Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sacré bleu – Entraîner Les Canadiens de Montreal

On Saturday the Montreal Canadiens fired their coach Jacques Martin and hired Randy Cunneyworth as the interim head coach.

The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 23 times, more than any other National Hockey League franchise. Only the New York Yankees, with 27 World Series titles, have won more championships than the Canadiens.

For Cunneyworth it’s a dream come true, but that dream is quickly turning into a nightmare for the man who played 16 years in the NHL, served as a head coach for eight years in the American Hockey League, and spent past three and a half years as an NHL assistant coach.

While Cunneyworth appears to have the credentials to coach an NHL team, coaching the Montreal Canadiens isn’t like the other 29 NHL head coaching positions. The Canadiens are one of sports most cherished franchises and they play in Quebec, a Canadian province where more than 80% of the population speaks French.

Randy Cunneyworth is the first Montreal Canadiens coach since Bob Berry in the early 80s who
cannot speak any French.

Canadiens owner, President and CEO Geoff Molson made the following comments Monday.

“On Saturday, our general manager Pierre Gauthier made a coaching change and named Randy Cunneyworth interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens until the end of the 2011-12 season.

“This important decision was made with the objective of giving the team a much-needed spark after disappointing results since the start of the 2011-12 season. We are responsible for providing our fans and partners with a winning team and believe that this move will contribute to improve the overall performance of our team and produce positive results this season. The action was taken to remedy the situation without further delay.

“Randy Cunneyworth is a qualified and experienced coach who has earned the respect of the players and everyone within the organisation and he was ready to take over the responsibility of head coach. As Pierre Gauthier indicated, the head coaching position will be revaluated at the end of the season and, at that time the selection process will be carefully planned.

“Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach.

“Like all our fans we hope for the Montreal Canadiens to be among the top teams in the NHL and we are doing everything we possibly can to win.

“We would like to thank all our fans for their understanding.”

The Quiet Revolution marked a period of intense change in Quebec. Characterized by the rapid and effective secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state and a re-alignment of politics into federalist and separatist factions. Many believe the birth of the Quiet Revolution was ignited by then-NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell suspending Canadiens star Maurice Richard for the remainder of the 1954–55 season, including the playoffs.

French Canadiens believed Campbell was motivated in large part by Richard's French Canadian ethnicity. Campbell attended a game at the Montreal Forum four nights later and ensued causing an estimated $100,000 in property damage. 37 people were injured and over 100 arrests were made. Montreal, Quebec and Canada changed forever that night.

There aren’t many NHL coaches who can speak both English and French. Two of them, Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault, met in last year’s Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. Both Julien and Vigneault had served as head coach of the Canadiens once upon a time.

Quebec’s Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre believes the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens should be able to speak French.

"I have the utmost respect for the language here and I am very aware of how important it is to try and learn the language," Cunneyworth said after running his first practice. "Obviously I know a few words, and not all the good ones."

Former Canadiens captain and head coach Guy Carbonneau echoed St-Pierre’s comments.

"He's (Cunneyworth) living a dream, which is doing what he loves for one of the best franchises in the NHL, and he's caught in a storm," said Carbonneau, a former Canadiens captain and coach.

"It's premature. You have to give him a chance to show what he can do and if he's willing to learn.

"But there's no doubt in my mind that the coach of the Montreal Canadiens has to speak both languages, at least to some extent."

Le Journal de Montreal, one of Quebec’s largest selling daily newspapers, threw more fuel onto the fire Tuesday, running a front page headline "Another Loss For Cunneyworth" to make sure he understood, after the Canadiens lost Monday night in Boston.

"I like to think we were hired on our hockey background first and foremost," Vigneault told The Canadian Press in Vancouver. "I think all of us (former Canadiens coaches) that have gone on to other teams have proven that it was the right decision at the time."

It isn’t as simple an issue as it appears. The head coach of the Montreal Canadiens may be the most important person in the Province of Quebec. Those who live in Wisconsin and in Green Bay love their Packers. New Englanders live and die with their Red Sox. Both passions pales in comparison to how Quebecers feel about their beloved Canadiens.

The Canadiens are much more than a sports franchise to Quebec; it serves as their cultural identity. The early years of the NHL Entry Draft allowed the Montreal Canadiens to protect two
Francophone players before the draft began. That practice ended after the 1969 draft when the Canadiens used that right to protect the two best entering the NHL that year, Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif.

There are three French Canadians currently on the Canadiens roster. The Canadiens captain is Brian Gionta who was born in Rochester, New York.

It really isn’t as simple and wins and losses in Montreal. Al MacNeil coached the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup during the one year he was the teams’ head coach in 1970-71, he only spoke English.

Randy Cunneyworth deserves a much better hand than he’s being dealt. In all likelihood he will be fired when the season comes to an end and replaced by a coach who speaks French and English.

He may not be as good an NHL coach as Cunneyworth but if you’re going to be successful coaching the Montreal Canadiens both on and off the ice you have to be able to speak French and English – those are the rules of the game as it is played in Montreal.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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