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.
Here’s the thing though: they have some right to be upset. Montreal should always have a bilingual coach.
If you haven’t noticed, six coaches have been canned so far this season in the NHL, which also means that six head coaching spots have been filled. While a couple of new names entered the fold, the reality is simple: we call it the coaching carousel because for the most part, a select pool of individuals just swap jobs.
The Anaheim Ducks saw the Washington Capitals say “this guy isn’t the right man for this job anymore” and thought he’s perfect for us! Firings and hirings often work like that in the NHL – a guy gets canned not because he’s not good enough to coach in the NHL, he’s just worn out his welcome with a certain group of individuals.
All of that is a long way of saying this: most guys who are good enough to coach in the NHL are basically interchangeable. They’re all smart, capable men who know a crapload about hockey, but the degree of separation between coach A and coach B doesn’t matter as much as we like to pretend. They may go about their business differently, but they’re all good at what they do.
We like to play up one coach versus the other (myself included) and act like these certain guys are geniuses and those certain guys are morons, but I’m pretty sure they’re all clustered around a fairly close average. Claude Julien couldn’t have coached the Columbus Blue Jackets into the playoffs this year, and I don’t think the Bruins are much below their current place in the standings if Scott Arniel was behind their bench.
So with that point in mind, back to Montreal – yes, you always want to hire the best man possible for any job. Even if a coach can get you an extra win or two (no small feat), most teams would take it.
But this isn’t most teams. This is the Montreal Canadiens, the only team in the NHL who really has to deal with a unique issue like this. As I read in a Sports Illustrated post today:
One columnist Monday compared them to Spanish soccer team Barcelona, which expects its players to learn the Catalan language and whose slogan is “More than a team.”
You don’t want half of your fans to never understand what the heck their coach is saying without using Google Translate (and I don’t think that’s a small issue). If I suddenly wasn’t able to understand a thing from the coach of my favourite team, I’d be more than a little frustrated. And that’s coming from a passive fan – the Habs have a huge number of diehards.
Putting a unilingual English coach behind the bench there doesn’t just make life harder for those who, as Philippe Cantin of La Presse put it, consider the Habs an institution – you’re also making it harder on your coach. If you take over that team as an English-only guy, a large chunk of your fan base already considers you to be permanently on the hot seat in a line of work that isn’t known for many at room-temperature.
If I were running the Canadiens, I’d have a very small list of exceptions for whom I’d drop the mandatory French speaking rule - Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma, the guys that I truly consider to be capable of multiple win differences per season. Just the true elite (Randy Cunneyworth isn’t quite on that list, yet). Otherwise all you’re doing is creating a problem that doesn’t need to exist.
The list of qualified French-speaking coaches available may not be long, so maybe you have to wait until the off-season until one because available (in which case you don’t fire your current guy), but at some point, they need to make this right. Whoever the best available French-speaking coach is simply won’t be many steps down the qualified ladder from Cunneyworth (no offense to Cunneyworth here – you need to be given a chance to gain that experience, I just don’t think Montreal is the place for him to get it).
And I’ll tell you what else: if I’m a qualified but jobless NHL coach sitting at home today, I buck up, swipe the credit card, and order that Rosetta Stone.
Actually, je ne parle pas Francais myself, but I think I could learn. Mr. Gauthier, whaddya think?