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Coaching in Montreal presents unique demands

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Randy Cunneyworth, the Canadiens’ interim coach is probably glad to be on a six-game road trip as it takes him out of the firestorm his hiring sparked in Montreal. (Photo by Brian Jenkins/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

Fewer and fewer things in this world make sense, it seems, especially at first glance. The real essence of stuff often lies beneath the surface, requiring examination and context to become clear. The appointment of Randy Cunneyworth as coach of the Montreal Canadiens and the outcry among Quebec’s Francophone majority because he cannot speak French qualifies as one of those things.

It’s a situation that brings to mind a line from the great phrasemaker of our time, Bob Dylan, and his song “One Too Many Mornings” –  “You are right from your side, and I am right from mine.” In fact, there are a number of sides in this little drama.

From a purely hockey side, we all can agree, teams wants the best personnel — players, coach, GM, scouts, you name it. To place restrictions like language on a hiring seem contrary to that goal. Why shrink the talent pool? Sports should be a meritocracy. It seems so simple.

But nothing in the real world is simple. You can try all you want to offer simple explanations and impose simple solutions on complex situations, but you’ll miss the mark. It is a fruitless enterprise. And when it comes to Club de Hockey Canadien, we are talking about some serious complexity.

This is a hockey organization with not only an unmatched history of success but a franchise whose founding in 1909 and earliest identity was as “the French team” in its city, even though its founders and subsequent owners have not been French, and sometimes not even Canadians. While the Canadiens’ fan base spreads around the world, those who come to the games and watch in the team’s TV market — its primary benefactors — remain overwhelmingly French.

For most of their history, the Canadiens’ roster was filled with French players who became the heroes of the city and the province — and nothing has ever captured the unique connection between the sport, the team, its identity and that hero worship better than Roch Carrier’s brilliant 1979 short story “The Hockey Sweater,” which was turned into an award-winning animated short a year later.

A great deal has changed since the late 1940s, the period Carrier wrote about, and a great deal more has changed from when he wrote it 30 years later. But what hasn’t changed is the importance of the sport and this team to the province. Actually, its importance has grown. The Canadiens are probably the single most important institution in Montreal, maybe in all of Quebec.

Because French is the first language spoken by 80 percent of the province’s population, those who live there say they now want the Canadiens’ coach — who is perhaps the most visible and scrutinized person in the province — to communicate with them in their own language. Saku Koivu’s tenure as captain during the last decade was similarly controversial. A cancer survivor and an undersized warrior, Koivu was as heroic a figure as you could find, but he spoke no French publicly and reportedly didn’t make much of an effort to become comfortable speaking it. That didn’t sit well with some.

“I do not think it is necessary that the guy is perfectly bilingual, but he must be able to address people as Bob Gainey or Scotty Bowman did, for example,” writes Norman Flynn on RDS.ca. “Their level of French was acceptable and people understood and accepted. The fans appreciated that an English speaker tried his luck with the language of Molière….It’s like if you buy an item and the instructions are in English only. It’s just a matter of respect.”

However, Flynn admits, if a proven superstar Anglophone coach were available, he would be acceptable to the fans, an opinion seconded by Marc Antoine Godin of La Presse on Monday night during TSN’s regional telecast of the Canadiens’ game in Boston. At least among some, there’s flexibility on this issue. A first-time NHL head coach like Randy Cunneyworth, however, doesn’t fall into that superstar category.

This emphasis on language may mystify some. But it is the currency of all political discourse in Quebec. Some have called it illogical at best, draconian at worst. It may or may not be a vehicle used to deflect attention from more basic economic issues as well as a cover for political motives, but its place in day-to-day life cannot be argued.

“I wouldn’t expect anyone who doesn’t live here to understand the importance of respect for the language spoken by an overwhelming majority of the team’s fans,” wrote Mike Boone on The Montreal Gazette’s Hockey Inside/Out blog. “Many Montrealers – including some of my best friends – don’t get it. Yes, you can hire the best candidate for the job in 29 NHL cities. It’s different here. There are important political, cultural and historical issues at play. That’s just the way it is … and that’s the way it will be, unless Gary Bettman moves the Canadiens to Las Vegas.”

Those “many Montrealers” who Boone mentions are yet another side of the story. These Anglophones, who often comment that Quebec’s language laws make them victims in their home province, just want to cheer for their hometown team. The language issue is already an irritant to them and at a time when some believe anti-English sentiment is on the rise in the province, it’s being extended into sports.

They often cite the world of soccer as an example of how they’d like the Canadiens to operate, where the national origin or language of the manager seems not to matter one bit, not only for club teams, but national teams as well.

