we explain to Bergevin that we have two questions to ask him about his time in Chicago as director of player personnel with the Blackhawks in 2010, when prospect Kyle Beach was sexually assaulted by team video coach Brad Aldrich.

Bergevin had previously opted to not comment any further on the matter after the independent investigation he cooperated in produced a 107-page report that did not name him as a person in the know at the time, but he welcomes these questions—and all the others we jam in about the direction of the Canadiens, his expiring contract, his relationship with owner and team president Geoff Molson and what goes into doing his job.

Here is the interview in full, with some of it edited just for clarity.

SPORTSNET: I know you’ve said on multiple occasions that you didn’t know anything at the time, and obviously the investigators were satisfied with that—you’re not mentioned in their report—but as director of player personnel, why didn’t you know?

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MARC BERGEVIN: That’s very easy to comprehend. When something happened like that, at the time they probably wanted to keep that as close-knit as possible. So, whatever the meeting was and whoever was in that meeting, which is said in the report, they were probably told that whatever was said in that meeting was going to be taken care of and nobody is to say a word. That’s what it seems was said there. They kept it close and that was it.

As a player personnel (director), what you do is you watch players either with your farm team or at other levels, junior levels or other teams, and you write reports, and you look at the players’ performances. If somebody had a fight with his girlfriend the night before, you don’t know about it. I know it’s not the same thing, but I’m just saying, you don’t know any personal stuff. You watch players and you evaluate, and you say either he’s ready or he’s not ready.

What happened to Kyle is horrible, but a lot of people in the organization were not aware of it.

SN: If you had been aware, how do you think you would’ve responded?

MB: It was not handled properly, obviously. Something like that happened, it needed to be addressed right away. You can’t just let that go by.

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Obviously, people have paid a price for it.

SN: Moving on to your hockey team, I know you’re speaking to people and they’re going to ask you why the team finds itself in this position. I’m more interested in asking you about what comes next.

You’ve said on multiple occasions, regardless of your contract situation, that you’ll do what’s best for the team. What’s best for the team right now?

MB: Obviously, it’s winning hockey games and playing as a team. If I make one move to make one change, unless everyone else picks it up, it’s not going to make a difference. It’s well known that just making trades to make trades—especially with our situation with the cap—it just makes no sense to make a lateral move just to make a lateral move. If you’d like to make a move, it’s to make a move to make your team better. Just making a move to make a move, I’m never going to do that just to say I made a trade and here we go.

(The players) have to pick up their games. They have to play better. That’s on them.

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SN: Why is it the best thing to do for you guys to be winning games?

MB: Players have pride, you don’t go out there just to blow up games.

That’s insane to think that way. If I go out there and manage like a GM that wants to lose games, I should be let go right away. That’s just not right.

That’s just not the way it is, and it’s just not in our DNA.

SN: There’s precedent of teams selling it to their fans that you have to suffer a bit of short-term pain for some gain, and you’ve expressed it the same in prior years that you go through a lot of pain to end up with high draft picks. You’ve also said that the only way to succeed is to build through the draft.

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You didn’t choose to be in the position that you’re in now as a team, but you’re in it.

MB: Yeah, but I’m not going to manage to have the team get the best draft picks. The draft is (unpredictable)—you could look through past drafts where the first pick overall is not as good as the fourth pick overall. That’s the business we’re in. Unless there’s a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, which there’s some probably every 10 years, you don’t manage that way.

And we don’t even have 20 games played, so there’s a lot of hockey in front of us. We have to play better.

SN: You’ve talked a lot over the years about not having guarantees—especially pertaining to the draft—but you do have to deal in probabilities. Realistically, you’ve got to pick up 85 points in the remaining games you have to make the playoffs and that means winning at a clip that only a handful of teams have been able to in the last decade.

How do you instill belief in the room, given the way things have gone, that it can be done?

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MB: The players have to play every game. They have to play a game tonight and their mindset is to win a hockey game and then go onto the next game. As a player, you can’t look at the big picture. And as for me, I’m managing the team and I’m looking at players’ performances. Their responsibility, like every other player in the NHL, is to perform.

To go out here in November and say the players are going to not play hard for each other… They have pride. For them, it’s not a business; it’s playing to the best of their abilities every night because that’s what they have to do. That’s their mindset, and I’m not going to sit there and change their mindset that they don’t have to play as hard now. It makes no sense to do that.

SN: How can you guys best develop your young players that are with the team right now in this situation?

MB: If they don’t get hurt by playing in the NHL, then I have no issues with keeping them. If they play well and I feel that they’re not getting hurt by the way they’re playing, then it’s fine. If they fall behind and I see they’re not getting any better, that’s when decisions need to be made.

Player development for me, sometimes it’s used as an excuse. You can look at every single team in the NHL and find examples.

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Like, why is Thomas Chabot, who was 15th overall (actually 18th in 2015) or whatever it was, playing in the NHL when Logan Brown (drafted 11th in 2016) is on his second team? Did Ottawa do something different with them?

They did not. It’s just some players take the next step, some don’t, but the same tools are provided to every player.

