Monday, December 19, 2011

The Language Debate: Should Habs Coach Speak French?

It certainly didn't take long following the appointment of Randy Cunneyworth as an interim replacement to fired Montreal Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin for the Quebec language debate to rear its ugly head.



For those that don't speak French, long-time RDS reporter Luc Gelinas tweeted that he is very disappointed in Geoff Molson who let Pierre Gauthier name the first uni-lingual English head coach of the Canadiens since Bob Berry in 1984.

Does the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens have to speak fluent French? Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion on this matter. As a bilingual anglophone born and raised in Montreal, I can see both sides of the coin. However, there seems to be a great misconception among many as to the reason why some fans feel it important that the coach be able to communicate in la langue de Moliere. I'll reserve my personal opinion for the time being to try to explain for the mostly-anglophone readers of this site this take on the issue.


The Montreal Canadiens as a Quebec Institution

If you've never seen the movie The Rocket, as a Habs fan, you are missing something. Like it or not, the Habs have always been about more than just hockey and Stanley Cups. To understand this, we need to begin with a look at Quebec prior to the 1960s.

Maurice Duplessis' reign as premier of Quebec is referred to by many as la Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness). Duplessis, a staunch conservative, was marred in a number of corruption scandals, including complaints about too strong a relationship with the church, anti-union stances, and unfair treatment of certain minority groups. Duplessis focused on rural areas rather than cities, leaving French Quebec society under Duplessis rather disorganized and opening businesses to outside control. This resulted in very common outsider "English" ownership and/or management in the province (or at the very least, a popular perception of it being the case) with limited rights for the French-speaking "working class." Thus, there was great unrest amongst the French population, who felt they had few rights (particularly with Duplessis's union-beating activities) and were being kept down by English-speakers in many aspects of their lives.

Enter the Montreal Canadiens, a team composed largely of French-Canadian players, competing in a league run by anglophones and against anglophone teams. Enter Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the French-Canadian superstar of the team who, from his working class background, 'stuck it to the man', making English defenders and goaltenders look silly. No, it wasn't just hockey. The local 'habitants' could rally around this squad as a source of pride; French-speakers who had made it to the top of their profession as the greatest hockey team in the world.

Does this sound silly to you looking back through today's lenses? Perhaps. But try to put yourself in the time's shoes. You work all day for a poor salary, being told what to do by foreigners who don't speak your language. And in many cases, because of your language, you know you can't aspire to much better - the opportunities for advancement just aren't there for you. But then you turn on your television at the end of the day and see this young man with fiery eyes to whom you can relate showing up the opposition. This is where it began. It's not hard to see how the Montreal Canadiens inspired the French people of Quebec or why the relationship between the two is so intricate.

A controversial but fascinating book about the times was published in 1968, called Negres blanc d'Amerique (translation: "White Niggers of America"), by Pierre Vallieres, a leader of the highly radical FLQ movement. Extremist of course, but if you ever wanted a better insight as to how many saw the situation back then, try to find a copy (English translated editions exist as well). But from the title alone, you can see how to some, having a French-speaker coach the Canadiens is no less important than the election of a black President in the United State of America to African Americans.

The tie between Richard, the Habs, and the political and economic situation of the French speaking Quebecois grew to another level in 1955. As any Hab historian is well aware, The Rocket was suspended for the remainder of the 1954-55 season after striking a linesman during a violent on-ice affair. The suspension was handed down by NHL president Clarence Campbell, and was taken by the Quebec people as a clear instance of an English-speaker in a position of power batting down a French-speaker who had risen up to a high level. The length of the suspension was deemed unjust by Canadiens' faithful, leading to a riot that took place on March 17, 1955. To this day, the Richard Riot is looked at as one of the 'elements declencheur' (triggers) of the Quiet Revolution that would transform Quebec society over the coming decades into much of what it is today. Even though the Richard-less Canadiens would go on to lose the Stanley Cup Finals in a 7-game series against the Detroit Red Wings, the riot, clearly, was about much more than just hockey.