The problem with that, of course, is that in some circumstances, soccer team decisions can be something other than merit-based. In the Scottish Premier League, for example, Celtic’s Catholic identity and Rangers’ Protestant identity with their team’s respective fan bases inform many of their personnel decisions, and you wouldn’t expect to see a Croat play for Red Star of Belgrade.

This sort of thinking is not something alien to the U.S., either. Notre Dame’s Catholic identity – to use an example that quickly comes to mind — has meant the head coach of its football team often had to be of that faith, although two of their greatest, Knute Rockne and Ara Parsegian, were not. But whenever the position becomes vacant, calls are renewed for the new coach to be Catholic.

In one sense, this is grossly archaic and out of step with an inclusionary society. In another, it reflects a team and an institution’s self-image and character, things that make a team unique, and give it color and life.

The Canadiens have a side in this issue, too. This problem with their new coach arose because they built a team that had short-term success that now seems unsustainable. They spent heavily on veterans who have become prone to injury and not produced this season up to past standards (and in the case of Scott Gomez, haven’t produced for three years) while their emerging young core is not yet quite strong and consistent enough to pick up the slack. Faced with the strong possibility that a playoff spot was slipping from their grasp, they did what five other NHL clubs have done this season: They fired their coach, Jacques Martin, and hoped a new face and voice would fuel a turnaround.

Cunneyworth is certainly qualified for the job from a hockey standpoint. He was a hard-working player for six different NHL teams over the course of an 866-game career, and was respected enough to captain the Ottawa Senators. His AHL record behind the bench in both Rochester and Hamilton was exemplary. He had been an NHL assistant in Atlanta before being one in Montreal, so he was already part of the organization.

That last factor was key, said Marc Antoine Godin on TSN’s Canadiens telecast Monday night. (video). Godin believes that Martin’s dismissal involved a very large contractual payout for getting fired prior to the last year of his deal. Confronted by the distinct possibility they’d miss the playoffs and the resulting revenue (which has been estimated at $5 million per game), the Habs were forced to replace him with an interim coach, someone already under contract, perhaps because the GM, Pierre Gauthier, is interim now too, as Godin points out. Hiring a new bilingual coach like Marc Crawford, Bob Hartley or Patrick Roy from outside would involve a new contract that would extend a few years, and if a new GM comes in and wants his own coach, that’s a lot to pay for two men not to coach the Canadiens. So the plan is to get through this season and start fresh.

Too focused on fixing the team, perhaps the Canadiens’ executives didn’t expect the larger reaction that hiring Cunneyworth would provoke. “We didn’t do an external search,” Gauthier said. “We need to compete immediately.” Asked about Cunneyworth’s lack of ability to speak French, he replied, “For the moment that’s the situation, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t change. Languages can be learned.” Those answers proved unsatisfying.

With the city and province figuratively ablaze in the aftermath, Habs owner and CEO Geoff Molson moved to douse the flames with a statement that Cunneyworth was only guaranteed his job until season’s end. “Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team,” Molson said. “it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.”

“It’ll be pretty tough sledding (for Cunneyworth) without a grasp of French,” Scotty Bowman told Chris Stevenson of The Ottawa Sun. The bilingual Bowman harkened back to his own experience holding down the toughest coaching job in the NHL during the 1970s, saying, “In my day, we didn’t have the (media) scrums after the games they do today. It’s a much more complicated position than it used to be.”

In fact, the Canadiens’ coach can address the press multiple times daily, especially on game days, and ordinarily fields questions in both languages. There may be no more competitive NHL media market than Montreal.

Coincidentally, as Buffalo GM, Bowman drafted Cunneyworth for the Sabres out of junior hockey. “I’m sure he recognizes this opportunity,” Scotty says. “I don’t think the people there expect more than a working knowledge. I think if he can pick up just a working knowledge, they’d welcome him with open arms. I hope he can do it.”

It’s unclear at the moment whether Molson’s reaffirming of the team’s link to its fans and their language will quiet the critics, which include Quebec’s culture minister. Losing to the Bruins on Monday night certainly won’t help matters, and with the Canadiens traveling to Chicago, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay before coming home, the partisans could reignite before the next game at the Bell Centre on Jan. 4.

All this is toughest on Cunneyworth, who has a side in this, too. He’s earned a shot to be an NHL head coach. There are only 30 of these jobs and, despite the extraordinarily adverse circumstances, he’s probably happy to get a chance to prove what he can do. He’ll have to prove he’s a superstar behind the bench and make the playoffs to keep this job, but he might have had to do that anywhere else he took over as an interim NHL coach.

But he’s not anywhere else. He’s coaching the Montreal Canadiens. And he doesn’t speak French. Just how he can learn it while trying to turn this team around is a mystery.

Here’s Zimmy’s folky original version.

And here he is countrified with Johnny Cash.

  • Published On Dec 20, 2011
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