MONTREAL, QC. — A small protest by language militants in front of the Bell Centre and an apology from Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier last week once again focused attention on the hiring policy of the Montreal Canadiens.
“I’m sorry if we upset people because that certainly wasn’t our intention. What will happen in the future, at the end of the season, is that we will re-evaluate the whole file. As (owner Geoff) Molson said in his communique a week ago, it’s very important to us that our head coach be bilingual. So that will be part of our decision at that point.” — Pierre Gauthier
Gauthier and Molson both stated the importance of the head coach being bilingual. This begs the simple question, Why? Of all the characteristics required to be successful in the NHL, why is language so important?
When Gauthier appointed Randy Cunneyworth as interim head coach of the Canadiens, there were many critics in the media including Luc Gelinas from RDS.
Gelinas expressed his disappointment that owner Geoff Molson had allowed his general manager to hire Cunneyworth. He called the new head coach “Gauthier’s mistake.”
I had the opportunity to ask Gelinas to point to the deficits in Cunneyworth’s resume that make him a hiring mistake. Gelinas replied, “Not his resume. He deserved a chance in the NHL. But, I still believe the head coach in Mtl needs to speaks both languages.”
Gelinas confirmed to me that nothing in Cunneyworth’s skills and experience disqualify him from being a NHL head coach. In his opinion, Cunneyworth is perfectly qualified to coach any of the 29 teams in the NHL, just not the Montreal Canadiens.
Well, isn’t that interesting?
It’s accurate to say that speaking French has nothing to do with the skills required to direct the on-ice performance of the Canadiens hockey team or any other in the NHL, yet it is being held up as an impediment to employment for Cunneyworth. Imagine being told that you were qualified to manage any of your company’s franchise offices, but not the one in Calgary because you don’t play the cello.
There is a typical response to this.
“Fans in Quebec want to hear the coach address them in their own language.”
The statement dredges up images of the family listening to hockey on the radio while gathered around the oil-burning stove in small towns like Sainte-Justine, Quebec. Fans just can’t wait til the end of the game when Jacques Martin will speak directly to them. Really?
The Canadiens head coach speaks to the media after every game for 7-10 minutes, about half in English and half in French. So the notion that being able to speak French for 3-5 minutes, 82 times a year is the most important hiring characteristic is ludicrous.
Besides, any fan knows that nothing of substance is said in those pressers. During coach Martin’s reign, he delivered the same broken record every night speaking about the compete level, playing without the puck, and mistakes of the youth.
CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos went one further suggesting that children in Montreal Children’s and Sainte-Justine Hospitals want to hear the coach speak French during the annual visit in December. Sorry George, the coach doesn’t accompany the players. Besides, the children are far more interested in meeting Carey Price, Brian Gionta, P.K. Subban, Andrei Kostitsyn and Josh Gorges — the communication on the hospital visits between the players and the kids transcends any language barrier.
Listen, we are the first to recognize that hockey fans want to read about the Montreal Canadiens in the language of their choice. All Habs Hockey Magazine publishes original content about the Habs in French and English. It is our commitment to you to provide diversity of perspective and language.
But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to English and French, All Habs publishes in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. We recognize that Canadiens fans are found not only in Canada and the U.S. but across the planet — and we have added talented staff who can deliver features, analysis, and creative insight in four languages.
No other website can offer that to it’s readers. But we see it as OUR role. It’s unfortunate that the mainstream media don’t offer a similar level of service to their readers and viewers instead demanding that an NHL coach must also act as a translator for them.
“So you are saying it’s okay for the Toronto Maple Leafs to hire a unilingual French or Russian coach?”
This silly question is better suited for discussion at a junior debate club in high school. It is most often asked by a person with little or no knowledge of sports and coaching.
The most important task of the coach is the ability to communicate with his players. Given that the language of the NHL is English, it is possible to be a unilingual English coach but impossible if the coach speaks another language.
The problem with the Montreal Canadiens hiring policy is that in the past they have valued language over communication skills. As a result the last two coaches, Jacques Martin and Guy Carbonneau, have been bilingual, but haven’t been able to communicate with players in either language. It was a major barrier leading to their dismissal.
“I want the coach to be like me so I can be proud of him.”
For the sake of argument, let’s agree with this statement. Once that is done it all comes down to the definition of what “like me” is. For the small-minded extremists like the ones who were protesting in front of the Bell Centre and who wish to live in an insular society, this doesn’t leave many choices.
When this question comes up, I think about the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I believe that Kevin Martin is like me, and I was proud of him. Alex Bilodeau is like me too — he won gold and I was very proud of him.
Eric Staal is like me, we grew up in the same home-town. I was proud of him but just as proud of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Marleau, and Rick Nash.
In fact my definition of “like me” is so broad and inclusive, that I was proud of Kaillie Humphries, Charles Hamelin, Tessa Bonhomme, Ashleigh McIvor, Caroline Ouellette, Catherine Ward, Maëlle Ricker, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. They are all Canadians — just like me — and I was thrilled for each of them when I heard the anthem play and watched them presented with their medals.
The same sentiment should apply for fans of the Canadiens — pride for the success of players and coaches shouldn’t only be restricted to those who originate from the home province.
“If the Canadiens don’t hire francophone coaches, who will?”
This is perhaps the most disturbing question of the lot most often voiced by members of the francophone media. It suggests that francophone coaches are inferior in some way so need a token hiring by the Canadiens to gain entry into the NHL.