This is where much of it comes from, Habs fans. The Montreal Canadiens are an important symbol for French-speaking Quebecers, particularly those who were around in the 50s and 60s, or perhaps whose parents were and grew up with these values. As an outsider, one can't really criticize this view much more than one who hasn't been abused can criticize an abuse victim (here's looking at you, Pat Hickey). Is it an antiquated way of looking at things? Perhaps, but let's draw some parallels to today.

Would Michel Therrien, Alain Vigneault, or Claude Julien ever have gotten NHL head coaching jobs had they not gotten a start with the Canadiens? Perhaps, but it likely would have taken far longer, requiring them to prove themselves over and over again at lower levels to earn the trust of another organization. Quebec is a highly unique specimen in the greater context of North America and the National Hockey League. There are still many, particularly in a group run like an old boys' club as the collection of owners of NHL franchises are seen to be - not unlike the anglophone managers of the 50s and 60s - who wouldn't trust an unknown or unproven French Quebecer to come in and manage their team.

It is also true that the team is no longer composed primarily of francophone players, but the desire of the fan base to root for a local kid has far from disappeared. Look at the treatment of Guillaume Latendresse, or the thunderous applause that followed Louis Leblanc's first NHL goal. Even as the differences between French and English speakers in Quebec society have largely leveled off (Bill 101 aside), the deep-rooted feelings that lie dormant in the hearts of a significant number of Canadiens fans remain. If their team was to suddenly be managed by a non-French speaker, these emotions could very well return to the surface. This doesn't make them racist or necessarily separatist. In fact, for some, it is the complete opposite. It is a desire to see one of their own succeeding and being accepted into a culture full of people who are "different."

And this is why, in part, it is deemed important for the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens to speak French. And the general manager, for that matter. It should be a person to whom the locals can relate, and can look at as someone who made it in an English-dominated society. At the very least, it should be someone who can prove they've made the effort of learning enough French to show them the respect of addressing them in their local tongue. Fans who care about the coach's language skills want to win just as badly as those who don't, but because of this deep-rooted attachment, they want to be able to feel a part of it. I'm not AT ALL suggesting that ALL French-speaking fans feel this way, but it is evident that some do. Should the organization just apologize to these fans and explain that the team doesn't work that way anymore? Some would say yes, but for many reasons - political, marketing, and otherwise - these fans can't simply be ignored.


The Best Man for the Job

But, that's only one side of it. The other, more publicized perspective (particularly in English media of course) is that the Montreal Canadiens owe it to their fans to look beyond the language issue and hire simply the best man for the job. Above all else, the Montreal Canadiens are a sports organization and a business. Neither of these definitions of the team leave any room for language-based hiring or player selection policies (though, some might say that as a business, French-speaking staff and/or players would be more marketable to the Quebec population).

Winning should be the number one priority of any club in the National Hockey League. If the Canadiens implement a policy that restricts their ability to make decisions that increase their chances of winning, it would contradict this. Can a team win with a French-speaking head coach? Of course. Former Habs coach Claude Julien won the 2011 Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, a team that has Quebecois Patrice Bergeron as an assistant captain. But ultimately, in such a competitive and balanced league as today, any handicap severely disadvantages a team and so the Montreal front office can't ignore any possibilities when searching to put the best team (on and off the ice) in place. The game and league have changed radically since the 50s and 60s, with the parity of post-lockout hockey making building a championship club as difficult as ever.

That's why the language of any one member of the organization should not truly matter. The French language will always be an important part of the team's history and traditions and must be respected in its daily operations. But an English-only head coach or general manager could be assisted through press conference by sitting side-by-side with a French-speaking associate, or even just having a translator to help with the media, not unlike a Russian player new to the league. Beyond this, the French media could and would continue to translate everything, just as they do now when interviewing the Carey Prices, Mike Cammalleris, and Brian Giontas who have yet to pick up much beyond "bonjour" and "merci."

