MONTREAL – Hockey’s most storied franchise has had a regular shift at Quebec’s corruption inquiry.
The probe has repeatedly heard how Montreal Canadiens tickets were a currency of choice when it came to corrupting public officials.
A half-dozen employees from the city’s engineering department have testified and every single one of them has admitted to taking free hockey tickets whenever they could get them.
They were wined, dined and bribed by construction bosses. Some took gifts ranging from golf vacations to free home renovations. Some accepted money, some said they refused it. One witness said he drew the line at prostitutes and declined to accept the paid company of young women.
But nobody said no to Habs games — the hottest ticket in a hockey-mad town.
While the Montreal Canadiens’ name might have been inadvertently dragged into Quebec’s corruption inquiry, a spokesman says there’s not much the organization can do about it.
“Our games are sold out and the demand for tickets is very high,” said Donald Beauchamp, the team’s vice-president of communications.
“And although the tickets are in high demand, we can’t monitor the use of them all — that’s impossible.”
The anecdotes emanating from the Charbonneau inquiry are by no means the first example of Canada’s national sport getting mixed up in political controversy.
Over the years, political types in the nation’s capital have occasionally been accused of conflicts-of-interest by attending Ottawa Senators games.
Then there was the recent report of a Canadian diplomat charging taxpayers $10,000 to host business officials in a private box at a game in Pittsburgh — a practice that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird ordered stopped.
In Alberta, the billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers has been a central player in a scandal involving illegal political donations to that province’s long-ruling Conservative party.
The Habs, themselves, had a cameo role in the sponsorship inquiry a few years ago. The Gomery probe into the Liberal ad scandal heard that communications exec Jean Lafleur often plied clients with Habs tickets, among other gifts and goodies.
Such tickets can be hard to come by in Canadian hockey towns.
Since January 2004, for instance, the Habs have sold out every game played at the Bell Centre. The arena seats 21,273 and there are about 15,000 season tickets. The waiting list for season tickets numbers 4,000, Beauchamp said.
According to Forbes Magazine, the average cost of a Montreal Canadiens ticket is $96 — among the highest in the NHL.
That’s when any are available.
For the Habs’ next home game, Saturday against Philadelphia, a pair of tickets side by side can only be had second-hand and the price on one website ranged from $184 to $1,298 for a pair.
Some Montreal municipal employees managed to get tickets for $0.
In exchange, they did a few favours for construction bosses.
Some allegedly doctored work plans, approved false expenses, or shared inside information that ensured certain companies won bids and subsequently inflated the price of a project.
Their work helped businessmen set up a construction cartel in the city, in which a small cabal rigged bids and overcharged for public works. Under that system, illicit profits were divvied up between companies, municipal officials, political parties, and the Italian Mafia.
In at least one case, the hockey tickets appeared to have been as coveted as a bribe.
During recent testimony at the inquiry, engineering firm boss Michel Lalonde said he bought season tickets worth $14,015 for a civil servant in one borough.
He said the official demanded those tickets, for the 2007-08 season, on top of a three per-cent cut on contracts that had been previously paid out.
“The demand (for tickets) was high in those days — probably because the Canadiens were winning more often,” Lalonde testified.
That year, the Canadiens finished first in the Eastern Conference. Lalonde said the tickets were passed off as a business expense.
Each of the City of Montreal public-works bureaucrats to testify has admitted to taking hockey tickets.
One described it as standard procedure.
“It was common practice in the city. It was part of a business model,” Gilles Vezina, a now-suspended engineering department employee, testified.
He noted, however, that free Habs tickets weren’t exactly on the official list of job conditions: “It wasn’t the mayor that told us to go to hockey games.”
He is currently suspended without pay, and is retiring at the end of the month.
Last week, construction boss Joe Borsellino said he also plied a powerful union boss with expensive hockey tickets in addition to lavish gifts like a trip to Italy.
The alleged recipient of those gifts was the former head of the Quebec Federation of Labour’s construction wing, Jocelyn Dupuis, whom Borsellino called a friend. He said he gave other people tickets as well.
Borsellino’s company, Garnier Construction, was involved in the building of several community ice rinks with the Montreal Canadiens children’s foundation.
But Borsellino couldn’t be there last week, for the official opening of the latest rink.
He was busy testifying at the inquiry.
Beauchamp said the Canadiens haven’t instituted any changes to the way they sell tickets. He said the team sells them in good faith.
“All of our season-ticket holders, it’s all very professionally handled,” Beauchamp said.
Even though the Canadiens’ name risks being repeated frequently before the inquiry, the impact on the club itself will be negligible, says one sports-marketing expert.
“I don’t think the fans associate (the inquiry testimony) with the Canadiens in a negative way,” said Bruno Delorme, a professor at Concordia and McGill universities.
“As long as no member of the team’s organization is involved in these affairs, I don’t think there’s any damage to the brand.”
Delorme noted that while Canadiens tickets are often mentioned at the inquiry, so are fancy restaurant meals, golfing trips and bottles of wine.
“In a warped kind of way, it’s a testament to the Canadiens’ brand that people want to go there and people want tickets,” Delorme said in an interview.
“It’s a strong brand.”