It is a bigoted statement and patently untrue. There are some good coaches who are bilingual — but because of demographics, there are far too few.
Besides, the statement makes the warped assumption that the Montreal Canadiens, should sacrifice quality and accept their role as the affirmative action employer of the NHL. That’s absurd!
The NHL will always find talent. If WJC gold-medal winner Max Friberg can be noticed in the small community of Skövde, Sweden by scouts of the Anaheim Ducks, then a dynamic coach like Guy Boucher would have been discovered in Drummondville, Quebec even if the Canadiens hadn’t brought him into their organization.
“If they just make an effort to speak French, everyone will appreciate it.”
There is some truth to this statement. Randy Cunneyworth has taken to beginning his press conferences with some variation of “Je suis très content.” The gesture, while appreciated, still won’t garner media support for turning his interim title into permanent one.
Just ask Scott Gomez. The Canadiens center was applauded by fans and media for committing to Berlitz classes shortly after arriving in Montreal. But even language lessons won’t buy favors when the performance slides — Gomez is presently public enemy No. 1 in Montreal.
No one tried harder than Tom Kostopoulos. He took every opportunity to speak French using what he learned in high school yet his language skills were often mocked by the media after they completed an interview with him. Let’s not forget Michel Beaudry’s on-air bigoted rant against Kostopoulos on 110% that ended with “Tom Kosto-f**king-poulos!”
I support the notion that the coach should be able to master greetings and common phrases in French. But conducting a press conference fluently is an entirely different matter. NHL level hockey is a complicated game — do fans want the coach of their team spending time with Rosetta Stone or breaking down opposition video and developing winning game plans?
“But you don’t understand, the Canadiens are more than just a hockey team, they are an icon for the preservation of language and culture. They are a religion in Quebec!”
I live in Montreal, and I have closely followed the Canadiens for my entire life. I get it — I do understand their position in the province.
There is no doubt that the Habs have an extremely passionate and devoted fanbase. But it’s also true that any number of causes latch on to the popularity of the Canadiens to get their message out. One opportunistic politician uses social media to raise his profile by exploiting the Habs.
But the modern reality is that the Habs are no longer the exclusive domain of Quebeckers. The club has passionate fans who come out in droves when the Canadiens take to the road to play at any of the other 29 arenas in the league.
And it doesn’t stop there. Canadiens fans can be found all over the world. No one can deny their commitment to the team as they follow their team via internet streams at all hours of the day and night.
One must ask, why are the Canadiens so popular? It may have something to do with 24 Stanley Cups. They earned championships by acquiring the best talent, both on the ice and behind the bench.
When the topic turns to past coaches, discussion focuses on Scotty Bowman, the most successful bench boss in Canadiens history. Debate often devolves into how fluent he was in French. Frankly, it’s irrelevant.
It’s simple. Bowman was hired because he was the best coach in the NHL. The Canadiens haven’t been able to make the claim that they have one of the best coaches in the league in more than 30 years. In the past 15 years, they have employed some of the worst.
So the simple truth is that to maintain their position in Quebec as a icon, the organization has to stop trying to be all things to all people. The Montreal Canadiens must return to a winning tradition and to do everything possible to hire the best coach available.
“I think having a bilingual coach and general manager is important in Quebec.”
So do the Montreal Canadiens. It was articulated by former President Pierre Boivin who said, “You bet [bilingualism] is important. It’s our mission. There’s no question about it. We operate in the province of Quebec, two-thirds to three-quarters of our fans and clients are Francophones.”
At the time, Mr. Boivin conveniently forgot about the millions of Canadiens fans outside of Quebec, who follow the team religiously, order NHL Game Center, buy merchandise, and make pilgrimages to Montreal to see their team live.
But is the policy that has been in use since the mid-90′s hurting the team’s ability to win?
In addition to confirming the importance of bilingualism, Boivin said the Canadiens management hiring policy makes the club “severely competitively disadvantaged.”
“So [other NHL teams] have a pool of 90, (even if) not all are good or are available. We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? It’s the same thing with coaches. And that’s a huge disadvantage when human capital is your most important asset.” — Pierre Boivin
Do the Canadiens really want to come clean with their supporters that winning is not the top priority of the team? Or is it time for the organizational goals of the team to be stripped down. Imagine how true Canadiens fans would react to hearing Geoff Molson publicly commit to one simple goal:
Our mission is to win the Stanley Cup | Notre mission est de remporter la Coupe Stanley | Nossa missão é ganhar a Stanley Cup | Nuestra misión es ganar la Stanley Cup
Those are messages that would be embraced by Habs fans everywhere.
About the Author (Author Profile)Rick is the Editor-in-Chief, lead contributor, and owner of the All Habs network of websites. His mission is to build a community of Canadiens fans who are informed, engaged and connected. He is the vision behind all four sites within the network - All Habs, Habs Tweetup, We Are Canadiens, and The Montreal Forum - and is responsible for the design and layout of each. In concert with the strong belief that "Habs fans are everywhere!", Rick is pleased that people use All Habs as a conduit to find and connect with other Habs fans worldwide. He is also proud that Habs Tweetups have allowed fans to meet in person and develop long lasting friendships.
Sites That Link to this Post
- NHL Blog Beat – January 9, 2012. | Spectors Hockey | January 9, 2012