Breaking the ice

Sitting in the groupe CH boardroom, I am waiting for France Margaret Bélanger, the Montreal Canadiens’ executive vice president and chief commercial officer.

Evenko’s Osheaga Festival in Parc Jean Drapeau, August 2018
With Youppi, the Habs mascot, 2018
Molteni
Beauchamp Gallery

Like all boardroom tables, this one is large and made of solid wood. However, the top is decorated with the black outline of an ice hockey rink, complete with lines, nets, and face-off circles. This is where decisions are made regarding the future of the most beloved and most criticized organization in Quebec. Here and several stories below, on the real rink.

Ms. Bélanger walks in, properly masked, and sits down at least three metres away. Now that the rules have been respected, the interview can begin. As the vice president takes off her mask, I hope this will be true in a figurative sense as well.

A fascinating career trajectory has led her to this remarkable position: in the NHL’s 104 years of history, France Margaret Bélanger is the first woman to become a member of the country’s most celebrated boys’ club—the Canadiens de Montréal. This male-dominated dynasty has featured players from Georges Vézina to Carey Price, and owners from Léo Dandurand to Geoff Molson. When I ask how she managed to break the glass ceiling, or rather the ice ceiling, she smiles, “It just happened naturally.” She has always made her own way in life.

With the legendary Guy Lafleur, Bell Centre, March 2017
With her parents, Margot and Walter Bélanger

Born and raised in Matane, she is the daughter of Margot and Walter Bélanger. Her father was a very successful entrepreneur who started Béton Provincial, a company with 90 concrete plants and 500 ready mix trucks across Quebec. France Margaret was a brilliant student and her career was all mapped out. She would join the family business once she graduated from law school. There was just one hitch: she dreamed of going to the big city. The Michel Tremblay tune “Tomorrow Morning, Montréal Waits for Me” is sung not only by aspiring actors, but by businesspeople too.

She convinced her father to let her attend school in Quebec City, so she could learn—wait for it—English! It turns out you can study English in Quebec City, at St. Lawrence College. Then she went to law school at the University of Ottawa. Finally, she moved to Montréal, joining the prestigious law firm Stikeman Elliott.

Although many women work at Stikeman Elliott, very few hold management positions. Ms. Bélanger managed to enter the elite club of partners in just seven years. The subject of her Master’s in Business Administration thesis was the under-representation of women in major law firms. Though injustices can be exposed in theory, they must be dealt with in practice.

In 2001, the Molson Coors Brewing Company sold the Canadiens to American businessman George Gillett. Stikeman Elliott worked on the deal, and Ms. Bélanger was part of the team that spent hundreds of hours pulling it all together. However, when it came time to celebrate the sale in a Molson Centre suite, she was left off the guest list. Come on, guys! You are not the only ones who like hockey. Today, Ms. Bélanger no longer needs an invitation to watch the Habs play from a suite.

 

In 2009, when it was Gillett’s turn to sell the team to Molson, Esq. Bélanger was, of course, a key player in the negotiations. And that is when Geoff Molson noticed her, like a scout spotting a new Carey Price. He wanted her on his team. Geoff Molson believed in her so much that he created a position for her: Chief Legal Officer. However, that was not the end of it. As he himself has said, he envisioned his protégée on a fast track, moving at the speed of a Shea Weber slap shot. For Molson, she was the ideal associate to help make a number of major acquisitions that would transform Groupe CH into a mega sports and entertainment company.

In fact, negotiating is Ms. Bélanger’s passion. When she talks to me about it, she has stars in her eyes. It comes from her father. She tells me a story about when she was twelve and her greatest dream was to have a yellow Sony Walkman. Her father took her to the store to buy her one. To her surprise, he started negotiating with the sales clerk. Walter wanted to knock $10 off the cassette player’s price. The sales clerk refused. Little France Margaret had to leave the store without her Walkman. She was disappointed, but she had learned something. When you don’t get what you want, you have to hold your ground. Several days later, she was able to listen to music on her new yellow device purchased from another store. She doesn’t know what her father actually ended up paying for it.

Tricolore Sports, official store for exclusive Canadiens merchandise, Bell Centre
Beauchamp Gallery
GIT DOORS & WINDOWS
Savaria
Beauchamp Gallery
Her daughters, Margaux and Juliet, at a home game, 2019

Likely many business owners are sorry that her father did not buy her Walkman at the first store they visited. She has a reputation for being a tough negotiator. According to Geoff Molson, she is intelligent, respectful, and loyal. He had to negotiate with her before she began to negotiate for him. When the NHL Board of Governors holds its Annual Meeting, Ms. Bélanger attends with CEO Molson. Outside the owner of the Buffalo Sabres, there are only two other women around the table. At least for now. Fortunately, things are starting to change—thanks to
pioneering women like her.

Every other week, Ms. Bélanger’s life does not revolve solely around the Canadiens. Those weeks, she focusses on her two daughters, Juliette and Margaux. She might sport the CH over her heart, but her daughters fill her heart and are her prime concern. Sometimes on
Saturdays, she combines hockey and family by bringing her girls to a game. Is Ms. Bélanger a superwoman? It would seem so.

As our interview winds down, I ask her why she does not appear in the famous Canadiens team photo, the one that features the other heroes. You know, the traditional pose with the players in their uniforms, arranged in four rows, with the bosses in the dark suits. Her reply? “That’s for the hockey department, Marc Bergevin’s team. What I want is a Stanley Cup ring.”

I hope she gets her wish.

That being said, it would still be a good idea for her to be part of an image that makes so many boys dream of being part of the NHL. It would inspire girls to dream also. I passed the suggestion on to Mr. Molson when he was singing Ms. Bélanger’s praises. In response, he also said that it was for the hockey department. But he added that he would think about it. Things are changing, little by little.

As for the Stanley Cup ring, France Margaret Bélanger will most certainly get one. Things have never looked as good as they do right now… Go Habs Go!

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