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Merry New Year: Jacques and the Canadiens are Back

Beef Jerky- First off, Happy New Year's to everyone. Hope you have a safe night out and about.

We have one more game left in the 2009 calendar year and Montreal is here for it. Should be a fun night here at The Billboard.

Just got done talking with Jacques Martin, the former coach and GM of the Panthers. He looks tan and fit and ready to get the Habs back into the playoffs. But it's going to be a dogfight -- and the Panthers are one of those teams nipping at Montreal's heels.

We talked to JM the former GM about a number of subjects regarding the Panthers. Here's what I wrote. It'll be in tomorrow's paper, but I'm sure a bunch of you aren't getting up early tomorrow to read it so consider this a New Year's bonus.

Have a good one folks.

-- As expected, a great crowd on hand for tonight's game. Of course, a lot of them are rooting for the Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge.

Nice, classy move by the Panthers by bringing in an anthem singer to sing part of O! Canada in French.

Not to be outdone, Graham went 1:50 doing the American anthem.

Anyway, on to the JM story.

When the Montreal Canadiens came calling last summer, it didn’t take Jacques Martin long to answer.

Martin’s had a number of reasons for leaving his job as Panthers general manager.

First, the opportunity to coach a legendary team like the Canadiens – a team he grew up idolizing in Quebec – doesn’t come along very often. And second, Martin figured he was fighting an uphill battle in South Florida.

Miami Ownership had given him plenty of money to fund the payroll (Florida spent about $52 million last season), but Martin knew creating revenue was tough in this non-traditional market and that money could have dried up at any time.

“I had a good relationship with the ownership here and enjoyed working here,’’ said Martin, who returned to BankAtlantic Center Thursday for the first time since leaving the Panthers in June.

“What made it difficult, and when I look back, last year we increased the player budget by over $10 million. We made great strides over when I came here with Mike [Keenan]. I knew it would be a struggle though. That was one of the issues. This is a difficult market.’’

That said, Martin still believes in the Panthers – and in South Florida as a hockey market. As he said when he was with the team, winning will cure all ills. If the Panthers win, they will come.

“Look at most of the teams, hockey or anything else, they’re supported when they win,’’ he said. “The Miami Heat is a good example. They were struggling. Then they became a powerhouse and started filling [its arena].’’

Martin spent five years with the Panthers, hired to coach the team in 2004 soon after he was fired in Ottawa. Martin didn’t get to coach the 2004-05 season because of the NHL lockout, but his three years behind the bench made him the most tenured coach in history. After the team failed to make the playoffs in 2008, owner Alan Cohen fired him as coach but gave him a new pact to stay on as general manager.

Current coach Pete DeBoer was hired by Martin and says he will always be indebted to Martin for the chance to coach in the NHL. Martin says it’s apparent DeBoer was a good choice.

“He had a lot of success in junior hockey and has a good mind for the game and a good relationship with the players,’’ Martin said. “I felt he was the best candidate for the job and has done a great job. The team has kept progressing.’’