Custom Search

The Habs, language sensitivities and an attempt at understanding

This is not intended to be a “political” column so I have zero interest in engaging in a debate (or frankly even a lengthy discussion!) about the Montreal Canadiens, the local Quebec media and why there is a palpable sense in some quarters that the team needs (or doesn't) a bilingual head coach behind the bench.

This is a site where people can come, drop by, read a few stories about the Leafs and hockey—past and present—and not have their blood pressure jump all of a sudden.  And, I‘d like that to continue.

I just thought that I may be in a position, not to explain or defend anything along the above language lines, but simply add a tiny voice to the discussion.  You may agree, disagree, and that’s all healthy.  I’m happy, as always, to hear your views.  It's just that this can be such an emotional subject that I would rather not   engage in debate on this occasion in the interest of mutual understanding and respect.

I’ve only lived one year of my life in Montreal/Quebec.  (As an aside, that was when I “covered” the Canadiens off and off during the 1978-’79 hockey season for a small English-language radio station.)  But more pertinent, perhaps, is that I was born into a family with a strong French-Canadian heritage.  There was a religious dimension to that as well, to be sure.  But though we weren’t “Quebecers”, my Dad was fiercely proud of his French roots.

One way that this was manifested was in his choice of whom he cheered for in hockey.  Now, to be clear, he was also a huge fan of the New York Yankees (with the legendary Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and later DiMaggio and Mantle), as well as and Notre Dame football (going back to Knute Rockne) when both teams had amazing success, so maybe Dad was just a front-runner—I'm still not a hundred per cent certain!

Seriously, though, he really genuinely loved the Montreal Canadiens.  I mean he was authentically, deeply passionate about them.   Hell, he was born in 1910 so he saw Aurel Joliat (see the classic old photo at left that's been in the family forever), Howie Morenz and goodness-knows who else actually play in person on occasion back in the day.  Bill Durnan, the great goaltender.  Dad saw him.  Butch Bouchard, the tough captain?  Saw him play, too. Dad was devout, both about his religious faith (though an imperfect guy he surely was...aren’t we all?) and yes, the Habs.

So when I was really young, in the late 1950s, I knew more about the history of the Montreal Canadiens than just about anything else- and way more than probably any kid should.  I struggled with arithmetic, but I could tell you who played on the Montreal Cup teams from 1956-1960.  I knew the guys by sight, even though I seldom actually saw Montreal play on television.  (Our family was raised in a very small town in Essex County, near Windsor, Ontario, across from Detroit.)  Because of our location, we almost always “had” to watch the Leaf games on Saturday evenings on Hockey Night in Canada.  That was a point of much consternation in our family, but not for me.  At least not once I declared to my Dad (at the age of 4 in 1957, I’m told- click to read how that all came about...) that because he had acknowledged to me that Canada was a free country—apparently I had asked the probing question at a fairly precocious age—I was choosing to be a Maple Leaf fan.

That caused no end of tension throughout my formative years (two older brothers were also rabid Montreal fans…it ever ended in my house) but that’s not really my focus is today.  I'm trying to explain, none too clearly, I realize, why the coach being able to speak "french" might still matter in Quebec.

I don’t pretend to have the same insight that someone born in Quebec and who has lived a “Quebecois life” can provide.  I don’t have that personal life experience, nor have I experienced that sense of “solitude” that many  disenfranchised Quebecers have evidently felt have for many generations.

I do know though, that, from our little French-Canadian hamlet in south-western Ontario, we often had the sense of being an underdog, and at times maybe even looked down upon and marginalized a bit.

Now, I can’t compare this to any other cultural experience and won’t try to here.  I simply recall that my Dad, in particular, felt a sort of “kindred-ness”, if I can make up a word, with his hockey team, one that was largely built on the backs of outstanding French-Canadian players.  The names are pretty easy for me to toss out off the top of my head: “Butch” Bouchard, Jacques Plante, Bernard (Bernie “Boom Boom”) Geoffrion, Marcel Bonin and Jean Beliveau are just a few of the legendary greats from my early youth, each one a Hall-of-Famer of an all-time Hab great. Geoffrion (seen in action at right against Don Simmons- a future Leaf- and the Bruins) was the first guy to hit 50 goals in a season since the remarkable Rocket Richard, another Hab legend of the '40s and '50s that my Dad adored.

