Thursday, January 05, 2012

Language City

This piece originally ran in Cold as Ice, the hockey column I write for Popblerd.

It’s hard out here for a pimp. It’s even harder if you’re the new coach of the Montreal Canadiens and you can’t speak French.

The Habs (aka “Les Habitants”) are the NY Yankees of hockey, with more Stanley Cup championships (24) than any other team by far (Toronto is next with 13). The franchise’s storied history is peppered with the exploits of legendary players like Rocket Richard, Bill Durnan, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Guy Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden and Howie Morenz, among many others.

But the team got off to a lousy start to this season, currently eight points out of a playoff spot and only two points ahead of the last place team in the Eastern conference. Montreal fired coach Jacques Martin and replaced him with assistant coach Randy Cunneyworth on Dec. 17. The move hasn’t worked out great, as the Habs are 1-6 under Cunneyworth going into last night’s game. But that’s not the big concern in Montreal; rather, it’s the fact that Cunneyworth speaks only English in a city fiercely proud of its Francophone roots.

It’s not that he needs to speak French to communicate properly to his players. The Canadiens had a claim on pretty much all Quebec-born players in the pre-expansion era (i.e., before 1967), but now the roster is peppered with Quebecois as well as Russians, Americans, Czechs, Swiss and even a Dane. Even when players come over from Europe as rookies unable to speak a word of English, they manage to get by and pick up enough words to communicate with their teammates.

No, Cunneyworth’s crime is not being able to speak and understand the pre-eminent language of Montreal. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but there were protests outside Habs games after the announcement was made. To his credit, Cunneyworth has said he plans to learn French, but it hasn’t helped that team management has come out since the announcement and apologized for hiring a coach who isn’t bilingual and stressed that Cunneyworth is only an interim coach. Way to back up your coach, guys.

Cunneyworth certainly has the resume to be an NHL coach, having had a lengthy (800+ games) NHL career and serving as a head coach for several seasons in the minors and as an NHL assistant for the last few seasons. But in such a fiercely proud city like Montreal, he doesn’t stand a chance. The city, and the province of Quebec, has resisted the incursion of the English-speaking culture of the rest of Canada. It’s surprising that Canadiens’ management so miscalculated this coaching move, given the fact that pretty much every Montreal coach has been bilingual. Maybe they figured it wouldn’t be a big deal, but obviously, they figured wrong.

The media spotlight has been white-hot since Cunneyworth’s promotion, with speculation that former Habs great Patrick Roy may step in next season as coach. Quebec Culture Minister Christine St. Pierre proclaimed that the team needed to correct the problem in the interest of the common good. I have no doubt that Celine Dion is up in arms.

It’s a really crappy way for Cunneyworth to kick off his NHL coaching career. Although I suspect if Montreal went 7-0 after he took over, the outrage wouldn’t be quite so loud.

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