The Great Language Debate

 (Picture from the National Post –

Now that the initial furor seems to have died down, (perhaps spurred on by two victories?), I thought it was time to dissect the newest media crisis surrounding the Montreal Canadiens.

On December 17th 2011, shortly after the Canadiens solidified their position as last in the Northeast Division, the much maligned Jacques Martin was fired. He was never a fan favorite with the knowledgeable Montreal fan base, who would point to his failure to find success with a stacked Ottawa team or curtail the perennial mediocrity of the Florida Panthers as both coach and general manager.

With the Canadiens, Martin posted a 96-75-25 record, with two playoff  appearances. The first was the much mythologized run of 2010, largely fuelled by  otherworldly play by Jaro Halak, Josh Gorges, Hal Gill and Michael Cammaleri.

Regardless of these results, Martin was largely considered to be both ineffective and stifling by experts and armchair pundits alike. Many pointed to his troubled relationship with young players, usually tied to a lack of communication, such as Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn. Others would point to the regular appearance of too many men penalties, bizarre shootout choices and overuse of veterans at the expense of developing youth. leri. The  second playoff run was last seasons’ 7 game series against the Bruins, where the  Canadiens would relinquish a 2-0 series lead gained on the road to eventually fall in  overtime against the eventual Stanley Cup champs.

With the Canadiens once proud franchise mired in what can only be described as Maple Leafs-esque mediocrity, Pierre Gauthier pulled the trigger on Jacques Martin‘s tenure as Head Coach and installed Randy Cunneyworth as interim head coach. This would trigger a firestorm across the province of Quebec.

Predictably, the firestorm erupted over the appointment of a unilingual Anglophone coach to the head coaching position of Les Canadiens de Montreal, for the first time since Bob Berry (1981-1984). Interestingly, the first grumbles of discontent emanated from the Francophone journalists charged with reporting on the team. For example, Luc Gelinas, journalist with the French language sports outlet RDS, tweeted his displeasure immediately. In French, he tweeted that he was disappointed with Geoff Molson for letting Pierre Gauthier hire a unilingual anglophone coach. Others would soon follow, and the pressure would inevitably lead Molson to release a missive where the Canadiens committed themselves to hiring a bilingual coach in the future. The furor would dominate the airwaves in Montreal (and beyond), where the merits of language-based coaching over merit would be debated ad nauseum on call-in talkshows.

In an embarrassing crescendo, 200 protestors would flock to the Bell Centre to make their displeasure known to Canadiens management prior to the Jan 7th game versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ironically, and probably not coincidentally, the Lightning are a team with a French Canadian coach in Guy Boucher, and a series of big name French Canadiens players. However, before the inevitable jokes about riots and protests in Montreal, 200 out of the 21,273 attending the game is a miniscule percentage.

As a born and bred Montrealer, I understand this dilemma all too well. I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. I was schooled in both French and English, and to this day, I am parfaitement bilingue. Indeed, I did go to an English language CEGEP and university, but I pride myself on my ability to speak both of Canada’s official languages. I am a die-hard Canadiens fan, and I will admit proudly that I have difficulty watching the Canadiens in any other language than French. We all know CBC and HNIC are a bunch of Leafs homers, and in Canadiens-Leafs games, they can hardly contain their disdain for Les Canadiens. As someone who operates mainly in English, and who now lives in Toronto, I still tune in to RDS on my laptop to watch hockey games. I appreciate the analysis by most of RDS’ pundits (Brunet excluded!) and I prefer my coverage en francais.

