Habs Nation draws language lines

Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth stands behind the bench during a game against the Devils at...

Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth stands behind the bench during a game against the Devils at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Que., Dec. 17, 2011. (BEN PELOSSE/QMI Agency)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:45 AM ET

He picked up a little French on the streets in the Montreal suburb of working-class Verdun and his "hockey" French at the rink in Hull, across the Ottawa River from the nation's capital.

"In Montreal, when I was a kid, it was half-and-half. In our block (in the "Avenues" of Verdun) there were three French families and three English families. I spoke a little bit in the street, but I didn't have to speak it," said Scotty Bowman, who knows something of the two hottest topics in Quebec right now -- coaching the Montreal Canadiens and the perpetual way language imposes itself on all phases of life in a complicated place.

When Bowman's playing career ended prematurely, he started coaching the Canadiens junior team in Hull.

"We had some young players -- Claude Ruel was one of them -- who couldn't speak English. I was interested in coaching and was able to get a pretty good knowledge of French. With the Canadiens, even Mario Tremblay, he came from up north and couldn't speak English. I spoke to him in French. I was able to communicate and basically talk hockey."

It was a lot simpler then. Bowman knows the world has changed.

"In my day, we didn't have the scrums after the games they do today," said Bowman. "It's a much more complicated position than it used to be."

Bowman is right -- again.

The promotion of Randy Cunneyworth to the head coach's job with the Canadiens has started the predictable hand wringing in some corners of my home province. There is outrage in the the French-language media over how the Habs transcend being a simple professional sports franchise and should reflect the realities of the culture.

Never mind that nobody in the province thought enough of them to buy the Habs when they were for sale. The team wound up in the hands of American George Gillett and enjoyed a remarkable resurgence.

There is just a slight undertone of irony in the fact it took an American to make the Canadiens matter again in Quebec, to the point where people now care about the linguistic abilities of the guy behind the bench.

Opinions on the Cunneyworth promotion are pretty much divided along language lines, near as I can figure. Anglophones want the guy who can help them win, regardless of language; franchophones want the best guy for the job, so long as he can speak French.

Geoff Molson, who's now in the owner's chair, issued a disappointing statement Monday to calm the media and opportunistic politicians (most of the fans on Twitter, for what it's worth, seemed to be of the mind that Cunneyworth parlay his big chance into wins, rather than "parler le francais"). It's a statement that basically cuts the legs out from under the rookie coach before he's even got his feet wet.

"...The head coaching position will be revaluated at the end of the season and, at that time the selection process will be carefully planned," said Molson. "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."

The guy I feel sorry for in this is Cunneyworth. He's getting a shot at his first NHL coaching job and is going to have to deal with this distraction -- the criticism of his linguistic abilities -- on top of the other challenges that confront every rookie coach.

His owner has already pretty much said he's done at the end of the year.

That statement by Molson pretty much sewers Cunneyworth, makes him a lame duck for the rest of the season, unless he can find the time to bring his high school French up to speed by the end of the season.

Yeah, like he's got time for that, along with getting the club's veteran core playing decent hockey again and getting the power play to work.

Bowman is rooting for Cunneyworth, whom he drafted as a player (167th overall) when he was running the Buffalo Sabres. He loved Cunneyworth's work ethic as a player and the fact he paid his dues coaching in the minors.

But Bowman, probably more than anyone, recognizes the realities of coaching the Canadiens in Montreal, as much as they might be a mystery to some outside of Quebec.

"It'll be pretty tough sledding without a grasp of French," said Bowman. "I'm sure he recognizes this opportunity. I don't think the people there expect more than a working knowledge. I think if he can pick up just a working knowledge, they'd welcome him with open arms.

"I hope he can do it."

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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