Randy Cunneyworth doesn't buy the widespread notion that he is a lame duck who will be gone this summer when the Montreal Canadiens find a bilingual head coach.
The interim coach said Tuesday he is working on learning French and hopes that significant strides will be made by the time the decision is made on who will be behind the bench next season.
Owner Geoff Molson and general manager Pierre Gauthier have promised they will have a coach who can speak French in place for the 2012-13 campaign. That appeared to rule out the unilingual Cunneyworth, but the Toronto native doesn't see it that way.
”With any team, it can be uncertain if you don't win or accomplish the goals you set forth,” he said. ”I'm working hard to pick up the language as much as I can and as quickly as I can.
”Hopefully that will be the case by the time some of the decisions are made. A lot will depend on how successful this team is and that's really my priority right now. The language is secondary, but very important as well for me because I think it's an important marketplace where I'd love to be able to address everybody in both languages and talk to everybody concerning hockey.”
There was an outcry among the club's many French-speaking fans when Cunneyworth was promoted to head coach after the Dec. 15 firing of Jacques Martin. He became the club's first coach in four decades who was unable to speak at least some French.
On Monday, Gauthier apologized to any fans offended by the move and reiterated that the team will have a bilingual coach next season. He did not rule out Cunneyworth, who insists he picks up at least the hockey terms and expressions just by being around the team's French-speaking employees.
”You hear people talking and you pick up on what they're saying because you know what it's related to,” he said. ”Hopefully over time, just being around and working at it, it would be exciting to pick up the language and learn it to a greater extent.
”It's an ongoing work in progress. I'm not ignoring it in any way. But my main focus is the hockey, for sure.”
Gauthier's decision to dump the veteran Martin and promote Cunneyworth to his first NHL head coaching job was a public relations disaster. Some politicians even weighed in by slamming the move.
It hasn't helped that the team is also mired in a three-week slump with only one win in the last eight games, including a 1-6-0 record under Cunneyworth.
The Canadiens have dropped to 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings, eight points out of a playoff position, heading into a home game against the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night.
”Everyone can make excuses about guys being injured, but the reality is that everybody's got to be better,” defenceman P.K. Subban said. ”And once we start winning, you'll see, the talk's going to be a lot less about who's behind the bench.”
The Canadiens are entering a make-or-break stretch in which they play 11 of the 15 games at home. If they don't use that to go on a winning run, they will likely miss the post-season for the first time since 2006-07.
The trouble is, they are 5-7-6 at the Bell Centre so far this season, to the consternation of their fans.
”We know how it is at home,” added Subban. ”Nobody likes to be booed and nobody likes to hear the fans not be energetic about our team.
”I take it personally out there. And I don't blame them. You want them to demand the best. It will add a little fuel to our fire.”
Perhaps more importantly for Cunneyworth, the Canadiens are in an 11-day stretch in which they play only three games — all at home — so the new coach will finally have time to work closely with his players. He coached his first game at home and was on the road for the next six, with little time for practice.
The Canadiens have rarely been blown out. But they have blown leads or given up weak goals late in games that cost them points. Eliminating mistakes has been Cunneyworth's biggest challenge.
They hope to get a boost from the return of captain Brian Gionta, who has been out with an undisclosed injury. He skated with the team for the first time since he was hurt Dec. 8 against Vancouver.
Gionta won't play against the Jets, but hopes to be ready for Saturday's home game against Tampa Bay.
Centre Scott Gomez and winger Ryan White are back on the ice but are not ready to skate with the team. Defenceman Andrei Markov, who has yet to play this season, will not return from reconstructive knee surgery until after the all-star break.