What is my point? My point is that as a bilingual Montrealer, I understand the needs of the French contingent. This team, more than any other team in any other market, means something to Quebecers as a whole. Not to over-romanticize the issue, but the Canadiens have always stood for the identity of Quebecers living in a continent of English-speaking people. To understand the meaning of the Canadiens in Quebec society, go back to the Quiet Revolution, arguably sparked by the Maurice Richard riots against the Anglophone Clarence Campbell. The identity of the Canadiens has always been tied to its ability to represent the Quebecois nation, and the marketing department of the current Canadiens squad is well-aware of this. The Canadiens have always been important to Quebecois society. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs may call themselves Canada’s team, but  they are not the heart and soul of Ontarian society in the same way. People do not look to the Maple Leafs as an expression of English Canadian culture, because they are not a cultural minority in the way that Quebecers are in this country.

The Canadiens are different, and this is both a blessing and a curse. 

As a hockey fan, I want the Canadiens to hire a coach that wins. This should be the primary consideration for any sports team, and this has been echoed by French Canadian legends like Guy Lafleur and Vincent Damphousse. Despite what Luc Gelinas and friends would have you believe, the language of the coach should not be the primary consideration. In fact a few years ago, Pierre Boivin himself admitted that this need to find a coach that speaks French as well as English is a constraint that only this market has to face, and it subsequently limits our pool of candidates. Winning is a universal language. I firmly believe that had Cunneyworth gone on a 5 game winning streak upon arrival, the language furor wouldn’t have been so front and center. The fact that he was losing did not help his case, though the Canadiens PR department should have been better prepared to manage the reactions that weren’t unprecedented.

So what am I trying to say here?

I think the problem lies in the way in which the situation was managed. The need for a bilingual coach, though many non-Quebecers will think this requirement is frivolous, is a reality in Quebec. The need for winning should supersede it, and I firmly believe that is does for real Canadiens fans, regardless of language. I can assure you that if we were currently in a playoff spot, this language debate would be muted. Unfortunately, we are in a time where the Canadiens have seemingly bungled a PR opportunity and made it seem like they were forgetting their roots.

I think this incident demonstrates a distinct lack of respect on the part of Gauthier, Molson and company. The problem lies not with the actual choice of Cunneyworth, who has paid his dues and is ready to assume a head coaching job in the NHL, but the way in which he was introduced. In his introductory press conference, the Canadiens made a huge error in not dealing with the language issue head on. It would have sufficed, at least for the contingent of fans who are not either extremists or manipulated the situation for political capital, to have Cunneyworth say “Bonjour, je suis tres content d’etre le nouveau entrainer-chef des Canadiens de Montreal” in broken english, reading from a cue card. I firmly believe that had the Canadiens been even mildly in touch with reality, they would have handed him a cue card in the same way that unilingual captain Brian Gionta reads off a sheet for his season opening ceremony. Though I don’t want to discuss the Saku Koivu saga, the problem with Koivu was the perception that he never seemed to try – in his decade plus in Montreal, he never so much as uttered a word in French. Obviously, he’s a hockey player and his job is to score goals, but at the same time, a little bit of respect for the market you operate in would go a long way. Alexei Kovalev, who would inject his ‘merci’ at the end of interviews, Tom Kostopoulous who would admittedly butcher the language in a valiant effort and Gomez who enrolled in language classes; they all endeared themselves to the linguistic majority of this province.  As much as I agree that this is not in their contracts, that this is a prime reason why free agents want nothing to do with Montreal, this is a reality of being a member of the Canadiens. Cunneyworth‘s recent attempts to start his post-game pressers with a French sentence has demonstrated that he respects the language and he respects the cultural heritage of the Canadiens. This should, and most likely is, enough for the non-extremist elements.

To utter the most banal cliche ever, with great power comes great responsibility. The Canadiens are a unique market, one where the players are already under a tremendous pressure to perform. Playing and coaching the Canadiens can either be the worst experience of a career or the best one, and that is partly because this team resonates so deeply in society.

In the words of George Strombolopolous, “One win, plan the parade; one loss, tie the noose. It’s super-emotional, it’s completely irrational, but that’s what makes it so glorious. We’re in love with something that’s been there for our parents’ lives and our grandparents’ lives. One hundred years.” 


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