I was raised watching (and hating, but again, that's a story for another day) these tremendous hockey players.  I came to understand, perhaps through a biased prism, that Montreal was more than a hockey team, more than a corporate institution.  It was more than the players themselves.

They were a team that represented not just local hockey fans, but the entire province of Quebec.  Further, they represented Francophones, and to a certain extent (this is where I’m sure it will get slippery for people, I further realize) a kind of religious symbolism, too.

It mattered that the Habs were really good, that they were successful, for sure.  But importantly, it mattered that much of the team was French by background.  Oh, they had marvelous non-Francophone players when I was a kid, too.  Tom Johnson, Doug Harvey, Dickie Moore, Ralph Backstrom , Donnie Marhshall and many others (hell, they could have been French, too, I’m not certain, to be honest, but they had/have English-sounding names).  I’m guessing every one of them either spoke French, or darn soon learned to living and playing in Montreal.

Dick Irwin Sr. was a legendary coach.  Frank Selke Sr. (having been weaned in the Leaf organization alongside Conn Smythe) were two of the master builders of the franchise.  English names, but my understanding is they were fully bilingual.

Hector “Toe” Blake (a francophone, I believe, pictured at left) had a Hall-of-Fame playing career in Montreal, and went on to Coach 9 Stanley Cup teams as well.  He must have won more Stanley Cup rings (combined as a player and coach) than any man alive.

This is all by way of saying that the Montreal Canadiens weren’t just a hockey team.  They represented, at least in my mind, something more.  And in that way, they were unique.  Not exclusive, or narrow—simply different.  Distinct, one might way.

I recall a telling (and prophetic) comment attributed to Claude Ruel in the early 1970s.  To provide a bit of context, Ruel had been a fine junior player in the Montreal system in the 1960s, but lost an eye through a hockey injury.  He became a scout for the Habs and took over as coach from Blake prior to the 1968-’69 season, I believe it was. He was the "rookie" coach (and he was very young for that era to be a head coach as well, maybe in his very early 30s...) that won the Cup with Montreal in ’69, but then presided over the Hab team that also actually missed the playoffs in 1970.  That hadn’t happened in forever in Montreal in those days.

He resigned during the following season, replaced by an anglophone (Al MacNeil).  MacNeil, on the back of minor-league call up Ken Dryden's superb goaltending and vets like Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and ex-Leaf winger Fran Mahovlich, won the Cup in a major upset in that spring of 1971.  (As an aside, MacNeil stepped down that off-season, replaced by Scotty Bowman, but not before Henri Richard had called him “the most incompetent coach I’ve ever played for…” at one point before the season was over...)

But back to Ruel.  He said, in the early ‘70s when he was back to scouting for the team, that it didn’t matter where a player was from, if they were good, Montreal would draft them.  Full stop.

This was shortly after the end of the local sponsorship era in the NHL, and Montreal having rights to virtually all the best French-Canadian kids in the province of Quebec.  (The NHL eventually instituted the so-called amateur draft of 20 year-olds to balance the playing field for the new expansion teams.)

Ruel said something along the lines of…”If all the best players were Japanese, we would draft all Japanese players…”.  I wish I could find the actual quote.  In any event, he was basically saying, “look, language doesn’t matter, we pick the best players…” here in Montreal.

And that was true.  In the early ‘70s, they selected Guy Lafleur, but they also picked Steve Shutt.  They grabbed a Pierre Mondou, but they also selected Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson, who both became Hall-of-Famers.

They looked for the best.  Period.

But the guy running the team, the coach, the individual who interacted day-to-day with the feverish Montreal hockey media was inevitably someone who could address the local media hordes in both official languages—French and English.

