Habs bring cirque to Winnipeg

Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Pascal Vincent on the ice at The MTS Centre during team practice in...

Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Pascal Vincent on the ice at The MTS Centre during team practice in Winnipeg on Dec. 21, 2011. (Chris Procaylo/QMI Agency)

Paul Friesen, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:13 AM ET

Just how intense is the media firestorm swirling around the Montreal Canadiens these days?

Going into Thursday night's game against the Habs, the Winnipeg Jets have been inundated with requests for interviews with assistant coach Pascal Vincent, who's been reported to be a candidate for the Canadiens head coaching job.

Of course, if you speak French and know a blue line from a bagel, you're probably a candidate.

It's never a good idea to mix politics and sports, but in Montreal they mix them like martinis.

The latest outcry from the sanctimonious sidelines is aimed at interim Habs coach Randy Cunneyworth, who replaced the fired Jacques Martin, last weekend.

Cunneyworth's crime: he doesn't speak Canada's other official language, which, we're told, has a good portion of the French populace in an uproar.

Seeing a chance to score a political point or two, Quebec's elected representatives have waded into the fray, demanding the Habs correct this indignation.

Former coach Guy Carbonneau said, no French, no chance.

Ex-GM Serge Savard was outraged, saying the team "belongs to the people."

The man it actually does belong to, Geoff Molson, even issued a statement, acknowledging a working knowledge of both languages will be very important when it comes time to select a permanent head coach.

Cunneyworth might want to start those French lessons ASAP.

Watching from Winnipeg with something other than amusement was Jets head coach Claude Noel, a sympathetic friend of Cunneyworth's.

"I have not lived in the province to understand it enough to say it's right or wrong," Noel said, Wednesday. "I feel for him. It's hard enough to coach in the NHL, let alone to coach in a tough circumstance like that."

Ask western Canadian boys like Jets captain Andrew Ladd about the Great Language Debate, and they all but shake their heads.

"Not being from there, it's difficult to understand where they're coming from," Ladd said. "Obviously, they want to keep their culture intact. But at the end of the day, from an outsider, if he's qualified and is going to make their team better, he should be the guy."

That's just it, Cunneyworth's actual coaching ability doesn't seem to matter.

Two games into his interim stint behind the bench, both losses, it's almost like he's being mocked by the Montreal press, the French-language Le Journal de Montreal trumpeting his second game with the headline: "Another Loss For Cunneyworth" -- in English.

Only one Jets players has experience in the boiling cauldron of Les Canadiens, and that's defenceman Ron Hainsey.

He says as intense as the media scrutiny is here, it's on a different level in Montreal.

"A lot of things come into play with the two languages," Hainsey said. "Obviously, the tradition of the coach speaking both languages is an important thing for them. Guys have done it, learned it on the fly. Bob Gainey wasn't French, he learned it. And he's one of the most respected and revered guys there."

Hainsey had Cunneyworth as an assistant coach for two years in Atlanta, and has kept in touch.

"He's obviously being thrown into a little more of a tense situation," Hainsey said. "I wish him the best after this week."

After playing in Chicago Wednesday night, the Habs and their traveling media circus will touch down here, where Thursday they'll play another hockey game, far from the politicians and the commentators.

As for Vincent, the up-and-coming Jets assistant listed at bodog.ca as a 45-to-1 long shot to be the next Habs boss, he's not being allowed to talk.

The Jets don't want to subject the poor guy to the massive Montreal media influx.

Seems to me there'd be no better way to prepare him for the job.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: friesensunmedia


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