NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is shown in this photo. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Paul Sancya
MONTREAL - The Molson family has emerged as the winner in the bidding war for the Montreal Canadiens.
Team owner George Gillett and Geoff Molson issued a joint statement Saturday saying they have an agreement in principle for the Molsons to purchase the storied NHL club.
If it receives approval from the NHL's board of governors - and league commissioner Gary Bettman has said he likes it - the transaction is expected to be completed by late August.
The NHL board of governors are to meet Wednesday in Montreal but are not likely to be ready to approve the sale on such short notice. Their decision is expected later in the summer.
The two sides are to hold a news conference to announce the sale as soon as the deal is finalized, they said. A team spokesman said no time frame has been set for the announcement.
They didn't reveal the sale price or any other details, but reports said Gillett's 80.1-per-cent interest in the team and 100 per cent stake in its arena, the Bell Centre, and event promotion company Gillett Entertainment Group should exceed $500 million and could even top $600 million.
Gillet paid $275 million for that package on Jan. 31, 2001 and has built it into one of the NHL's most profitable clubs. He is also co-owner of soccer giant Liverpool FC with Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks.
Brothers Geoff, Andrew and Justin Molson, whose family first bought into the Canadiens in the 1950s, were up against a handful of bidders for the team, including Quebecor Media.
Another who reportedly showed interest was Seagram heir Stephen Bronfman, as well as at least one bid from the United States.
Gillett said he was "pleased to return the ownership of the Canadiens to the Molson family, a family that has been associated with the club for over three generations and committed to the Montreal community for seven generations over a 223-year period."
While Gillett is the majority owner, the remaining 19.9 per cent of the team remains with the Molson Coors company.
"I am fully confident that the Molson brothers, who have been a great part of the heritage of the club, will ensure the preservation and development of this great sports institution," Gillett added.
The Molsons vowed to maintain the team's traditions and "work with management to build a strong team on the ice and aim to bring back the Stanley Cup to Montreal."
"This is a very exciting time for our family," said Geoff Molson, who is on the team's board of directors, although he has withdrawn from its activities during the sale process.
Provincial finance minister Raymond Bachand has made a $100-million loan available to any new owners, as long as they're from Quebec.
Bettman said ownership by the Molson family will be good for the team's fans.
"I think to the extent that they've been able to find people who are obviously passionate about the game and structure a transaction that makes sense for everybody, that's a real plus for the franchise and the fans in Montreal," he said.
Montreal La Presse reported that former Canadiens player and general manager Serge Savard would have "an important role" on the team, possibly as an investor, but he wasn't mentioned in the statement.
Savard reportedly had looked into launching his own bid for the Canadiens.
"I know we had two or three very prominent and impressive groups that were bidding for the team," Paul Kelly, head of the NHL Players' Association, said in Las Vegas.
"I know that the purchase price got up there in numbers that are well above all of our pay grades. That's a great franchise and a great city. ...
"Mr. Gillett was really a fine owner," Kelly added. "We will miss him in the National Hockey League. I thought he brought a lot of creativity and ingenuity and colour to the sport."
The first word that the Canadiens were for sale came in November from Research in Motion head Jim Balsillie, but that was vehemently denied at the time by Gillett.
In March, the Canadiens confirmed that BMO Capital Markets had been asked to evaluate Gillett's assets, including the Canadiens, and look at ways to refinance or sell them.
It did not take long for the first bidders to surface.
Despite mixed results on the ice, the Canadiens have consistently sold out the Bell Centre, the league's largest venue with 21,273 seats, since the 2004-05 lockout season.
The agreement came as the Canadiens were preparing to play host to the NHL draft this week.