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?

Comments (44)

  1. As a French-speaking Montreal fan, who doesn’t care a bit if the coach speaks French or not, I have to say that this opinion is refreshing. You bring arguments that I didn’t think of, and you go much deeper than the typical ” He has to speak French period ” that we read or hear in French-speaking media. Thanks again, your blog and articles are among the very best, whatever the language !

  2. I have to respectfully disagree here. Win hockey games and no one will care anymore. Dryden makes a point in his book about how people were skeptic about him, then he made some appearences on a french-speaking tv show and won everyone over. I’m sure cunneyworth will make an effort to fit in and make everyone happy, and a good chunk of the francophones up there are bilingual anyway. Bylsma was a midseason promotion back when the Pens won the cup, who’s to say Cunneyworth can’t do something similar? Wait to see some results before packing this guy’s suitcase.

  3. Bylsma and Babcock were once rookie coaches too. So what you’re really saying is only hire coaches that have proven success? I tend to think a coach’s impact on a team’s success is generally overvalued anyway, rookie or veteran.

  4. Just curious, because I really don’t know. What percentage of the population in Quebec ONLY speak french and can’t speak french and english? I would think most speak both, so you don’t really have the whole half can’t understand what their coach is saying. Its just that he isn’t speaking the language they preferred he spoke.

    If it really is somewhere along half, or even a quarter speak only french than I agree its probably best to get a French speaker in there. If 90 percent of the population speak both french and english than best man for the job.

  5. Disclaimers: Habs fan, Anglo-Ontarian but mainly fluent in French thanks to my parents forcing me to attend French school.

    This is a sticky issue. If I were Quebecois I would certainly want the coach to speak my language – at least on some level. I know it bothers Anglos – especially those in Ontario and West to entertain the thought that the crazy French are always making language an issue. It seems like common sense to say – “No way. Best coach gets the job.”

    Imagine if the Leafs hired a Russian coach with no grasp of the English language?

    I live in Toronto – the amount of whining about the coach is already unbearable. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

    I tend to agree that there should be a select few coaches in the league who could be viewed as legitimate exceptions. I would say that former players should be included – ie Kirk Muller etc.

    Ultimately, Guy Boucher was the ideal replacement.. That ship has sailed.

  6. Knowledge of Official languages in Quebec [%]
    1991

    English only 5.5%
    French only 58.1%
    English and French 35.4%
    Neither English nor French .9%

    • another thing to take into account – it’s not like this is the historically french canadian canadiens team here, back in teh day when everyone on les habs was a quebecois. by my count they have more americans on the roster than french canadians. If a russian coach comes in and can’t speak with the media, that’s one thing, but if the entire roster is loaded with russians then he IS the man for the job. the coach needs to be able to communicate with his players on the bench. dealing with shmuck reporters after the game? find someone to translate. it’s not a time-sensitive issue.

      • All I’m saying is that we as English speakers take it for granted that all coaches would naturally speak English as a requirement for employment in NA.

        Montreal has unique circumstances that often get portrayed as frivolous by those outside the province. That said, nobody in Calgary would stand for a coach that didn’t speak English.

        I don’t know why this is different.

        • Besides the hard core fans, and the press, who even cares what language that the coach speaks? How many times does the average fan even listen to the head coach?

          Most fans don’t listen to press conferences, post game interviews, etc. Any other time the coach’s comments can be handled by an interpreter.

          If my Rangers hired a coach that’s primary language was French, I wouldn’t care. He’ll pick up English, and if he’s the best man for the job, I’ll deal with that until he can pick up enough English to do interviews.

  7. Given that I happen to be anti-Canadiens, I hope their next coach speaks Tagalog. With a heavy Russian accent.

  8. Should Phoenix only hire a coach that speaks Spanish also? What about Dallas? Both cities have a large population that speak only Spanish. I know I’m being ridiculous, and I understand that Montreal is WAY different, but nobody is currently saying that Cunneyworth will be their coach for more than a few more months. He’s an interim coach. If he gets the team going, I think he will be hired full time though. And he’ll pick up French quickly.

    I disagree with you about keeping your current coach to the end of the year if he has lost the team. If the Habs kept Martin, and they underperformed all year, they would miss the playoffs. What happens if firing the coach “wakes up” the team and they get the fire to play under Cunneyworth? The Habs are certainly capable of pulling a couple good winning streaks and easily making the playoffs. Keeping Martin would basically mean throwing away the rest of the season and any hopes of the playoffs when he has lost the team.

