In several NHL cities, there is a coaching crisis. Someone has been fired. Someone else has been hired to turn around the team. It’s that simple.
But in Montreal, there isn't just a coaching crisis. There is an identity crisis. The Canadiens have replaced Jacques Martin with assistant Randy Cunneyworth through the end of the season, a relatively unremarkable move in today's game except for one thing:
Cunneyworth does not speak French.
There were howls for Martin's head. Now there are howls for Cunneyworth's tongue.
To some fans and media in Montreal, the debate goes beyond whether Cunneyworth can do a better job than Martin did. It goes to whether he should have the chance at all, to the very heart of what the Habs represent.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson released a statement Monday in both French and English. It supported Cunneyworth, calling him "a qualified and experienced coach" who had earned respect and was ready to take over, but it also reiterated that the team will conduct a "carefully planned" coaching search after the season.
"Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, it is obvious that the ability of the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of a permanent head coach," Molson said.
This does not translate to most of North America. We have spent years and decades and centuries evolving toward an egalitarian society. We aren't there yet, but we have reached the point where people are supposed to be hired based on merit alone and not face discrimination based on things like color or creed or sexual orientation. This is true in Quebec, too. So what about language?
A coach isn't qualified if he can't communicate. But his primary job is to communicate with players, and the working language of the NHL is English, giving players from several different countries common ground. Cunneyworth speaks English, of course.
Short of the ideal – winning with a coach who speaks French – which is truly more important to the Canadiens? Success? Or sound bites?
If the best coach speaks French, perfect. If all is equal, hire a coach who speaks French. But above all, the Canadiens should hire the coach who gives them the best chance to win. Les Glorieux sounds elegant because of the language, but the nickname's meaning comes from the tradition of excellence – the 24 Stanley Cups, by far the most of any NHL franchise.
"Obviously the results of the team are more important," said Scotty Bowman, who led the Canadiens to four consecutive Cups from 1976-79. "If there is a candidate who is a real good coach and he is a Francophone, he'd obviously be the best choice. But if there's no … It would depend on who the candidates are."
No one should be insensitive to the Canadiens' unique cultural and practical concerns. There is certainly something to be said for the Habs' having a Francophone coach. Quebec is not just another province of Canada; it is an enclave comprised largely of French-speakers amid a country comprised largely of English-speakers. The Canadiens are not just another hockey team; they are an institution that reflects the people. These aren't Canadians but Canadiens – note the "e."
At best, sports teams connect with their fans by winning in a way that symbolizes the city. Think of the Philadelphia Flyers and their "Broad Street Bullies," the Pittsburgh Steelers and their "Steel Curtain" defense, Los Angeles and its "Showtime" Lakers. Fans like to see themselves in their teams, whether the image is real or imagined on either side of the mirror.
Now add language – and the fact that if a coach or player speaks the same language as the fans, that probably means he comes from the same place they do. He's part of the same minority amid the majority. He's one of "us" battling against all of "them."
A French-speaking coach might be more important than ever before in Montreal. The city has always had English and French media, but now both have more of a presence in the Internet age. The news cycle runs around the clock and big money is involved. The Canadiens aren't just covered by independent media in both languages; they have rights-holders in both languages paying for video and audio. With fewer French-speaking players in the dressing room these days, it is easier to have a French-speaking coach who can feed this beast of particular taste.
But that leads to the other side of the story: It is both harder to be French and harder to win today. The NHL has expanded its size (to 30 teams) and its talent pool (including Europe). It is more multicultural than ever. The NHL has a salary cap and awards points for overtime losses. It is more competitive than ever. If you limit yourself to Francophone players and coaches, you're putting yourself at a distinct disadvantage.
The Canadiens can have good French-speaking players, but they long ago lost their special rights to them and must draft and develop players like everyone else. They can have good Francophone coaches, but they have to stop burning through them. They have gone through so many in recent years – including Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault, who led the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup final last season, respectively. Guy Boucher left the Canadiens’ AHL farm club to go behind the bench of the Tampa Bay Lightning when it seemed that the same job in Montreal was years away. It makes you wonder how many are left.
Montreal has become a monster that eats its own. Some French-speaking players – probably some French-speaking coaches, too – don’t want to work there. Then there is the front office. The Habs have a Francophone general manager in Pierre Gauthier, but he has made many bad decisions and rarely answers for anything in any language. So what does it matter?
What matters most is the actual hockey, and language hasn't been an issue within the team itself in a long time.
Bowman was born and raised in Montreal. He learned French in the classroom and on the street. When he coached the Canadiens in the 1970s, he worked with many Francophone players and did some media interviews in French.
But Bowman was born to parents who never learned French themselves. He spoke English growing up. He coached in English with the Canadiens, except when he had to get something across one-on-one with a Francophone player. He did most interviews in English, except when he was one-on-one with a French-speaking writer or on French-language television. There weren't as many media demands then – certainly no bilingual press conferences after every practice and game.
"We spoke English in the dressing room all the time," Bowman said. "We never had a podium."
Whether the record book is in English or French, Bowman's numbers are what matter most. It's too easy to say Habs fans would support any coach who wins a Cup, because as true as that might be, it's too hard to win a Cup today and virtually impossible to win four straight the way Bowman did. You can't count on the Cup to heal all wounds when only one team wins it every year. But fans are funny creatures. They find ways to adapt, and they will find a way to love winners.
When Bowman coached in Detroit from 1993-2002, Red Wings fans loved the blue-collar grit and determination of Steve Yzerman and the Grind Line guys – Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty. But they also embraced the "Russian Five," the stellar Swedes and their skilled, puck-possession style. They became their Russians, their Swedes.
Tear down the Berlitz Wall – as the language-barrier has been dubbed by Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber, the Hall of Fame hockey writer based in Montreal – and give Habs fans something to watch.
That could be a team with panache and creativity that recalls Guy Lafleur, not this conservative, defensive, systemic team. That could be a team that is simply run well and trending upward, not this collection of bad contracts and disappointments that has floundered this season. That could be a good coach speaking bad French, if that's what it takes to win.
"If the best coach was English and they did hire him," Bowman said, "I'm sure if he made an effort to learn enough to get by, he could do it."
Habs fans are renowned for being the most sophisticated in the sport. If they like what they see, maybe they won't care as much about what they hear.
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- Randy Cunneyworth
- Scotty Bowman