December 19, 2011
Randy Cunneyworth has been called a lot of things in his NHL career, but we imagine "unilingual Anglophone" was a new one.
He was promoted by the Montreal Canadiens to replace Jacques Martin on an interim basis. He doesn't speak French. You can imagine where it goes from here.
Since the hiring, the French-speaking media have denounced the move, a separatist group has threatened to boycott Molson beer to protest Habs owner Geoff Molson — no big loss, as we all know the French only drink wine (just jokes, people) — and Philippe Cantin of La Presse called the hiring of Cunneyworth no less than an insult to the province:
"In Quebec, the Canadiens aren't just a hockey team. They are also an institution. And like all institutions, they have a responsibility to the community."
Many unilingual Anglophones will see this reaction and scoff. They'll think back to the nonsense about Saku Koivu's captaincy, and his "unworthiness" because he didn't speak French; and then to Brian Gionta earning the captaincy and making sure his greeting to fans was bilingual.
They'll think back to the Denis Savard for Chris Chelios trade, the dozens of draft picks and other transactions made out of concern for culture. They'll think back to all the executives, general managers and coaches that were either never considered or were never approached because of the language issue — like the one currently behind the bench in Raleigh.
One could argue it's hurt the franchise over the last 25 years. One could also argue that a small segment of the Canadiens fan base, and some of their media, has a right to gripe. Should language matter?
It seems there are two interests when it comes to hiring a head coach in Montreal -- winning hockey games and the language that man speaks -- and at least in this situation, those interests seem counter to one another. I won't pretend to completely understand the politics involved as an ignorant, English speaking American, but I know that as a hockey fan, my chief concern is that my team win as many games as possible. If Cunneyworth is the best option for the team on the ice, what does language really matter?
Yet it does to a great many fans and media in Quebec. It's hard to be open-minded about the close-minded, but allow a moment for the defense, your honor.
The caustic commentator Rejean Tremblay, formerly of La Presse.ca, thinks the moves are calculated from a media relations standpoint:
Management, he said, doesn't want these players to get too popular with the media - or too unpopular.
"The less French-Canadian players there are," he argued, "the less problems (the owners) will have with the media, the more (the owners) will be able to control information and the team's image."
"The Canadiens are the blood and oxygen of an entire part of Quebec society," Tremblay continued. "In normal times, from what I have observed in the last 40 years, is that the Canadiens precede what happens in Quebec society."
What it comes down to is that coach relates with that society. La Presse's Francois Gagnon told the Globe & Mail, "What I hear now is if the team is losing, why not have team we can relate to? Not only Francophones but guys from Ontario, Canadians."
He also said this, which is one of the more salient points we've read:
Gagnon relates Quebec's preference for a Francophone to other provinces. "Would the Leafs have a coach, like Pittsburgh did a couple of years ago, who only spoke Czech (Ivan Hlinka)? Of course, that's not going to happen.
"I can't imagine, even though there are lots of Francophones in Alberta, that English Albertans would accept a Calgary coach who would not say word in English. Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto would not accept that. I understand, Montreal, in having a coach who can speak French to fans, they would be putting aside some great candidates. But if Montreal doesn't give chance to Francophone to coach in NHL who will?"
So, at the very least, you can understand where this vocal minority is coming from.
But in the end, it's still a vocal minority, and majorly media-driven.
It's still a group whose pressure on the franchise over the years has influenced poor decisions and has scared off players and executives from entering the market. Even now, with an interim coach, it has made his first few days on the job more challenging than they already are.
Perhaps Randy Cunneyworth's hiring means something to the end of this debate, writes Habs Eyes On The Prize:
"Regardless of the reasoning, the Canadiens have decided to hand the reins to Randy Cunneyworth on an interim basis. This may be surprising to many as Cunneyworth does not speak French. This decision may be a precursor to the Canadiens moving away from the self-restraint of hiring bilingual coaches, or it could be a stop-gap measure which gives them until the summer to find a suitable candidate."
Or he could lead this team back from the brink, in which case language becomes secondary to something else: hockey.