    How many coaches (with contracts expiring or not employed at the end of the year) speak French fluently enough to be considered for the job? Maybe a couple? Like was said earlier, if Cunneyworth can bring them some wins, nobody will care if he only speaks English.

  9. How racist (or whatever the technical term for it is). An organization that doesnt hire the best available candidate regardless of unimportant issues is doomed to failure. I would care if my teams’ coach (or players, stickboys, ushers, or whoever) spoke martian as long as we could Win.

    I see this as a bunch of journalists as :
    a) wanting something to whine,,, uh write about or
    b) too lazy to learn english themselves or
    c) want an edge on the english only media.

    DOOMED TO FAILURE in case you glossed over it above.

    • Why is it important — and a rule — that the President of the United States of America be born in the US?

      A bit off-topic. But not that much.

      • Because the requirement of being a natural born citizen was written into the Constitution. Most people will always have some allegiance to the country where they were born. For the good of the country, the Commander in Chief should be 100% devoted to the United States and not base any of their decisions on their time in another country.

        • But what if there’s someone much more qualified born elsewhere?

          • Sadly, in American politics, it’s not about who is more qualified. I get where you are going with this though.

            The Constitution says you have to be a natural born citizen. If the constitution didn’t say that, and there was a more qualified person who was born outside of the US, then I would have no problem voting for them.

            I wouldn’t have a problem voting for someone who was born in Texas who speaks mainly Spanish. The situations are a little different though. Only 14% or so of the US population speaks Spanish. 40 something % of Quebec’s (and higher on Quebec Island) speak English.

  10. Justin:

    Congrats for your sensible approach.

    The bottom line is that it just makes sense to hire a coach who can speak French, in the second biggest French-speaking city in the world. It shows that you respect your customer base.

    And really, this is HOCKEY. We’re not talking about baseball, here. How hard is it to find a qualified hockey guy who can speak French?

  11. I am a Franco-québécois who learned English When I lived in Ontario. Honestly, as a fan, I really Couldn’t care less if he’s bilingual or not. The major problem Is the French media. They’re ALWAYS looking for drama and things to Complain about as we can now see. I’ve made a quick survey of French speaking Habs fans and most if not all don’t have a problem with an Anglo only coach since the reports, news conferences and all are either translated or there is someone from the coaching staff to answer the questions in French, just not the head coach. All in all this is classic French media BS. If the Habs go on a 10 game inning streak, he’ll be a hero. If they lose 10, it will because he can’t speak French. Like I said, total BS either way!

  12. What’s wrong with having an interpreter?

  13. why shoulnd’t they have just french speaking players than, mike babcock, dan blysma, and barry trozt get fired and become available, your not going to hire them because they dont speak french?? come on, i dont think fans will care, as long they win, kirk muller dosent speak french, and alot of people wanted him

  14. who cares if he speaks french or not, sure it sucks if your a fan and cant understand him but that can be translated, all that matters is if the players can understand them, it shouldnt matter how many languages he speaks, the players need to understand, thats the main thing

  15. Funny how MTL press compares the team to Barcelona in one sentence, and denounces the lack of French-speaking ability in another. If I recall, Barcelona has hired Bobby Robson, Louis Van Gaal AND Frank Rijkaard over the last 20 years, none of whom knew a lick of Catalan and all who stayed for many years without a peep from their fans until results started lacking. Hop off it Quebec.

  16. Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman. Revered as coaching gods in Montreal…and rightfully so… barely spoke any french. As Nick Norm said above this is about the french media not so much the french people.

    Pick the best coach available period and if they win all the media crap disapears.

    • Scotty Bowman was born and raised in Verdun and speaks very good French.

      • He does now but he didn’t when he first joined the Canadiens. He was born in Verdun in a primarily english speaking area. He learned french on the job as did Toe Blake. But the point is they didn’t when they first started. I realize times have changed and we are much more global and media drives thoughts much more than just reports facts like they used to.

