Despite Rumour, Expos are on Course

By Jack Todd/ The Gazette

Back from a brief sojourn in Toronto - where the Leafs have kept winning despite the absence of Mats Sundin - to Montreal, to the City of Former Dynasties too late to see the forlorn Habs lose 1-0 to what had been the only winless team in the National Hockey League, and to former goaltender Jocelyn Thibault.
In time also to catch the final few innings of the Yankees' sweep of the pathetic Atlanta Braves, the last Major League Baseball game of the century every bit as thrilling as a Preston Manning speech or Thursday evening at Reno-Depot.
It is now absolutely official, no matter how you count the championships won by the Canadiens: the Yankees, not the Canadiens, are the dynasty of the 20th century.
There are disturbing rumours in the air, meanwhile, about the city's would-be dynasty of the 21st century: the Washington Post reported last Friday that the Jeffrey Loria group is considering a plan to postpone construction of Labatt Park for another season, giving them another year to see whether season-ticket sales and seat-license sales would pick up enough to justify building a new ballpark.
It seems so evident that any such move would be suicidal that it's hard to give the rumours credibility. The simple fact is that the frustrated baseball fans of Montreal won't even think about digging into their pockets for season tickets or seat licenses unless they know the team is staying in Montreal and they know a new ball park is under construction.
Labatt Park is the single best marketing tool in the hands of the Loria group; not to begin construction this winter would be fatal.
Not to worry. The rumour is based on a misunderstanding. The Post reporter who did the story, clearly unfamiliar with the Expos dossier, made several minor errors, such as saying that Claude Brochu would be selling his 14.2-per-cent interest in the club. (Brochu, in fact, owns slightly more than half that.)
His major error, however, was in misinterpreting comments made by Robert Dupuis, Major League Baseball's executive vice-president and chief legal adviser, when Dupuis said that the Montreal plan would be a two-step process. That process, a source confirmed yesterday, begins with the formal approval of the Expos' business plan by Major League Baseball. That plan has first to be approved by the executive committee of Major League Baseball, after which owners have 10 days to look it over before commissioner Bud Selig calls for a vote.
That process is already under way. If the vote is positive, an announcement from Major League Baseball could come as soon as the early part of next week. After that, it will take about 48 hours for all the partners to review and sign the documents transferring control from Brochu to Loria before a formal press conference in Montreal to introduce the new owners. Again, there were rumours yesterday that the press conference had already been scheduled for Nov. 3, but a source connected to the new ownership said that nothing has been scheduled as yet. The second step of the process involves the stadium, which still has to receive zoning approval from the city, among other things. Jacques Menard, head of the relaunch committee, said before the final home game of the season that all that will take a couple of months - which would mean that construction could begin in the early part of January.
The source stressed that there has been no thought of delaying ground-breaking for a year in order to test the market or to find out whether fans will buy enough season tickets to justify Labatt Park.
In any case, Major League Baseball would have had problems with any such delay, and Brochu himself would never agree to it, since he refused to step aside until he had ironclad assurances that the team would remain in Montreal.
So much for that rumour. For the dynasty of the future, everything is on schedule. Once Loria takes over, the Expos will set out to catch the Atlanta Braves. As for the dynasty of the past - right now they're having trouble staying ahead of the Atlanta Thrashers.
The Canadiens are already feeling the heat from the Alouettes - who can keep more fans in the stands in a driving rainstorm for a game against Edmonton than the Canadiens can draw to the indoor comfort of the Keg for a game against the Islanders. Once construction begins on Labatt Park, the Habs will have the Expos breathing down their necks from a short block away - with a better team, a genuine superstar and one of the best managers in the game. Ironically, all this comes during the week when Michael Farber's definitive piece on the decline of the Canadiens dynasty appeared in Sports Illustrated, making the whole thing more or less official. It already seems that the Habs belong to the worn-out 20th century, a century that has only 63 more days left to run.
The future, the new millennium? That belongs to the new kids down the block.

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