It’s quite likely that the following is poorly informed. It’s not so much about baseball as it is about hockey, and I’m really not that knowledgable about running around on slippery surfaces wearing boots with knives at the bottom of them. The only reason I even dare to write about what to me is an interesting issue currently cropping up for the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens is that it causes me to wonder how a similar situation in baseball would compare.

From The Score’s Backhand Shelf hockey blog:

After the Montreal Canadiens surprised the hockey world by firing Jacques Martin, they named Randy Cunneyworth interim head coach, with the promise that he’d stay on as bench boss until at least the end of the season. Being that Cunneyworth is a “unilingual anglophone” (dude only speaks english), this ruffled the feathers of some of the French community in Montreal.

What’s followed this ruffling of feathers has largely been condemnation from hockey pundits, who suggest such language-concerned viewpoints are archaic and prejudiced. However, I believe there to be valid reasoning behind a the support for a French-speaking coach that go beyond the “we’ve always done it this way” approach that I, personally, rather despise.

I assume that in all sports, a coach or manager is a major figure head for his team, and in many cases, an organization’s most often used representative when directly dealing with the media and indirectly dealing with the fans. If the majority, or even a large percentage of that media and fanbase are French-speaking, it doesn’t seem very useful to me to have an English-speaking head coach.

Of course, the argument against this way of thinking would be to suggest that it doesn’t matter if a coach speaks Swahili, as long as he makes his team a winner. But in order to argue this, you have to have a general idea of how much a head coach at the National Hockey League level is able to contribute to a win.

In baseball, the consensus among the statistically set is that managerial strategies aren’t all that important to the outcome of a game. There’s such a lagre selection of samples in the game of baseball that you can figure out the most likely outcome for any forseeable situation based on past results. Even though it doesn’t always happen, as long as the percentages are played, that is to say the manager sets situations up to increase the likelihood of the most positive outcomes possible, then a manager is doing his job as far as strategy goes. But even when he doesn’t do his job, there’s such a large amount of randomness in baseball that he can essentially get away with it.

Therefore, the talent of the players on a team is vastly more important than the strategies that the manager tries to implement. For further study into this phenomenon, see Ron Washington of the Texas Rangers.

In the NHL, Montreal represents a unique situation as far as language goes, and it’s not as easily handled as merely hiring a good translator. In deciding who my head coach would be, I would first have to decide how much value a replacement coach offers my organization. If I believed that hockey coaching was drastically different from baseball managing and that one coach can have a discernable impact compared to another coach, the importance placed on the language that a coach speaks would be minimal. However, if I believed that the majority of hockey coaches are of a similar value, the importance placed on the language that a coach speaks would be much higher in a situation like Montreal’s.

I simply don’t know enough about hockey to offer a valid opinion one way or the other, but I can say that arguments in favour of French-speaking coaches are a little more valid than those dismissing them for being prejudiced would have us believe.

I remember back to last off season during the Toronto Blue Jays managerial search. A lot of emphasis was put on the mock press conferences on which the prospective managers were judged. I understand why. Sports franchises are businesses, and while it’s not nearly as important as a team’s wins and losses, having an articulate spokesperson representing your business is vital. In the modern game, this is simply part of the manager’s/coach’s job description.

Comments (6)

  1. I’m sorry, you lost me at “It’s not so much about baseball as it is about hockey”

    All kidding aside, is there a similarly-minded modern statistical analysis crowd for hockey? I know there is for football and basketball, but I’ve never heard much about hockey in that way.

    The ridiculousness of claiming some kind of reverse-prejudice here on the part of the media pundits is amazing to me; especially coming from analysts of a team with P.K. Subban on it and all the racist drivel thrown at him from the media.

    • There is. Corsi ratings, Defensive/Offensive zone starts. Advanced Plus/Minus…there’s a bunch of advanced statistics. It’s just harder to sift through the crap like Cherry over in hockey than it is in baseball. Though we do have our anti-Sabremetrics over here too.

  2. It’s harder to statistically analyze hockey than it is to analyze baseball, because of how continuous the flow of a hockey game is, as opposed to the rather discrete nature of baseball, but I would assume that there is a small contingent who are looking at the game in that way.

    Not many, though, I’d believe. I guess we could rank defensemen on their ability to get shots through traffic (51%?! Damn, he sure does get those shots to the net), study a goalie’s tendancy to give up goals high glove-side (apparently roughly half the goals that Roberto Luongo gives up when he’s going poorly are high glove), look at how wingers and d-men fare playing on their off-wing or off-side (it’s just like switch-hitting! Except it’s not, really), or how different shooting percentages are for lefties/righties against left/right-handed goaltenders, in different spots. I mean, it’s doable, I suppose, but we’d need the stats to do it, and while we have results-based stats, we don’t necessarily have access to the process-based stats.

    Makes me want to become a statistician and work on this. Sort of, not quite.

  3. Montreal sports press is like Boston/NYC sports press: rabid and in your face. And since they don’t have a baseball/basketball team to cover, the HABS are pretty much the only game in town (province). With a huge hockey-loving Francophone population on a constant language warpath, I’m astonished that they would even think of getting a coach who doesn’t speak French.

  4. I think Hockey is more of a team game, whereas Baseball seems to be a series of one on one battles with an agregate result of win/lose. In Hockey, you need to be coached on how to play both with and without the puck. Baseball is fairly static. Your coach has plenty of time to tell you when and where to change position. When you factor in special teams it takes it to a whole other level. Successful teams can often be seperated from weak teams by their special teams play (PK/PP). Therefore, that being said, I think a hockey coach has a far greater outcome on the game.

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