  17. Someone may have already spelled this out but just to be on the safe side; the following is the list of years Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge won the Stanley Cup. How many of these coaches were at best bilingual? I’m looking particularly at Bowman and Blake and wondering if they are in fact bilingual

    93 Jaques Demers
    86 Jean Perron
    79, 78, 77, 76, 73 Scotty Bowman
    71, Al Macneil
    69 Claude Ruel
    68, 66, 65, 60, 59, 58, 57, 56. Toe Blake
    53, 46, 44, Dick Irvin
    31, 30, Cecil Hart
    24 Leo Dandurand
    16 Newsy Lalond

    As an American from upstate New York where my “home team” geographically speaking was the Canadians what I really dream of is another Quebecois star player over a bilingual coach. I just don’t see that as a real possibility given the pressure of playing in Montréal and the numerous other teams available.

  18. Simply Put:

    22 of the Stanley Cup Championship banners won by Montreal were English Speaking Coaches

    2 of the Stanley Cup banners were won by French speaking Coaches

    Food for thought, I’d stick with the English Speaking coach who can communicate/coddle the English speaking PLAYERS.

    • Just because a guy has an English-sounding name doesn’t mean he’s not bilingual. From what I understand, of your list on Al McNeil was monolingual, and he was fired that summer after winning the cup.

  19. Good comments for and against.

    I do agree with Nick Norm here. I think that most of us die hards fans dont give a rat’s ass about the main language of the coach. I think also that the media, RDS and Le Journal de MTL et La Presse, are the one that bitches the most about it. I, myself, wants a winning team no matter what.

    I i’m bilingual myself, never lived near or in an english community, I have learned trough school and mostly watching english tv. I do understand the history of Les Canadiens, the french concept in Québec is quite sensitive for many reason. Fore most is the fear to be assimilated in a couple of years, not being able to speak your native language in your own country is getting people overboard with this.

    Understand the point of view of a fellow french Québécois who does not speak Shakespear. If any english canadians come to quebec, they will be gladly spoken to in english or we will find someone who can. Being a suppose “bilingual” country, a french only speaking Québécois wont be able to be served in french if he’s in Ontario or BC. It’s an issue that is quite sensitive to our people, myself included.

    For some, the History of Les Canadiens is one where this hockey organisation was built in 1909 to serve and help french Canadian. It didnt took long for them to change the rules and accept some english players in there ranks. But the message was Les Canadiens are there to represent a population. It is true that when a Habs score, all Québec cheers, it is part of us, our history, our blood. It is why a rookie like Louis Leblanc was cheered to death after his 1st NHL goal. The people of french Québec where oppress by english in the begginning of the century.

    But, things have change since then. Les Glorieux are nowhere near the top of the standings. Players are for the most part uninterest in the history behind the team. They play because they are paid to, not because they want to win for the fans as it was back in the glory days of les Canadiens.

    Now, it’s time for pro french Quebecers to understand that for this team to be the best, they need to hire the best available hockey mind out there. And french most be a criteria, but not the 1st criteria when looking for a cocch or DG.

    I want mes Canadiens to win, to be the best no matter what. Carey Price, Pk Subban arent french or do not speak it, yet, we loved them for the promises they bring.

    Language cant be an issue otherwise we will continue to stall for decades. It’s unfortunate, yes, but a necesary evil if you want to be the best.

    The french one

    p.s. for those of you who comments without knowing, Scotty Bowman was born in QC, near Valleyfield and could speak french, not fluently, but he was. Mike Babcock coach the Mcgill hockey tema and is able tu sustain and decent conversation in french.

  20. So what is a “Quebecois” ? A mix of Native, French, and/or English, Scottish, and Irish. In other words a metis, a mixed race, a mongrel, a mutt… Now you know what a “Quebecois” really is. What a joke.What a racist, bigoted province

  21. James Wolf, you just provided in 2 sentence what I explain in my post earlier.

    It is because of people like you that les Québécois are going nuts about an english coach.

    You call les Québécois racist…wow this is so funny because of your comment, you seem more racist then any of us.

    It is because people like you exist that we try to defend ourselves and our society and our native language.

    But on the other end, I pity you for being who you are!!!!

  22. By the way James Wolfe….

    What you said in your post reflects to us just like if you are calling a black man a nigger.

    It is not acceptable in today’s society.

    But you are probably way to self-centered to even know what your are talking about.

    • Montcalm? Is that you? Do we have another Plains of Abraham?

      This was always the downfall of the English; they let the losers of wars live, and the loser’s descendants became the most annoying people on the planet.

      • This was always the downfall of the English; they let the losers of wars live, and the loser’s descendants became the most annoying people on the planet.

        Typicall reaction of anti-french people.

        This sickens me.

        did you read my post earlier , the one where I say that I dont care if the coach speak french or english?

