Yesterday morning, early-ish, while most of us were still drinking our coffee and doing crossword puzzles and clandestinely watching videos of cats in adorable predicaments while thinking vaguely that perhaps we ought to start working, the Montreal Canadiens fired Pierre Gauthier. Like every move the Habs have made this year, the timing was a little odd- five games before the end of the season? Really?- but as hockey-management theater it could not have been more different from the odd way Gauthier made his moves. Gauthier got rid of people in the early evenings, on game days, sometimes even during games. Geoff Molson does his firing before lunch, dammit.
Gauthier, apparently, knew it was coming a few days in advance. If he’d been paying attention, he probably should have seen it coming months ago. Faced with a struggling team, he’d made a host of sweeping, sudden changes; the most clichéd kind of a panic moves. Such things are a gamble for any GM: if they work out, you look assertive and leaderly; if they fail, you look like an idiot. Gauthier’s moves were virtually all disasters that turned what might have been a one-season slump into what may well be a multi-year rebuild. He went from being considered one of the League’s most boring GMs to one of its most incompetent in the space of a few months. Montreal is not Edmonton, you don’t screw up hockey that bad in our town and pay nothing. Dude’s been toast since Cammalleri was.
And so now, as earlier this year, the Canadiens are looking to replace someone in a suit-wearing position, and as it was with Martin, language is going to be an issue.
Now, any time the issue of the Canadiens’ bilingualism requirement comes up in the larger culture, the monolingual Anglophone hockey pundits of the world let loose with a torrent of articles about how LANGUAGE SHOULDN’T MATTER. Monolingual Anglophones always think language shouldn’t matter. This is because monolingual Anglophones do not like to learn other languages. Yes, yes, I know they dress it up in all sorts of high-minded-sounding drivel about constricting your candidate pool and finding the best person for the job and how they wouldn’t mind at all having a manager who only spoke Uzbek, really really not. Given, however, that hockey media are so sensitive as to freak out when Ron Wilson isn’t nice to them, I have my doubts that they’d take tenderly embrace a person in a speaking role with an Anglophone team who neither spoke English nor made any effort to learn it. Monolingual Anglophones think language doesn’t matter because they tend to live in societies where they’re never on the inconvenient side of a language barrier.
I’ve made my argument for why language should matter before, but curiously I find that no one beating the best-man-for-the-job, language-shouldn’t-matter drum actually wants to engage with difficult issues like, oh, I don’t know, explaining exactly how one would know who the best man for the job is. No, no, they take it for granted that it’s easy to figure out who the best candidate is, and that the difference between the best Anglophone candidate and the best bilingual candidate would be huge, and that because the monolingual Anglophone pool is so much larger, the better candidates must necessarily be swimming in there.
The Hypothetical Perfect Anglophone Candidate (HPAC) is to Montreal general management what the ticking-time-bomb scenario is to ethical debates over torture: the completely made-up situation that never, ever happens in reality that people bring up for only one reason, that being to rhetorically force people into compromising their values in the name of pragmatic efficiency. He’s a myth, a unicorn, the Mahdi. Nobody has ever seen him in the wild, and yet some believe ardently that he must be out there. They cannot say who the HPAC would be, how his perfection would be demonstrated, how the Canadiens would attract him, and how they’d know he’d do a better job than any Hypothetical Bilingual Candidate. Nope, they just want to throw him out there as a given and make him the standard by which the entire debate should be debated.
So today I thought, instead of trying for the umpteenth time to point out to people that our ability to evaluate GMs accurately is woefully underdeveloped and nobody has the slightest evidence that a bigger candidate pool actually results in better hiring, I’d play the hypothetical game. Let’s say that, one day, wonder of wonders, the skies open over the mountain and Hypothetical Perfect Anglophone Candidate descends on a chariot of clouds, crowned by stars and attended by angels, ready to take up the reins of the Habs and drive them straight to glory, if only they forsake their language requirement. How could the Canadiens go about hiring this man and giving him a chance to succeed?
Honestly- and I say this as a person who cares deeply about bilingualism in Candiens’ talking-positions- I don’t think it’d be that hard. If they did it the right way.
Doing it the right way means, first, actually finding the best person for the job. This is- of course- the hard part, but it’s worth remembering exactly how hard it is. The list of working managers in the NHL with a long track record of unmitigated success is very short, and the men on it are not often available. The men who are available are invariably a mixture of the untested and the recently failed, and as much as people would like to believe that there are clear, rational methods for choosing between them, I think the selection process basically comes down to intuition and guessing. This guy looks good, he seems to have the right ideas, we like the cut of his metaphorical jib. It’s a process where much is determined based on pedigree and style, which is part of the reason I don’t think the Canadiens are sacrificing much by insisting on bilingualism. Plenty of monolingual Anglophone NHL GMs have their jobs for no deeper reason than having the right friends, good timing, and a habit of giving press conferences with their shirts open.