Look at New York (the Rangers). We were there not too long ago and they’re talking about (Kappo) Kakko (second overall in 2019) and (Alexis) Lafreniere (first overall in 2020) not being where you’d think they’d be today. That’s just the business we’re in. Some players take longer than others. I’m sure these players will be good sooner than later, but some take more time than others and that’s just the way it is.

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SN: Do you have to put more of an emphasis now, though, on giving younger players opportunity considering where you are in the standings?

For example, you were down 5-0 going into the third period against Pittsburgh on Thursday and (22-year-old) Ryan Poehling didn’t play his first shift until five-six minutes in. He plays a few shifts and ended up with roughly 10 minutes in ice time.

In games where it’s not happening, does there have to be a strategy to get these guys out on the ice more and get them into situations against quality competition?

MB: Some nights, players, based on the first two periods, may not be playing their game. And the coaches need to make a decision that a player isn’t going that night, so they want to pull him back.

At this point, we’re trying to win hockey games. This is the NHL, where we have to win hockey games and not only develop players. There’s a possibility that, at some point, we feel different, but we’re in November and coaches coach to win hockey games.

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If they felt that Ryan wasn’t up to par, then you want to pull him back a bit not only to help the team but also to maybe not hurt him, and that’s a coach’s decision.

SN: Since you are trying to win every game you continue to play, are Dominique Ducharme and the coaching staff doing enough to enable that right now?

MB: Yes.

SN: Do they need to make changes to what they’re trying to do?

MB: The messages (already) get sent differently because it’s been a while now. It’s been a month-and-a-half that we’ve been struggling, so they use different messaging and they’re going to keep doing that.

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But their job is, every day, to keep making these players understand.

Not too long ago, the same coaching staff took that team to the Stanley Cup Final. So the message, the system and everything works, it’s just right now the players aren’t applying it and they’re not mentally sharp enough to get that done. That’s on them.

SN: When you look at your own situation here, a lot of people are assuming this is your last year as GM in Montreal. Is it?

MB: I don’t know. It’s my last year of my contract, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the near future.

SN: I know you’ve said on multiple occasions you have a very good relationship with Geoff Molson and that you’re dealing with each other every day, but how is that dynamic comfortable for you right now?

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MB: I see no issue whatsoever. We have a hockey team that I run, Geoff makes business decisions. That’s what he does, and I respect my (superior), which is Geoff. I have no issue with that.

If things are meant to be, they will be. If they’re not, they won’t be. Honestly, I have no issues whatsoever with that, and I don’t think Geoff does either.

But I can’t speak for him.

SN: You don’t take it personally at all that he was willing to spend more than a $100 million on the roster last year but was unwilling to give you the contract you wanted after the team went to the Final and before the season started?

MB: Not one bit.

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SN: What makes a good GM in this league? What are the key components to being a good GM in the NHL?

MB: Being a good GM, obviously, is about putting a team together, but that’s not that complicated.

What’s hard is to do what you’re trying to do. Like, there are teams that need left-shot D or right-shot D, but it’s to manage how to get that asset. Because if that team has that player, it’s about how are you going to get him. If he’s that good, why would they move him? And, if they’re moving him, is it because his contract is expiring?

I’m just saying, there’s a lot of moving parts.

I think, also, that a good GM is managing people. You don’t only manage the salary cap, but you manage human beings. It’s how you manage them, how you make them feel.

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Just to be a GM to go to the draft and get players would be the easiest thing to do. I think there’s a lot of things to be a good GM, and every good GM—I think there’s a lot of them in the league—makes mistakes. If you do make a mistake, you have to move on and try not to compound things by making another one. There’s times you have to bite the bullet and move on, and that’s just the reality in the NHL today with contracts that are all guaranteed. In other leagues, if you do make a mistake, you can walk away, but in the NHL that’s not possible. You have to be able to recognize your mistake and move on.

SN: How crucial is it to have existing and established relationships with other executives in the league before stepping into a GM role?

MB: It’s very important because everybody’s different. Every GM works different, every agent works different, and there’s a lot of things that take time to feel comfortable with and know how everybody operates. You could talk to an agent during the summer, and you know how he operates, which helps you make a deal or not make a deal. That experience comes into play.

SN: What is the key to being GM in Montreal? What makes it unique?

MB: The job’s the same for everybody, it’s not because it’s Montreal that it has to be different. It’s just the noise that people make around you, either from the media or the fans, is more.

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But the job is the same. You have to be able to block that out and do your job. You can’t have other people managing for you. You can’t have the media or the pressure from the fans influence your decisions.

A small example: When we got (Ilya Kovalchuk) here (in 2020) and he played very well for us, people were saying you should sign him to a three-year extension. We all knew, in my assessment, that Kovy was a good player but he was near the end. If I would’ve listened to the media and the fans, I would’ve signed him for three years.

Like I said, Kovy was very good for us, but we felt that Kovy’s better days were behind him. So, you have to be able to make the decision even if it’s not popular and move on.