        Everytime the ROC can stab some french people, you guys are happy. And after, we read comments like yours.

        I though that racist was part of the past even if a minority of people still think black man shouldn be given the same right as a white men.

        IT’S EXACTLY the same thing, but with language.

        I didnt root for an bilingual coach, I dont think it’s relevent.

        But seing some comments ( encore, from a minority of stupid and stuborn people) makes me want to change my minds.

        Ignorant fools

  23. Let’s face it, if I’m a francophone Habs fan, I’d like to hear the coach’s comments in French. On the other hand, I told a friend today that I really wish Ron Wilson didn’t speak English. In his case, I’d rather listen to the translator.

  24. If a guy is not clever enough to understand where he earns his money, he might not as well see that the bunch of expatriate loosers he is coaching are going at the bottom anyways…This head coach is not a montrealer but he should at least thank the few millions fans paying his unearned salary with 2 or 3 hard learned words in their own language. The Canadiens’s problem is not on the ice, it is behind the bench and in Burlington where a self proclaimed wise guy, canadian no more, is taking his cultural views from Don Cherry (cherry = la cerise, en français). PR is as important as a good goaler. The Canadiens has counted in its own goal.

  25. Year Winning Team Winning Coach Anglophone Coach
    1916 Montreal Canadiens (NHA) George Kennedy YES

    1924 Montreal Canadiens Leo Dandurand YES
    1930 Montreal Canadiens Cecil Hart YES
    1931 Montreal Canadiens Cecil Hart YES
    1944 Montreal Canadiens Dick Irvin YES
    1946 Montreal Canadiens Dick Irvin YES
    1953 Montreal Canadiens Dick Irvin YES
    1956 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1957 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1958 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1959 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1960 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1965 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1966 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1968 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
    1969 Montreal Canadiens Claude Ruel NO
    1971 Montreal Canadiens Al MacNeil YES
    1973 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
    1976 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
    1977 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
    1978 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
    1979 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
    1986 Montreal Canadiens Jean Perron NO
    1993 Montreal Canadiens Jacques Demers NO

    • Year Winning Team Winning Coach ( Can Speak French )
      1916 Montreal Canadiens (NHA) George Kennedy YES

      1924 Montreal Canadiens Leo Dandurand YES
      1930 Montreal Canadiens Cecil Hart YES
      1931 Montreal Canadiens Cecil Hart YES
      1944 Montreal Canadiens Dick Irvin YES
      1946 Montreal Canadiens Dick Irvin YES
      1953 Montreal Canadiens Dick Irvin YES
      1956 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1957 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1958 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1959 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1960 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1965 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1966 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1968 Montreal Canadiens Toe Blake YES
      1969 Montreal Canadiens Claude Ruel YES
      1971 Montreal Canadiens Al MacNeil NO
      1973 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
      1976 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
      1977 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
      1978 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
      1979 Montreal Canadiens Scotty Bowman YES
      1986 Montreal Canadiens Jean Perron YES
      1993 Montreal Canadiens Jacques Demers YES

      MacNeil was the only coach who couldn’t speak french, and even after winning the cup he was promptly fired because people thought he was using favoritism in playing his anglophone players more. It’s stupid, but it’s a reality. If Cunneyworth wins enough he’ll stay, because the candiens aren’t still the fully-french speaking team they used to be. But the only way to get the press to stop bitching is for cunneyworth to start speaking romance.

      • The only point you are missing is that all these coaches were winning with predominantly local french-canadian speaking hockey stars teams, while the present day Canadiens are everything but a Montreal team. You do not understand this when the easternmost point you have been traveling is Winnipeg or even Towronntoo. The Canadiens has been until 1993 a Montreal team. It is clear now that some people have decided it to be an American one, like that pale Rangers copy called the Toronto Maple Leafs (very stimulating symbol!). Just come to Montreal someday, and make an idea by yourself for once.

  26. Funny, Les Canadiens last won a Cup in 1993. Eight Francophone coaches since then, zero Cups. Just saying….

  27. 1995 Cup Champs New Jersey Devils and 2011 Cup Champs Boston Bruins both coached by French Canadians. Maybe it’s Les Canadiens players? Not too many french guys on the team any more. Then again… they lost out on the former rule whereby Les Canadiens were able to have the first two picks from the French Juniors. Damn that league expansion and equalizing the game stuff!

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