The Montreal Canadiens are a special case.
I’m not talking about a history that spans more than a century. I’m not talking about championships or glorious moments in time.
I’m talking about the fact that the Canadiens are the only team in the NHL that faces the circumstance of having a fan base that is for the most part linguistically different from the rest of the league. Until the NHL returns a franchise to Quebec City, expands to Europe, or the Chinese start assuming control and domination over global communications, the Montreal Canadiens will be unique in this respect.
Over the past 20 years the issue has been largely played out beyond the realm of the ice, due to the fact that the Habs have employed bi-lingual coaches. Circumstance, however, has now forced the Habs into a hornets nest of trouble as Jacques Martin’s old post has been filled by the uni-lingually Anglo Randy Cunnyworth. Immediately, the issue became front page news in both English and French news media and the same old tired positions from the English and French speaking corners of the country began to be reiterated for the millionth time.
French-speakers demand that a coach be able to communicate with the fanbase that although incredibly strong in English-speaking Canada, is still largely French. English-speakers, especially those outside of Quebec, see the outrage as an extension of overly-protective language laws by a portion of society that always tries to make language a divisive issue.
And yet amongst all of the arguing, perspective of the situation is lost.
The question I have is this: How would the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs react if tomorrow Brian Burke fired Ron Wilson and hired a head coach that spoke only French.
Speaking as someone who lives in Toronto and has to endure the Leaf-focused sports talk shows I can tell you there would be near-revolution on Yonge St.
The reason most people outside of Quebec don’t see this as an issue is because we’ve never had to experience the other side of the equation. Ours is the language of business. Ours is the language of entertainment. Although our athletes, coaches, and general managers often come from areas of the globe where English is spoken as a second language (or worse) – every fan base in the NHL can count on being able to understand the words of the head coach except for one. To discount the importance of this issue without considering that fact is to ignore the real issue.
As someone who is bilingual and loves the Montreal Canadiens, there are few things that make me cringe more than this issue. I would love nothing more than to say: “It shouldn’t matter. Hire the best person for the job.” It does matter though.
The Canadiens are an institution. They are a cultural legacy as much as they are a hockey team and although English-speakers have played an integral part in this team’s history from it’s very beginnings, there is no denying the importance this club has to French-speaking Quebec.
I do not profess to have an answer to the current conundrum. I do not know who the French-speaking coach is that will be able to lift this team from its current struggles. I do know that it is infinitely unfair to Randy Cunnyworth to blame him in any way for his linguistic abilities, or the two losses that have occurred under his tenure. That said, I cannot ignore the real trouble that the Habs have created for themselves by not preparing a French-speaking candidate to replace the head coach of this team.
I do not often throw my hat in with separatists. Nor do I agree with the divisive and opportunistic politics that some in the French media are springing on our troubled hockey team. Still, I cannot ignore the problem I have with the argument that dismisses this issue as unimportant, on the basis that winning is the only thing that matters. That has never been the case with the Montreal Canadiens. Not at the club’s inception. Not at the Richard Riots. Not today.
Go Habs Go!!!