Kukla's Korner

Puckin' Around With Spector

Winning the only language that counts.

The Montreal Canadiens recent promotion of assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth into the role of interim replacement for fired head coach Jacques Martin has unleashed considerable criticism from Quebec-based fans, pundits and politicians.

It’s not Cunneyworth’s ability as a head coach, or lack of experience coaching at the NHL level which is the cause of their concern, but the fact he doesn’t speak French.

Only in Montreal, the NHL’s only city in the Francophone province of Quebec, would this be an issue.

Some of the critics justify their position by stating another NHL team wouldn’t hire a coach who didn’t speak English.

It’s a reasonable point, provided the overwhelming majority of the Canadiens, along with their Montreal- and Quebec-based fans, didn’t understand English, or speak it as a second language. Since that isn’t the case, it’s a moot point.

Most of those complaining about Cunneyworth’s linguistic ability do so out of a long-held, deep-seated suspicion/fear of English creeping in and dominating Quebec culture and language. As a result, they consider the Canadiens hiring a coach who speaks only English an insult.

The Canadiens, for decades, have had head coaches who were bilingual. Most either had great success with the Habs, or achieved it (Alain Vigneault, Claude Julien) with other teams.

It’s understandable why the Canadiens, the only NHL team in the league’s only true bilingual market, would hire bilingual coaches and general managers. All the better to converse with the press and the public in both languages, but especially in French.

One can’t help but wonder, however, how strident those who insist/demand the Canadiens hire a bilingual head coach would be if an established, highly respected unilingual coach like Mike Babcock or Dan Byslma were hired for that role?

The point has also been raised the reason the Canadiens have been a mediocre club since winning their last championship nearly twenty years ago is the insistence on hiring only bilingual management and coaches, rather than the best people for the job.

Except for the stupid, knee-jerk decision to replace Serge Savard and Jacques Demers as GM and coach respectively with the inexperienced Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay in October 1995, the Canadiens have hired the best available bilingual people for those roles.

Houle’s replacement was Andre Savard, a well-respected scout with the Ottawa Senators, who helped build that team into a powerhouse by the turn of the century. His successor, Bob Gainey, was a Hall of Fame Canadiens star who built the Dallas Stars into a Cup champion.  His replacement, Pierre Gauthier, also played a role in the Senators buildup in the late 1990s, plus had management experience with Anaheim.

Tremblay’s replacement was Alain Vigneault, a then-promising junior coach, who earned an Adams trophy nomination in 2000.  His successor, Michel Therrien, coached the Granby Predateurs to the 1996 QMJHL championship. He would be replaced by Claude Julien, another notable junior coach, for three seasons. Julien’s replacement, former Habs player Guy Carbonneau, was a novice, yet the Habs had their best season in nearly twenty years under his coaching, finishing first overall in the Eastern Conference in 2008.  Martin, hired in 2009, won the Adams trophy in 1999 with Ottawa and had years of NHL head coaching experience. Gainey also made interim appearances behind the bench in 2006 and 2009.

Their linguistic abilities had little to do with the Canadiens nearly two decades of mediocrity, but rather management mistakes, which aren’t the sole domain of bilingual general managers, as fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, NY Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames (to name a few) can attest.

The complaints over Cunneyworth into the role of head coach, even in an interim role, raises a more interesting point.

What will the Canadiens brass do if he’s able to right the currently floundering team? Better yet, what if the team not only improves over the remainder of the season, but marches to the Stanley Cup?

Hypothetical, of course, as only the most fanatical or deluded Canadiens followers consider their team - which lacks skilled size and depth at forward and defense, relying too much on overworked goalie Carey Price to bail them out - a serious Cup contender.

Still, it’s worth pondering. If Cunneyworth turns the Habs into a Cup contender, does he get replaced by a bilingual coach?

It would be an act of stupidity to sack the coach who brought the Canadiens their 25th Stanley Cup title on the basis of his unilingual ability.

Those familiar with Canadiens lore will point out over forty years ago, the team did just that, punting interim, unilingual head coach Al MacNeil downstairs to their farm team following their 1971 championship run, replacing him with Montreal-born, bilingual Scotty Bowman.

That, however was a different Canadiens team, coming off five Stanley Cup titles in seven years, with a roster containing top stars like Yvan Cournoyer, Frank Mahovlich, Henri Richard, Jacques Lemaire and Jacques Laperriere, rising young ones like Ken Dryden, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, which had also selected future Habs legend Guy Lafleur first overall that year.

It was a team managed by Sam Pollock, considered the general manager of the NHL, such was his ability to ensure the best talent usually flowed his way, be it players or coaches. Bowman was a product of the Montreal system, and Pollock wanted him back.

Pollock also operated without the media microscope which exists today. The Canadiens could make that move without anyone batting an eye.

Different team, different time.

Of course, if Cunneyworth guided the Canadiens to a championship this season, management could perhaps use the championship glow as cover in order to get away with replacing him with a bilingual coach, but unless he were to “step down for health reasons”,that would be an unlikely scenario.

When it comes to the Canadiens, only one language truly matters in Montreal, one that transcends bilingualism: winning.

The Canadiens revel in their rich history, especially their record 24 Cup championships. Their fans find comfort wallowing in it, as their once-great team stumbles through two decades as also-rans, showing no sign of returning to the elite status they once enjoyed.

If the Canadiens were to beat the odds and win the Cup under Cunneyworth’s coaching, it would significantly lessen the chorus of criticism over his linguistic abilities. Indeed, the critics would find themselves in a distinct minority, drowned out by the cheers of delighted Canadiens fans.

That scenario probably won’t happen, so what if Cunneyworth reverses the Habs fortunes, they make the playoffs, and win a round or two?