Dick Irwin could.  Toe Blake could.  Scotty Bowman did.  Geoffrion, a francophone, coached briefly after Bowman.  I can’t remember if Bob Berry, who coached the Canadiens during a portion of the early ‘80s, spoke French. Later  Jean Perron and Pat Burns were fluently bilingual.  You know the more recent list of coaches like Demers and Jacques Martin, who were at ease in both "official" languages.

To coach in Montreal, the expectation has always been:  the fellow must be a top coach, and be able to handle the media demands every day.

In two languages.

Guy Carbonneau, another recent Montreal coach, said as much this week when he jumped into the Randy Cunneyworth debate by saying Randy will indeed need to learn french. 

So, with all this is a backdrop, here is the question:  is it  “wrong” or somehow narrow-minded for some Quebecers (be they media people or every day fans) to be upset that Cunneyworth—a hard-working long-time NHL player who has worked diligently to earn a fine reputation as a coach as well—is unilingual?

I don’t know.  I don’t have the answer.

Should they (media, fans, the organization) only be interested in the best coach available, or does/should language matter at all?

It’s funny, but in broader terms,  I’ve felt for many years that the Habs have gotten away from their roots in recent times.  I’d love to see them draft more French players, for example, and have more Quebec-born players on the team.  Does that make me limited in my thinking? 

I was raised hating the Canadiens (against my family's wishes, obviously), because they were so good.  Not because they were French- heck, my background was/is french.  But the cultural component of the team did add a little spice to the Montreal-Toronto rivalry, for me.  And perhaps ironically, I was cheering passionately for the "english" team (the Leafs), though I was french and the rest of my family was rabidly pulling for the Habs every night of my young life.

So maybe I am being narrow in suggesting I'd like to see the team have a stronger french presence.  Hell, I’m not even a Montreal fan, so maybe I shouldn't care at all.  But part of their magic, their luster, their swagger, part of what made them unique, special, yes different, was indeed that they represented a certain cross-section of the Canadian population.  Not to the exclusion of anyone else, but certainly including those French-Canadians who had sufficient skill to play for a great team- at least those the front-office could get their hands on.

Last time I checked, Montreal had two, maybe three guys on the roster who were French, from Quebec.  So no, we’re a long ways past the Habs being the “Flying Frenchmen”, I realize.

Does it mean they have to remain what they were in the old days?  Of course not.  But is it all right to think that it would be nice if, while so many things change (and often for the better) in our world, the Montreal Canadiens were still, at least in part, “Les Habitants”?

For me it is.  But again, I may be wrong, or looking at things through an outdated and narrow-minded lens.  It doesn’t feel that way, though.

Does the coach have to speak french?  No, I don't think so.  But ideally, he would learn the language to be able to handle that one element of his job a bit better.  And maybe as well, as a sign of respect for the history of the team he is now in charge of.

I will respect the views that differ from mine, of course.  I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. You add a level of rationality to this discussion. I, too have a French Canadien connection and like you, my dislike of the Habs was always based on hockey. To truly understand the Quebec hockey fanaticism you have had to live there at some point.

  2. I think you make a lot of good points.

    However, it's not just two solitudes in Canada anymore, and there are teams all across the country (many of them full of players from the US and overseas). That's not even including the American teams, who probably couldn't care less about Canadian hockey heritage.

    If the Habs want to win anything they will need a mixture of players as well - especially if the elite francophone Quebecois players want to play elsewhere.

  3. First of all, great read.

    I, like you, out of curiosity looked up the french speaking Canadiens players, and there are currently 3. Louis Leblanc was called up recently so for much of the year there was 2. Thanks for clarifying that Montreal drafts the best players regardless of language, me and my dad had this debate last night and we thought it was a little hypocritical only 3 players spoke french, leave the coach alone. I fully respect the need for a french head coach, I was just disgusted with how they treated Cunneyworth. One of the Molson brothers saying we will get a french head coach in the near future pretty much dismisses Cunneyworth of even having a chance. I guess that's life in Montreal

