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Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth talks with players during first period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Montreal on Saturday, December 17, 2011.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

He's quoted nearly as often as the Quebec Premier, and his decisions are scrutinized even more closely. He's the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, but when that man is the first in decades who can't speak a lick of French, the reaction is swift and merciless.

The Montreal Canadiens stepped into the thick of language politics on Saturday when the team fired Jacques Martin, who speaks French, and replaced him with Randy Cunneyworth, who does not.

For the first time since the 1950s, apart from 55 games Al MacNeil coached in the 1970-71 season, the coach of the Canadiens can't string together at least a few sentences in French. Former players and team executives, nationalist groups and the francophone fraternity of sports writers were quick with condemnation, saying bilingualism is a necessary qualification for the post.

"You have to understand that for French Canadians, this team is their pride and joy. We're a small population trying to hold on to our heritage. We've fought years and years to hold on to our language," said Jacques Demers, the last Canadiens coach to win a Stanley Cup, in 1993.

Having said that, Mr. Demers suggested, a winning streak and an unlikely Stanley Cup win by the mediocre team would allow plenty of time for Mr. Cunneyworth to take language lessons.

It's no coincidence the 1950s marked a kind of watershed for the Canadiens, where language became a coaching qualification. One of the main accomplishments of Quebec's Quiet Revolution, which started brewing during the decade, was to put French Canadians into positions of power in Quebec institutions from which they had long been excluded, including private business.

Some historians suggest a trigger of the Quiet Revolution was a 1955 hockey riot. Fans, most of them francophone, took to the streets over the heavy suspension the NHL president and symbol of English power, Clarence Campbell, imposed on Maurice Richard for a vicious on-ice attack.

It seems unlikely that fans will take to the streets over this hire. Scientific polls have yet to be produced, but La Presse sports editor Jean-François Bégin conducted his own informal survey among the 6,100 sports fanatics who follow him on Twitter. Just 140 responded, and only about 43 per cent said the coach must speak French.

Sportswriter Philippe Cantin led the charge in the sports fraternity saying the Habs have symbolic importance far beyond the ice and have a responsibility to protect and encourage French.

"It's not simply a hockey team," said Mr. Cantin, who recently returned to the sports pages after nearly a decade as editor of La Presse. "It's much more than a hockey team; it's an institution. Like all institutions, it has responsibilities that go beyond being a hockey team in this market."

The team also has a responsibility to act as an entryway to francophone players and executives, Mr. Cantin said. The two coaches in last year's Stanley Cup finals were francophones who got their start with the Canadiens. Many contend most francophone coaches would never get a chance without the Habs.

Pierre Gauthier, the team's general manager, said he simply decided to put the best available coach behind the bench. "Languages can be learned," he said.

Team executives, including owner Geoff Molson, who speaks French, surely saw the storm coming because language has again surfaced as a hot issue in Quebec this fall. It started when Stephen Harper's Conservative government nominated a Supreme Court judge and an auditor-general who speak only English.

Then it spread to Quebec's corporate world. In November, it emerged that two senior managers at the province's pension fund manager couldn't speak French. The Caisse de dépot et de placement was created 45 years ago to help foster francophone business after decades of English domination.

Several major companies were denounced for conducting too much business in English or for putting too many unilingual anglophones in top jobs. Louis Vachon, president of National Bank, one of the companies singled out, complained a hunt for anglos was under way.

Now the most visible of Quebec institutions is getting an even higher level of scrutiny.

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