Habs’ Language Issue Puts a Bad Taste in Fans’ Mouths

By Jason Menard

Randy Cunneyworth may be a great coach one day. If he does become one, it won’t be with the Habs, as the organization seems to have admitted that language is more important than winning. If that remains the case, the league’s most-decorated franchise may have to wait another 20 years before etching its name on the Stanley Cup – and the sullying of la Sainte-Flanelle, a once-proud uniform, will be complete.

Cunneyworth was named the Montreal Canadiens’ head coach following the Dec. 17th firing of Jacques Martin. And ever since that date, the merde has hit the fan.

Are fans and pundits mad that the storied Habs hired a coach with no NHL experience? Non? Are they upset that instead of recycling a currently-employed big-name coach, they went internally and called up their AHL affiliate’s coach? Non. Are they even upset that they picked a journeyman NHLer instead of an elite megastar like Patrick Roy? Ben non. They’re upset because Cunneyworth has committed the ultimate sin – he’s a unilingual anglo.

Does it matter? According to le Journal de Montreal it does. They’re positively giddy in their ability to criticize Cunneyworth’s lack of French and they shared the results of a recent poll stating that 83 per cent of Francophone respondents found it unacceptable that the Canadiens be coached by a unilingual Anglophone. When anglos are included in the mix, the number drops to 69 per cent. And 75 per cent polled feel the organization is not doing enough to ensure a Francophone presence.

This is not to say that a French-speaker can’t coach. In fact, some of the greatest coaches in the league’s history (including Scotty Bowman, who grew up on the Avenues inVerdun) have come from Quebec. It is to say, however, that language should not be the first and foremost criteria in an NHL job search.

We won’t even get into what would happen in any other industry if a French-speaker was excluded from job consideration because of language. In fact, if this anti-anglo sentiment was echoed anywhere else, we’d be demanding accountability for this racist behaviour. Yet, in Canada, we nod, smile, and say, “It’s Quebec.”

I’m all in favour of protecting French in Canada. Simply put, French culture is surrounded by English influences. Eight million against over 400 million is a tough fight, so – as an official language ofCanada– it deserves some respect. And, to be fair, I’m half French, half English, married to a French Canadian woman. So I’ll admit my biases right here. I’ll also admit that there’s a time and a place for everything – and behind the bench of an NHL franchise is not the place for a language battle.

And before one decides to use a hockey team as the rock upon which the foundation of your linguistic argument is built, it may serve to look back at the team’s history. The Francophone Icon foundation is as slippery as the ice under the Habs’ skates. While it’s in vogue right now to rewrite the history of the Montreal Canadiens as being an over-century old bastion of French Canadian pride, it wasn’t all that long ago that the club was seen as English Quebec’s team.

The then-Québec Nordiques plastered themselves with fleurs-de-lys and basically wore the provincial flag – for many, a symbol of Quebec nationalism – on their sleeves. The Habs represented big business – Anglo-owned big business. Les Nordiques? They were the team that represented the pure laine Quebecers.

Early on in its inception, the Canadiens were largely an Anglo-supported team. It wasn’t until the arrival of Maurice Richard in the 40s that things truly began to change. His arrival, along with the collection of all stars that surrounded him, turned the Habs into a dynasty. And the Richard riot became a touch point for the frustrated and repressed francophone majority to fight back.

In many respects, the Richard riot gave birth to the Quiet Revolution of the 60s and 70s. And so too did it give birth to the idea that the Habs are French Canada’s birthright.

This was helped by player acquisition rules that ensured an elite French Canadian presence onMontreal’s NHL roster. Even after the adoption of the universal draft, the Habs still had rights over and above to the first couple of Quebec-born players. (Writer’s note. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Yes, they had these rights, but they really didn’t amount to a hill of beans as this wonderful article explains. However, the Canadiens did, for many years, essentially buy their way to greatness through territorial ownership. Like a player? Buy his team. Jean Béliveau won’t leave Quebec City? Buy the league!) And so Richard begat Beliveau, Beliveau begat Lafleur; Lafleur begatRoy.

There’s where things start to get murky. From Stéphane Richer to Stéphane Lebeau; Gilbert Dionne to Guillaume Latendresse; the Habs have been looking for their next Quebecois superhéro. The latest to fall under the linguistic microscope is Louis Leblanc.

For many pundits and fans in Montreal, Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, or John Tavares could never be the Next One – they don’t have the requisite blue-and-white birth certificate (and even that may not be enough. A West-Island anglo may be born in Quebec, but wouldn’t pass the language test).

Saku Koivu was once said to not be worthy of the captaincy due to his lack of French. The man came back from cancer, was an inspiration to all, and was arguably the best Canadiens’ player over the past two decades. But it wasn’t enough.

The Canadians were founded by J. Ambrose O’Brien – an anglo. Owners — including the French-sounding, but American-born Leo Dandurand – have largely been English. The current roster is composed of a mix of Americans, Canadians, a couple of Czechs, a couple of Swiss, a Slovak, a Finn, a Dane, and a handful of players from areas that were once known as the U.S.S.R. In today’s NHL, language doesn’t matter.

The Habs are a hockey team, not a cultural icon. Their role is not to buoy the French language, but a select few are trying to conscript them to a cause that was never their intent. The Montreal Canadiens should be about winning. They should be about etching their name on the Stanley Cup. Yes, French is important to the market, but that issue can be dealt with creatively. Hire a translator for your unilingual coach, have a bilingual assistant coach on staff. Arrange for language lessons to solve the problem long-term.

But neither one’s passport nor one’s language should matter. All that matters should be winning. Sadly, that appears to be an afterthought for this once-storied franchise.

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