  4. Those old rivalries are such a deeply imbedded part of our psyches! It's almost tribal - which I suppose sports fandom is, anyway. I get a special buzz every time we beat the Canadiens - just for old times' sake! But, post 60's, there have been many rivalries just as intense, or even more so - Flyers, Wings, Sens, etc. As the old cultural boundaries shifted or vanished, so did my focus on the Canadiens as "them, the enemy". And as teams became more and more international in their make-up, it didn't even make sense any more. If anything, it became "which city is better - Toronto or Montreal?"
    When the language issue was raised over Cunneyworth's appointment, I was annoyed at the political opportunists beating the dead horse one more time. I lived in Montreal for the better part of 2000-2004, (loved it, by the way), and witnessed first hand the disenchantment of Montrealers with the voices of "pur laine" baying at every opportunity. The people I knew had wider horizons, and embraced the possibilities of a multi-cultural world.
    All to say that I don't think it matters a whit if the coach is francophone or not, except to some political people trying to get back into power, some guys looking for a job, and some guys trying to create media controversy. The only thing that matters is if the Habs win - and if they do, we won't be hearing many complaints for long. Do I think the coach should make an effort to learn some French? Absolutely. Do I think it ultimately matters? No. And having attended some games at the Bell Center, I don't think it will matter to most Habs fans, either. They're easily the most knowledgeable fans in hockey, and they'll know, and accept, a good coach when they see one. (The Habs fans are the only ones I've experienced who actually "ooh'd" and applauded a great play by an opposing player).
    But if Montreal goes into a slide like the one the Leafs are currently enduring, it's going to be a long haul for the new guy.

  5. Faeldam, good to hear from you on this topic.

    GG...well said, thank you for the comment.

    Andrew...Much appreciated, and I agree with your thoughts about how Cunneyworth has been treated in the media. Unfortunate. He's just trying to do the job he was given.

    Gerund O'...very well articulated, as always. Thanks.

  6. I shook my head in disbelief when I first read the headlines about this. But then I read a more measured response from Chris Selly from the National Post and I think I judged too quickly. Would the Toronto Press/Leaf Nation judge the same way if they hired a coach who could not speak English? Let's say, only spoke Russian? I'd have to say yes. However, that being said, given what limited options Gauthier had, what else could he do? This was a no win situation given the no win situation ;-)

  7. Thanks for posting, Hogie. As the decision to fire Jacques Martin was probably a while in the making but still "sudden", you're no doubt corret, Gauthier had precious few options available to him. Cunneyworth is a good coach with a strong track record as an assistant and AHL guy, so I'm guessing if he does not stay with the Habs, he will land somewhere very soon next season.

  8. I'm not particularly interested in this point of discussion. However, the cloud of panic, fan rage and managerial incompetence surrounding the Habs organization in general right now is a wonderful Christmas gift. Thank the universe for Burke, Kessel, et all, everyone.

  9. The Maîtres chez nous (Masters of our own house) idea is certainly eroding over time with the advent of communications technologies and the effects of immigration on Québec’s cultural character. In fact, actor Roy Dupuis, the one who did that superb portrayal of the Rocket, openly scorned the concept of “Maîtres chez nous” in a documentary about the destruction of Québec’s wilderness for Hydro damming. Like those evanished rivers, hard open questioning of Québec’s excessive cultural nepotism runs deep in the contemporary Québécois imagination. So, the coach can be a unilingual Anglophone or Russian then? No, I am afraid not, and it has less to do with racism or linguistic naval gazing than those communications technologies that now rule our day-to-day life. Think about it. Very few English speaking people understand Ron Wilson’s sense of humour and language play. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if he only spoke French! If Randy Cunneyworth, a quality hockey man by all accounts, can become instantly fluent in French or deliver a .700 winning percentage he will have a long career in Montreal. If not, he will be in for a stressful apprenticeship as a head coach that will make or break his coaching career.

  10. Thanks for jumping in on this issue, Bobby C. ....Thoughtfully articulated. Cunneyworth has indeed taken on a difficult assignment...