As a fan of the sporting club and what it represents today, this is how I see it. I would be highly disappointed if the club is pressured into a language-based hire, as journalists like Mr. Gelinas want to encourage. I want the team to win, no matter who it is made up of. I thought that Habs fans in 2011 were near unanimous in this attitude, but it quickly became apparent on Twitter Saturday that my views may have been a little too anglo-centrist. It seems there are some who would be willing to sacrifice a better candidate for one that can speak French. I would be very curious to somehow take a census survey of all Habs fans to gauge their opinions on a wide variety of topics, including the language issue for the team's management. I wonder how far it goes; would these same individuals be willing to accept, say, a worse goaltender than Carey Price if he were a local boy? But until we have definitive answers as to the prevalence of these views, we have to understand and respect that there are different ways of looking at the Montreal Canadiens.

So what does that mean for this summer's coaching search? The ideal would be to find an experienced, top coaching candidate who is also fully bilingual. But at the end of the day, the club owes it to the majority of its stakeholders (which, fans aside, most importantly includes the players on the team who deserve the best coach) has to go with the top available coach without considering the languages on his resume. I'm not trying to convince those that argue otherwise that they're wrong, either, though. In hiring the best man, the team must be very careful to not isolate the French speakers of Quebec, particularly those outside of Montreal whose English may be minimal at best, and a plan should be orchestrated before the announcement of the hiring as to how to address it delicately with the media. It shouldn't be left to the new coach to answer a question about French lessons by saying he hadn't really thought that far yet, as Randy Cunneyworth did in his press conference alongside Pierre Gauthier. If the transition to an English-only coach is to happen, all initial communications must come with those wanting a French-speaker in charge at top of mind. One solution might be bringing in a head coach and associate coach for at least a season, not unlike the Edmonton Oilers did with Pat Quinn and Tom Renney. Hire, say, Randy Carlyle as head coach, while promoting Clement Jodoin from Hamilton to Montreal to work with him, splitting responsibilities between the two (but with Carlyle as the primary guy).

We don't yet know who will be available as of this summer, but of course some names are already floating out there should Randy Cunneyworth not earn an extended stay. I for one would be very against giving the job to Patrick Roy, who despite good results, has shown to be hot headed, self-centered, and in the middle of several off-ice controversies that would become big distractions in a market like this. He is not one to take direction or to take the time to learn from others. Some might say Roy could be a fiery coach like John Tortorella in New York, but with just 5 seasons behind the bench of a junior team as the sum of his total coaching experience, I really don't think he's ready to take over an NHL club.

Whoever does take over has a tall task ahead of him. Head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is one of the most prestigious sport jobs in the world but is accompanied by immense pressure. As Peter Parker told us all, "With great power comes great responsibility." Choose wisely, Mr. Molson.

4 comments:

Philippe said...

I believe a lot of the frustration comes from the fact that Mr. Cunneyworth doesn't seem to be the "best man available". This is why it's so frustrating that he doesn't speak French. It really just feels like a panic move by Gauthier to save his job. If it was Kirk Muller getting the job I believe it would be a different story.

SeriousFan09 said...

@Phillippe,

There is no "Best Man Available" right now that the team could add on. It's mid-season and the coaching pool is thin. The best move at the moment is for Cunneyworth to be the interim HC until the team can conduct a more thorough search through the summer.

Mid-season house-cleaning of an entire FO never produces a good result, the Rejean Houle era proves that.

Philippe said...

@SeriousFan09 I trust your judgement on this but please do not mention Rejean's name again. I hid that part of Habs history in a very dark corner of my soul.

DKerr said...

I think hiring RC was the right person at this stage. To me, a major flaw on Martin was his treatment of young players (lack of development, reduced ice time for their mistakes and referencing that youngsters were on the ice for the goals against). The league is filling rosters with young players for cap reasons, who better to get the team through the ups and downs of youth than the guy who coached them in the minors.