SN: Before we run out of time, what’s the earliest Carey Price will be back in games?

MB: No idea, no clue. I can’t tell you that.

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After a long season grind, the Blue Jays are ready for another

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BALTIMORE – There is achievement in baseball by simply completing the grind, showing up day in and day out, putting in the work, getting after it on the field and fighting through the cumulative toll. The relentlessness of the schedule makes finding and sustaining success all the more difficult, so to be among the last teams standing at the end really means something.

“You know, 162 is tough,” interim manager John Schneider said after a 5-1 win by his Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, securing a final-day, doubleheader split with the Baltimore Orioles and a 92-70 finish.

“People that do it every day, they realize that and it’s something they don’t take for granted. So it’s a collective effort, from start to finish, today being the exclamation point. But 162 games, winning 92 of them, very, very proud of the guys, everyone that is here, everyone that has been here. Really looking forward to the post-season.”

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That was universal around the Blue Jays clubhouse, as was a sigh of relief that they had emerged unscathed from the unexpected – and unwanted – twin-bill. With Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Seattle Mariners set for Friday at Rogers Centre – and yes, Alek Manoah is starting, official and announced – covering 18 innings could easily have upended their plans, especially after clinching home-field on Monday.

Instead, everything unfolded as they had mapped out, with relievers Trevor Richards, Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano each throwing a shutout inning ahead of Mitch White in a 5-4 loss in the opener, while David Phelps, Anthony Bass and Tim Mayza getting an inning each in front of Casey Lawrence, Yusei Kikuchi and Trent Thornton in the nightcap.

Some, if not most of their primary bullpen arms would likely have been used Wednesday to stay sharp even if Tuesday’s contest hadn’t been rained out, but the key is that no one sure to be on the wild-card roster Friday was overextended.

The same applied on the position player front, as only bench players started both contests with Otto Lopez, with a combined five hits and three RBIs, and Gabriel Moreno, with four hits including his first major-league home run, leading the way.

“The pitchers were pretty efficient with their pitch count,” said Schneider. “Guys got the at-bats they needed. We’ve been talking and it’s such a different animal come Friday night, whether you haven’t played in four or five days or if you played 18 innings today, you’re going to be ready to go. But all things considered, we wanted to get guys in, stay sharp, get guys at-bats. That worked out well.”

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As did the ability to put players in different spots for a quick look, from Moreno playing catcher, left field, second and third, to Lopez getting reps at both second and shortstop, to Whit Merrifield at first. With Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (hamstring) and Santiago Espinal (oblique) flying back to Toronto early in order to get their work in at Rogers Centre on Wednesday, the Blue Jays still have to figure out which position players will be on their roster come Friday, which will impact how many pitchers are selected.

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Moreno is one of those calls, and while there are merits to carrying a third catcher, particularly with how Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk are used, a display of his versatility and offensive skill-set adds to the considerations.

“I had the feeling that could happen at some point during those two games and it happened and I was ready for that,” Moreno said of playing around the diamond through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Grateful to have the opportunity to play all of these positions. I can say I have the ability to play different positions and I worked for that. Just having fun, I’m full of emotions. But I did have fun.”

White, who allowed five runs in four innings, was optioned between games for Thornton, meaning he’ll be ineligible for the next 15 days, barring an injury. The same applies to Nate Pearson, who was reinstated from the 60-day injured list after his rehab assignment expired and optioned back to triple-A.

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Intriguingly, Kikuchi has put himself back into consideration for the post-season roster with four straight scoreless appearances, including 1.2 clean innings with two strikeouts in the second game versus the Orioles. Since moving to the bullpen in mid-August, he’s struck out 33 batters in 18.1 innings over 12 outings, although he’s also had a few rough ones in there as he’s adjusted to a new role.

The swing and miss stuff is tempting though, and “I feel like I’m able to attack and get in that attack mindset” as a reliever, Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando.

“We’ve all talked about it from the beginning of the year, but I just wasn’t quite able to do it,” he continued. “But now I really do feel like I’m able to focus on one pitch at a time, focus on that moment and that moment only, and just go out and attack.”

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Kikcuhi isn’t sure yet about his status for the post-season and Schneider was careful not to tip his hand, although his comments left things open to speculation.

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“Love how he’s looked against left-handed hitters out of the bullpen. He’s throwing strikes, striking guys out. Today was just another example of it,” he said. “What he’s proven down the stretch is, we’re not afraid to put him in spots that matter, spots that are big. He also provides length, too.”

The Blue Jays, barring a surprise, shouldn’t need that bulk from him in the post-season if their rotation pitches to expectation. Schneider didn’t divulge whether it would be Kevin Gausman, who left his last start with a cut on his right middle finger but was said to be fine, or Ross Stripling in Game 2, but either is a fine complement to Manoah, the obvious choice for Game 1.

“Seeing him in those really big moments and obviously the month of September that he’s had,” said Schneider, “like the way he matches up against anybody but confident in him just embracing the atmosphere and doing what he’s been doing all year.”

The same goes for the rest of the Blue Jays, who completed one grind and are now set for another.

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