Language, not winning, now Habs' No. 1 priority

Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth speaks to his team during a game against the Bruins at TD...

Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth speaks to his team during a game against the Bruins at TD Garden in Boston, Mass., Dec. 19, 2011. (JESSICA RINALDI/Reuters)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:45 AM ET

Hey, remember how boring the Montreal Canadiens were because of the guy behind the bench?

It wasn't that long ago, was it?

The firestorm around the Habs and unilingual coach Randy Cunneyworth is raging into its fifth day now and the era of bilingual Jacques Martin (some would say he didn't say anything in either official language) seems like a decade ago.

What has been made clear -- for those who haven't been paying attention for the last 20 years or so -- is that winning hockey games is no longer the number one priority for what was once the NHL's, maybe professional sports', flagship franchise.

Looking back on it now, it's remarkable the Habs have had as much success as they have while catering to the omnipresent demands that things not only look good, but sound good, too.

Based on the volume of the voices coming out of Quebec right now, most of the Canadiens' fans, or least those who purport to speak or those fans"š believe having the coach of Les Canadiens speak French is a prerequisite for the job.

Obviously, judging by his statement Monday, Canadiens owner Geoff Molson agrees and what was simply assumed before is now in writing.

So having the man who is best qualified to coach the team is not the path to be taken. You take the best candidate who can speak French and, given that limiting condition, do the best you can.

But here is the other trap into which the Canadiens now fall.

The only coaches who fit that criterium in the past are typically unproven Quebecois (or Franco-Ontariens) like Michel Therrien, Alain Vigneault, Guy Carbonneau or Claude Julien. They get the job, learn on the job and have the usual growing pains, patience runs thin, they get fired and, in the case of Vigneault and Julien -- the opposing coaches in last spring's Stanley Cup final -- they go on to have success somewhere else.

The Canadiens' guiding principle of affirmative action is a poor business model, but it is environmentally sound since it keeps recycling.

Even when they recruited an experienced guy like Martin, it didn't work out any better. He actually pulled the average lifespan of the last five Canadiens coaches down to 211 games.

If you were a successful coach who spoke French and had other options, why would you want to coach the Canadiens, a perennially mediocre cap team further encumbered with all the extranious political crap we're seeing writ large right now?

For that matter, what top flight unilingual English coach would want to go to Montreal now -- if that was even in the cards -- after seeing the treatment the innocent Cunneyworth, a good man caught in an impossible situation created by his bosses, is getting?

Le Journal de Montreal, another Quebecor paper, ran a front page story Tuesday with the big headline "Unacceptable" (in French) and then, in a blatant jab at Cunneyworth or perhaps at the Habs for their decision to promote him, or both, in English: "Another loss for Cunneyworth."

As @G_R_R tweeted Tuesday afternoon: "I take the Cunneymoon is over between #Habs new coach & Le Journal de Montreal."

It is a complicated situation in Montreal, but one which has had led to one point of clarity.

Winning, which was once something the Canadiens did better than anyone else, is now somewhere down the list behind protecting beer sales, having a coach who can talk a good game "en francais," and appeasing the loudest and most strident voices.

If it is indeed the belief of 72% of Quebecois that having a unilingual English coach of the Canadiens is unacceptable (as reported by Le Journal) then, it stands to reason, they get what they deserve.

I know: in Quebec the Canadiens transcend being just a team that is in the business of winning hockey games; they are a cultural institution, an iconic organization for a province which should reflect the realities of its constituents.

In today's NHL, you can't be both.

And the Canadiens have made their choice.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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