But the Canadiens should not- indeed, cannot- sacrifice the ability to speak French over some even more superficial impression of ‘the best man for the job’. No, if they’re going to throw a bunch of their fan base and local media under the linguistic bus, they need to know, for a fact, that this guy is clearly, definitely, unquestionably THE guy. There needs to be evidence, the kind they can show to their constituents in charts and tables. They need to be able to point to his history of shrewd moves, good cap management, successful UFA negotiations, and, of course, winning. If a man is really head-and-shoulders above all other candidates, the Habs brass should be able to make an awesome argument to their public in favor of his hiring, based on sound, comprehensible hockey logic.
Let’s say this miraculous feat has been accomplished: the perfect man has been found, and the case for his perfection has been clearly shown. It’s time to make the inevitably controversial announcement. How does Mr. Molson ensure that this precious asset isn’t immediately devoured alive?
He hits the language and cultural issues head-on. When you bring the no-longer-hypothetical Perfect Anglophone Candidate out for his first press conference, the first words out of his mouth should be in French, even if it’s just a token gesture. You have him attempt the language and admit the challenge. Say: I understand how important the ability to express oneself in French is to the people of this city. I understand that it is the language of most of the fans who pack our building and buy our merch and will some day, insha’allah (actually, don’t say insha’allah, but you know what I mean) be lining the streets for our parade when we finally bring the Cup home. Say: I understand that this team has a historical and cultural significance different from others, and that language is part of how we preserve and honor that significance. Say, o perfect aspiring GM: I appreciate what Quebecois culture and speech mean to the Habs. More than respect it, I love it, it is part of what makes this team better than others, it is part of what will make winning here better than winning anywhere else, it is part of why I want to bring my considerable resume and extensive talents to this city. Say: I want to win here, and by the time I win here, I want to be able to give my victory speech in both languages. Say: I will study French, because I understand it’s a job requirement, and I value it too.
Say these things and then do them. Yes, there will be some fans and some media who will still make language an issue, who will still be outraged. But one of the advantages of Montreal being so batshit for the game is that it’s a pretty smart hockey town and there are a lot of people, even monolingual Francophones, who would be willing to have patience with a GM who had impeccable credentials and showed some respect and appreciation for their culture and their concerns. And if he followed through with those promises, if he worked visibly at learning the language and showed the proper level of arrogant confidence in the transcendent glory of Les Glorieux, he’d win people over. A local boy is a powerful image, but so is a die-hard convert. A GM who can’t be the former by virtue of birth can still become the latter by virtue of effort.
This was the real horror of the way Cunneyworth was brought in. It’s not just that he doesn’t speak French. It’s that he’s an incompetent and inexperienced coach who doesn’t speak French. It’s that he was picked for no good reason other than that he happened to be around, and you know what? If the Habs were going to use this season as nothing more than a training session for a rookie coach with no clue what he’s doing, they could very easily have found a bilingual guy. There are inexperienced Francophone coaches and assistant coaches all over the lower leagues who are exactly as deserving of the job as Cunneyworth. Hiring Randy was not a case of management asking the fan base to put aside language in order to win, it was one of asking them to put aside language for nothing. Hiring an initially monolingual Anglophone coach/GM might, someday, be acceptable in Montreal. Treating French as cheap and disposable, however, will never be.
When non-bilingual non-Habs fans start in about how they don’t think language should matter, they miss the point entirely, the same point the Canadiens missed when they mishandled replacing Martin, and that point is as follows: in Montreal, language does matter. It will always matter. If you want to sit around and say that it shouldn’t, be my guest, but that is not a relevant opinion. Personally, I think people need to get the hell over Mad Men already because it’s nothing but an ordinary soap opera set in an enormous well-appointed dollhouse, but so what? That ain’t how it is, and my feeling that it should be does not mean anything whatsoever. No one- not you, not me- is allowed to dictate what should matter to other people. Sometimes you just have to accept it. That goes double for majority populations trying to insist on what should matter to minority populations.
It’s easy and pleasant for people in the 29 other fan communities to segregate the Montreal language issues and act as if it’s a form of culture-specific insanity, some kind of crazy behavior specific only to Habs fans, but at bottom it’s the exact same thing every fan base and every media corps wants from their franchise: to be treated well. To have their questions heard, their concerns addressed, their intelligence respected. To have prominent people in the organization engage directly with the community, every now and then transcend the apparent boundary between the rarified world inside the arena and the wild city beyond. To feel like your team gives a shit what you want and need and think and believe, because you are the people who pay for their nice suits and shiny ties, and really the least they can do is pander to you a bit every now and then. In Montreal, French is an obvious symbol for this community engagement, but it’s no different from what all y’all wish your team would do.
It is very likely that the next Habs GM will be bilingual. Between BriseBois and Roy, the good choice and the popular choice, there are two hard-to-resist options right at the front of the line, and in this best of all possible worlds the Canadiens should be able to find a qualified man who can communicate with his entire constituency in both languages. But if they really, honestly can’t, or if a candidate appears of such astounding credentials that they can in good conscience choose no other, they have to commit to bringing him on board the right way, to acknowledging the importance of language and treating it as a job requirement to be fulfilled eventually if not immediately. The fans have every right to demand as much.