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Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett has sold the team, the Canadiens said Saturday. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press) )

The Montreal Canadiens are returning to familiar hands.

George Gillett has reached an agreement in principle to sell the storied hockey franchise and the Bell Centre to the Molson family, the National Hockey League team announced Saturday.

The NHL board of governors is to meet Wednesday in Montreal but is not likely to be ready to approve the sale on such short notice.

A news conference will be held when the deal is finalized following approval by the league's board of governors. The vote is expected in late August.

In a statement released by the Canadiens, Gillett said he was pleased to return the ownership of the Canadiens to the Molson family, which has been associated with the team for more than three generations.

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Molsons make comeback

The Molson family, specifically brothers Geoff, Andrew and Justin, is back in the game of majority ownership of an NHL team.

George Gillett has reached an agreement in principle to sell the storied hockey franchise and the Bell Centre to the Molsons, pending approval by the league's board of governors.

Geoff Molson, above right, is a director of the Molson Coors Brewing Company, which owns 19.9 per cent of the Canadiens and is the brewery's representative on the team's board of directors.

A former player at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., he learned the brewery business from the ground up after working for Coca-Cola and a New York-based consulting firm.

Andrew, above left, is the vice-chairman of Molson Coors.

The Molson family's first foray in the NHL came in 1957 with the purchase of the Canadiens by Senator Hartland Molson and his brother, Thomas, from Senator Donat Raymond. Seven years later, they sold the club to cousins David, Peter and Bill Molson, who were in charge until 1971.

Molson Breweries purchased the Canadiens in 1978 for $20 million from a company controlled by Peter and Edward Bronfman. It owned 100 per cent until Gillett bought a controlling interest in 2001.

Included in the latest tentative sale is 80.1 per cent of the Canadiens and 100 per cent of the Bell Centre and Gillett Entertainment Group.

"Our family has been very proud to be associated with the Montreal Canadiens over the past eight years and particularly to be a part of their centennial season," Gillett said. "I am fully confident that the Molson brothers … will ensure the preservation and development of this great sports institution."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tentatively confirmed the deal when asked about it while in Las Vegas.

Bettman likes deal

"That's what I heard, subject to board approval," Bettman said, adding he thinks the deal is a positive step forward for the franchise.

"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."

Geoff Molson said he, along with his brothers Andrew and Justin, would endeavour to maintain the tradition of the Canadiens while working with general manager Bob Gainey to ice the strongest team possible.

"This is a very exciting time for our family and we are grateful to the many people and organizations who came forward to offer their collaboration in the development of our proposal," said Molson.

Citing an unidentified source, La Presse in Montreal reported the sale price is well over $500 million, which would include Gillett's 80.1-per cent interest in the team and 100 per cent stake in the Bell Centre and event promotion company Gillett Entertainment Group.

Gillett 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.

Former Habs player and general manager Serge Savard will reportedly have an important role with the team, the newspaper stated, possibly as an investor.

The Molson family owned the team from 1957-71 and Molson Breweries re-acquired the club for $20 million in 1978. The brewery then sold the team and its arena to Gillett in 2001. Now known as Molson-Coors, the company stayed on as a minority owner of the club, with a 19.9 per cent share, while Gillett owned 80.1 per cent before the sale reported Saturday.

Brothers Molson took offer in early June

The Molson brothers announced they had fielded an offer for the team and arena on June 11.

Geoff Molson is on the team's board of directors, but he withdrew from its activities during the sale process.

The Molson family was among several groups vying to buy the Canadiens, including Quebecor Media, the Solidarity Fund of the Quebec Federation of Labour. Another who reportedly expressed interest was Seagram heir Stephen Bronfman, as well as at least one bid from the United States.

"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."

Kelly added, "Mr. Gillett was really a fine owner. "We will miss him in the National Hockey League. I thought he brought a lot of creativity and ingenuity and colour to the sport."

Word the Canadiens were for sale surfaced last November from Research in Motion head Jim Balsillie, but that was vehemently denied at the time by Gillett.

In March, the team confirmed BMO Capital Markets had been asked to evaluate Gillett's assets, including the Canadiens, and look at ways to refinance or sell them.

With files from The Canadian Press