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Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has defended his team's coaching appointment. Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has defended his team's coaching appointment. Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

LES PERREAUX

Habs owner stickhandles through language debate Add to ...

The scion of the Molson family that owns and runs the Montreal Canadiens is defending his team’s selection of an interim coach who doesn’t speak French while conceding the team must take language into consideration when making the next hire.

Geoff Molson says general manager Pierre Gauthier needed a quick spark to improve the moribund team and he chose then-assistant Randy Cunneyworth to take over because, in addition to being quickly available, he is a “qualified and experienced coach who has earned the respect of the players.”

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But the ability to speak French and English will be “a very important factor in the selection of a permanent head coach,” Molson, a native Quebecer who speaks fluent French, added in a statement. Gauthier had said he hoped Cunneyworth would continue beyond this season.

The Canadiens and Molson, whose family founded the eponymous brewing empire in 1786, are under blistering criticism for naming a coach who doesn’t speak French for the first time since 1970.

While opinion appeared to be split among diehard hockey fans, many of whom just want to see the team win, pundits, politicians and nationalists fueled the controversy. In one of the more extreme examples, columnist and radio commentator Réjean Tremblay argued team management have long wanted to “eradicate” French from the club to strengthen its iron grip on communications.

More typically, nationalist groups called for a boycott of Molson products while former team executives such as Serge Savard, along with provincial political leaders of all parties, insisted the coach of the Canadiens should speak French.

“The Canadiens say it is temporary, but it’s also unfortunate,” provincial Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre told The Canadian Press. “There is an element of pride for Quebecers. The Canadiens are in our genes, it’s an institution and the Canadiens should be sensitive to it.”

The Canadiens were founded in 1909 by Ambrose O’Brien, the son of an Irish immigrant, and soon became the team of French Montrealers. English Montrealers, who were about 1/3 of the city’s population, dominated most of the city’s hockey teams. The sport was slower to catch on among French speakers and O’Brien, seeing an untapped vein, started recruiting and marketing among francophones, author D’Arcy Jenish wrote in his history of the team.

Over many years, the team became central to French-Canadian pride, as well as a conduit for rivalry with the English-speaking world.

What O’Brien sowed, Molson now reaps.

The Canadiens are seen by many French-speaking Quebecers as a part of the cultural fabric far beyond hockey.

“The team is an institution for Quebecers and French Canadians, and out of respect for the francophone majority population of Quebec, the coach of this institution should speak French,” said François Legault, the leader of a new and wildly popular political party called the Coalition Avenir Québec.

Molson took over the team two years ago. The family had a long history with the Canadiens which won 11 of its 24 Stanley Cups in Molson hands. Tradition and heritage have long been a key marketing tool for the franchise, which frequently trots out retired giants such as Guy Lafleur, Jean Béliveau and Henri Richard for public appearances.

But when Molson bought the team, he waved off calls to boost the number of French-speaking players, saying “we are in the hockey business and not into politics.”

In Quebec, it’s difficult to separate the two.

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