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Randy Cunneyworth speaks at a news conference in Montreal Saturday, December 17, 2011 after being named as interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/CP)
Randy Cunneyworth speaks at a news conference in Montreal Saturday, December 17, 2011 after being named as interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/CP)

The Usual Suspects

Habs coaching appointment stokes Quebec nationalist sentiments Add to ...

Brian Burke thinks he has problems with the media telling him how to run his Toronto Maple Leafs.

Heaven forbid Burke ever has to run the Montreal Canadiens where the media’s hand is a permanent fixture on the tiller.

The firing of Jacques Martin as Canadiens coach on Friday serves as a textbook example of how the impact of the press- the Francophone press-- must be taken into consideration to a far greater extent than in any other NHL city.

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Specifically, the team knew the selection of anglophone Randy Cunneyworth to succeed Martin on an interim basis was bound to provoke controversy.

While politics rarely intrude in other Canadian NHL cities, they underpin every move in Montreal where hockey and politics are blood sports.

Forget the apparent disinterest lately for separation in the general populace, the media corps in Montreal still exists in a mentality where the language kill shot is always in season.

Witness the flap in years past over former Hab captain Saku Koivu’s lack of French or the vilification of Phoenix captain Shane Doan over anti-French comments made by a European teammate.

Even as it became obvious that Martin might not last the season, the pressure mounted to find a Francophone coach-- any Francophone coach--to replace him.

As if finding the right coach to revive the floundering Canadiens’ fortunes on the ice isn’t tough enough.

The vielle souche in the media must also be placated that the coach passes the cultural smell test. And so, within ten minutes into the Canadiens’ press conference, the question of language was raised.

The Habs went into full language lock, announcing Cunneyworth would work on his French while being assisted by assistant GM Larry Carriere as his translator to the large media pack following Les Glorieux.

And even though the only two Francophone coaches who might make a difference-- Alain Vigneault and Guy Boucher-- are under contract elsewhere, the pushback still came in the press and the blogosphere to find a Francophone. Perhaps not as strong as before, but strong enough.

Everyone acknowledges English as the working language of the NHL. And that the perfume of a Stanley Cup would excuse everything.

But in Quebec’s hockey milieu, at least, losing with Bob Hartley is seemingly preferable to some generic Anglo such as Cunneyworth playing .500. “If you had a roster of 23 Swedes and Czechs and Finns it wouldn’t matter to Quebeckers as long as they win the Cup,” La Presse’s Francois Gagnon explained to us.

“After that, have as many Canadians and French Canadians as possible. After that, when losing, they want a team you can relate to. What I hear now is if the team is losing, why not have team we can relate to? Not only Francophones but guys from Ontario, Canadians.”

Gagnon relates Quebec’s preference for a Francophone to other provinces. “Would the Leafs have a coach, like Pittsburgh did a couple of years ago, who only spoke Czech (Ivan Hlinka)? Of course, that’s not going to happen.

I can't imagine, even though there are lots of Francophones in Alberta, that English Albertans would accept a Calgary coach who would not say word in English. Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto would not accept that. I understand, Montreal, in having a coach who can speak French to fans, they would be putting aside some great candidates. But if Montreal doesn't give chance to Francophone to coach in NHlL who will?”

Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber is an American who has lived in Montreal for decades and is married to a Francophone. “The Montreal Canadiens once stood for excellence,” he says. “Now they stand for something else. The team has gone on record that they must be representative. I heard someone in the press box say that there are not enough French Canadians on the power play? I understand it as an outsider, but I’m not sure it’s productive.”

The real measure of its productivity may be, in a climate where support for sovereignty is tepid and the Canadiens are mediocre, does playing the language card at the rink still sell newspapers or get people to change the channel?

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