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Some analysts believe there could be anywhere between four and ten NHL coaching vacancies by the time the Stanley Cup is awarded in mid-June.  Undoubtedly, the Montreal Canadiens will be one of the teams searching for a new headmaster in the off-season.

The fervor surrounding Randy Cunneyworth’s inability to speak French has been well documented.  The Francophone press and Quebec politicians have been ripping the Canadiens to shreds ever since Cunneyworth took over for Jacques Martin back in December. 

The vast majority of fans and pundits believe Cunneyworth has been treated unfairly by his detractors.  Most people seem to think the Toronto native was never given a chance to succeed in Montreal.  It’s a fair argument.

Instead of standing by his man, then-general manager Pierre Gauther issued a public apology shortly after Cunneyworth was hired, claiming the team had made a mistake by hiring a unilingual head coach.  Canadiens owner, president, and CEO Geoff Molson issued a follow-up statement, saying Cunneyworth was hired on an interim basis, and that a candidates’ ability to speak both French and English would be an important consideration in the selection of a permanent coach over the next few months. 

The fact his team finished the season so poorly only confirms the inevitable: Cunneyworth won’t be back behind the Montreal bench next season.  Some folks have said his services would’ve been retained if the Canadiens had made a magical run after Christmas and somehow squeaked into the playoffs.  That’s wishful thinking, at best.

There was once a time when speaking French wasn’t a requirement of a head coach in Montreal.  Most recently, Bob Berry led the team for three years in the early 80’s.  And while Berry’s hiring initially created some waves in the city, it didn’t ignite a firestorm like the one that engulfed Randy Cunneyworth this season.

Unfortunately, times have changed since Berry’s coaching tenure.  These days, head coaches are required to interact with the media nearly every day.  They deal with press scrums before and after games and after practices.  In an age of 24-hour digital media, it’s absolutely imperative for a head coach to be able to communicate with beat writers, columnists, and broadcasters.  In Montreal, this task requires a fluent knowledge of the French language. 

For those who still aren’t convinced, consider this hypothetical situation.  Assume the New York Rangers have a roster consisting exclusively of French Canadian players.  A unilingual French-speaking head coach is brought in to lead the club, one that, while able to communicate with his players, is unable to do so with the New York media.  The decision to hire a non-English speaking coach in the Big Apple would obviously be unacceptable.

With this in mind, it’s difficult to figure out why so many people feel Randy Cunneyworth is getting the short end of the stick in Montreal.  By not being able to speak with the French press, he’s clearly unable to execute a vital part of his job as a head coach.  To say Pierre Gauthier made a gross miscalculation in hiring Cunneyworth is an understatement, and it appears as if the Canadiens coach also underestimated the magnitude of the controversy his hiring would create. 

The average Canadiens fan doesn’t give a hoot what language his team’s coach speaks.  But that’s because most Canadiens fans are English.  The team has legions of fans all over North America, with large pockets in Atlantic Canada and across the United States.  But this doesn’t change the fact that the team is based in Quebec.  Is it not reasonable to expect the face of the Montreal Canadiens to be able to speak the official language of the province in which he’s employed?

Players like Bob Gainey and Bobby Smith learned French when they played in Montreal many years ago.  Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman also taught themselves the language.  They each did so because they felt speaking French would make their lives a lot easier as high-profile figures in La Belle Province.  And while it’s by no means an obligation for today’s Canadiens players to be bilingual, it’s an absolute obligation for the team’s bench boss.

By all accounts, Randy Cunneyworth is a good man and a promising head coach.  But because of the modern-day media demands and expectations of coaches, he’s simply not qualified to be at the helm in Montreal.  Here’s hoping he lands on his feet next season.

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A few comments.

1. “Assume the New York Rangers have a roster consisting exclusively of French Canadian players. A unilingual French-speaking head coach is brought in to lead the club, one that, while able to communicate with his players, is unable to do so with the New York media.”

What people seem to completely ignore is that an NHL player, whether they be from Quebec, Slovakia, Russia, Sweden, or anywhere else, has a clear interest in learning English. The days of a player staying with one team their entire career are over. The NHL operates in English, because that is the language that dominates in 29 other markets. Much like the business world generally, to be able to be mobile in your chosen profession players, coaches, GMs, etc. need to know English. Their livelihood depends on it.

2. “Is it not reasonable to expect the face of the Montreal Canadiens to be able to speak the official language of the province in which he’s employed?”

I guess it’s not reasonable that he is able to speak one of the official languages of the country that he lives in. This ENTIRE story is essentially about how a few columnists at La Presse, le Devoir, and RDS don’t want their feelings hurt because they are going to have to translate what the coach said in an interview.

One day, this team will care more about winning than about the destructive politics of the PQ.

Posted by Mike from Sherbrooke on 04/09/12 at 01:07 PM ET

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I just wanted to say I have been a long time follower and I appreciate all of your writing.  A lot of work must go into putting out quality content like this.  Thanks again.

Posted by French Wine from usa on 04/21/12 at 06:44 AM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.