Wednesday, December 21, 2011


It's been a few days and I've gotten my thoughts together. The week has been tumultuous in Habsville, extended beyond the hockey world, and I've got to have my say.

Less than a week after Twitter produced such a positive aura, where so many of us bonded together in outrage over a cruel and uninformed article, my timeline was once again filled with debate, argument, patronizing and dissension.

From a city whose passion is so strong for its team has come a firing/hiring and polarizing issue which has little, if any, relevance to the game we all adore.

Waking up Saturday morning, finding out the Habs had fired Coach Jacques Martin, I avoided Twitter. I was among those who did not feel the coach was the problem. I actually hated the calls for his head on a platter, and was as outspoken as I could be without being able to discuss every nuance of the game. All I knew was that, from the human point of view, the man was doing a job that also depended on a crew of others to execute it for him. Did I understand the decisions he had to make? Not really. I did have others explain them (e.g. time-on-ice decisions, special teams assignments, healthy scratches, etc). But I still could not believe that professional hockey players would underperform in order to show their disdain for a coach. I - perhaps naively - thought that no matter the coach, the team would play to win. Every, single time.

They may. As a Habs fan, I believe they do. I have to. But then, December 17th, the management of our team showed they believed otherwise, and decided to change coaches.

First issue I had to deal with that day was my compassion for the man himself. I felt terrible for him. I was told, "nevermind, he's got $1,000,000 firing bonus, he'll be fine." But somehow I believed that the money, to Jacques Martin, was never an issue. I believed he cared more about the game, not about his wallet. (Does the money help? Of course! But in so many people, there is a calling for the position and that supersedes the pay check).

I felt awful that he was spending Christmas out of work. Again, scoffed at by those dancing in the streets who said it didn't matter. Again, my above argument was negated by many who dismissed it as my being new to the game, new to the culture, and Mr. Martin's comfy nest egg.

Dave Stubbs wrote a beautiful article which expressed, better than I could, exactly what I had been feeling. And I felt the debate would, perhaps, die down.

But then, the Uproar. The Habs now have an interim coach, Randy Cunneyworth, who is - ready for this shocker? - an Anglophone. Worse, an Anglo who is not bilingual! (I hear the gasps)

Those reading this who are either non-Quebecois, non-Canadian, or unaware of this issue, Quebec is a primarily French province, though Canada's TWO official languages are French and English. There has been an unwritten rule that the Habs do not have a unilingual coach. Coach must be able to speak both languages, or he isn't considered. It's one of the reasons we did not see Kirk Muller as a future head coach for us; no one was fooled by the fact that he was always involved, effective, and obviously liked and respected by all, including players. We all knew Captain Kirk would never be able to take the podium as head coach, because he is an Anglo.

But I don't think anyone could have predicted the maelstrom to follow. Perhaps it was hinted at when Coach Cunneyworth, along with GM Pierre Gauthier, sat in front of cameras and recorders for a pre-game (FIRST game, to be clear) interview. French media directed questions only at Mr. Gauthier, while Randy got English questions from English press. And (too) many of those French questions focused on the fact that the new Coach was unilingual. If that wasn't bad enough, it was becoming a topic du jour on Twitter, where well-known French media personalities were posting actual disappointment over the hiring.

It got worse. It became a Story that spread to the rest of Canada (which highlighted the story Monday morning on Canada A.M.) and then to CNN, an American 24-hour news channel! Why? Because the Government of this province stated, clearly, its objections to Coach Cunneyworth at the helm. The government!!!

When the Montreal French-language newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal, published Tuesday, after a 2nd loss for the Habs under Coach Cunneyworth's regime, the front page was astounding. Not only was the headline, in HUGE letters, "Inacceptable" in French, there was another headline, below, in English: "Another Loss For Cunneyworth". This newspaper, as Québecois as any French-Canadian, made an obvious statement with its English headline. The poll it quotes, on the front page, states that 72% of Quebec is against a unilingual coach. Obviously a skewed poll, as I'm sure they didn't quite conduct a scientific study.

So the issue emerged on Twitter (where much of my Habs-related discussions take place): do you want a coach who will win, or a coach who will speak French? The consensus was the former, but would those who stood for the latter actually stand up? It is hard to tell, and yet, the undercurrents are growing.

We were asked, "will the language debate die down once the team starts to win?" I stated my opinion that no...those decrying this hiring were doing so before the coach took the bench for his first game wearing the hat. This isn't going away, win or lose, and that's the point I believe should be examined. Those who are more ingrained in the language issue are less involved in the sport. Otherwise, it wouldn't matter one bit if the coach spoke one, two, or three languages! As Habs fans, should winning, success, and future victories not be at the core of EVERY issue?

We may debate the lines a coach puts on the ice, we may debate the pairings and we may debate how much time-on-ice rookies are being given. But we do so because we want to see winning lines, winning pairings, and winning players make the difference between smiles and disappointments. Not because one is English, one is Russian, one may be younger, or one is African-American. We love our team because of the passion we feel for the game, not because of their individual make-up. We embrace the differences of our team players, we celebrate their individuality, but when they are on the ice, they are Our Team. Not Pacioretty, A.K., Louis or PK. We see them as a unit, working together to net the goals and tip the scales in favor of Habs wins.

So why should it matter what language our coach speaks? If he can motivate the team to work hard, if he can conduct drills in practices that strengthen and develop their skills, if he can find winning combinations of 5-player hockey, penalty-kill hockey, and power-play hockey, all to reach the end goal of scoring more than the opponent, does it matter if he can conduct a press conference in English only?

I acknowledge, respectfully and proudly, our two solitudes. I acknowledge that Habs hockey is ingrained in our culture, and that culture includes French and English. But the most immediate issue at hand for our Habs (OUR Habs, people) is the fact that we're finding it hard to keep leads, and win games. I'd like to see my Province NOT mocked on international news shows. I'd like to see people once again bonding together over hockey, not distracted by sub-issues. I'd like to see this Province give Coach Cunneyworth the respect he deserves for stepping into big shoes, faced with struggles on the ice, and for being at the center of a long-standing debate that will not go away if, or when, he is no longer with the organization.

This is about hockey. Language can wait.

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