A Cunneyworth-coached Canadiens team which wins a championship makes it easy to justify retaining him as head coach. One that makes the playoffs but bows out by the second or third round is no better than the best Canadiens teams since 1993-94. 

Does management thank him for his efforts then and seek a bilingual option? Or do they do stand by Cunneyworth and give him a full season to see if he can improve on his record?

Most likely, the front office bows to pressure from the media and the politicians, and finds their bilingual white knight. Perhaps Patrick Roy, former Habs superstar and current coach/GM of the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, who would, at the very least, be worth an entertaining quote en francais.

And if the Canadiens miss the 2012 playoffs, the decision becomes much easier. Cunneyworth gets demoted or canned, and would have to look to another team for a better chance at establishing himself as an NHL head coach.

The Canadiens get their bilingual coach, the best one available, and it’ll be decades before they dare hire another unilingual coach, if ever.

Whether that new bilingual coach can guide the Canadiens to another long-awaited championship will probably depend on whoever the ownership hires as its new bilingual general manager, and if that person can do a better job constructing and maintaining a Cup contender than his predecessors since 1995.

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Evilpens's avatar

Absolutely !! but they HAVE to have a French speaking coach even if they are better coaches who DON’T speak French.

& that is why The Canadiens are a mediocre team

Posted by Evilpens on 12/21/11 at 02:57 PM ET

Da lil Guy's avatar

Nothing exists in a vacuum, and most if not all NHL teams (sports teams, even) have certain things that must factor into their decisions other than the need to win.

This is Montreal’s thing.

Let’s not ignore the fact that the Montreal Canadiens have many advantages. They are a storied franchise with an unshakeable fanbase. What’s more, this particular ‘thing’ is an advantage as often as its a liability. As the ‘team of French Canada’ the Habs have a built in fan base, a media that is devoted to them almost exclusively, and even various levels of government who are willing to bend over backwards for them on most days. Traditionally it’s also meant that many of the top french Canadien players have yearned to play for the team, top french coaches have yearned to coach it, and top french managers have yearned to manage it. Contact with the Habs rubs off, and turns people into provincial institutions.

Just ask Senators Mahovolich and Demers, or the Honourable Ken Dryden, or the Right Honourable Romeo Leblanc (well…not that you could ask him) if you don’t believe me.

The Canadiens have had the advantage of the French connection (no pun intended) and if you look at it from that perspective, it’s hard to blame their french fans for the apparent slap in the face that comes along with breaching what many of them feel is an implied covenant. French fans give everything to this team, and they expect that it will represent them in turn.

Many fans yearn for the days, mentioned in the post above, where the habs really were the team of French Canada. When the coach had to speak french, because the players were the creme du la creme of french Canada. Hiring an english coach underscores the fact that the language spoken in this teams dressing room today is english - and that rubs salt in the wound of these nostalgic french fans.

I get that it’s unrealistic - a team in today’s NHL has to win, and the pie in the sky fantasies of some fans who believe Lecavalier, Giroux, Briere, St. Louis should all belong to the Habs as of right aren’t ever going to come true.

It even crosses over into the ridiculous when you see Habs fans vilifying a coach who can’t speak french even as they continue to glorify a coach who couldn’t read or write in any language.

But it’s not stupid, and it’s not unexpected - it’s just part of what it means to be the Habs.

Posted by Da lil Guy from Guelph, Ontario on 12/21/11 at 03:27 PM ET

SYF's avatar

Jeebus, it’s beyond rabid.  It’s political.

Posted by SYF from impossible and oddly communally possessive sluts on 12/21/11 at 04:32 PM ET

HockeyFanOhio's avatar

If an American team refused to hire a coach because he did not speak English people would have a cow.

Posted by HockeyFanOhio from Central Ohio on 12/21/11 at 10:00 PM ET


Imagine the New York Yankees hired a coach who could only speak Spanish.  That’s the best possible comparison.

Posted by tuxedoTshirt on 12/21/11 at 11:45 PM ET

Evilpens's avatar

well Michel Therrien was Hired by the Pens & murdered the English Language on a daily basis & Pens fans really didn’t care because he had them playing well, If a English Speaking only Coach did the same for Montreal The French speaking fans would love him

Posted by Evilpens on 12/22/11 at 12:48 AM ET


Too funny. Isn’t their Captain, Gionta, from the USA?

Posted by toofunny on 12/22/11 at 08:43 AM ET


tuxedoTshirt—Actually, if New York spoke a second language, which was that coach’s only language, the local politicians would not get involved…because the fans would only care about the results. However, if anyone wants to blame someone for the outcome of this team’s efforts, note the French Canadian management staff who failed to produce a competitive roster.

Posted by hattricky on 12/22/11 at 03:19 PM ET


As a long time (American fyi) fan of the Habs I can say that the “French connection” had always been part of the attraction for me.  I happen to like other languages and actually think that the pace of hockey was made fro French, as opposed to other sports.
And I do understand Quebecers protective feelings about the language and culture.

However having said all that I think that Montreal, the city, likes to think of itself as a cosmopolitan centre and part of the this closer global environment.  Objecting to Randy Cunneyworth on the basis of his unilinguilism is, pardon any pun, highly provincial. 

Habs fans have had no problem in embracing non-francophone players, e.g. Brian Gionta, Petr Svoboda, Chris Nilan, and Chris Chelios, et.al.  (Although I understand that Gionta has learned French),.  So is it because Cunneyworth is coach that its the problem?

I wonder how Canadians fans felt about Cristobal Huet when he was with them?  After all he is ‘European French’ and there never have been great feelings between Quebec French speakers and Parisian French speakers.

The real problem with the franchise is not related to language at all.

Posted by David C. on 12/22/11 at 04:32 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.

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