On Language and Coaching

Posted by Kyle Kosior in Columns,General NHL,Montreal Canadiens on April 10, 2009 — 14 Comments

As I was driving to Fargo today, I had the opportunity to listen XM Radio’s NHL station, which was featuring the War Room program. The hosts were discussing potential coaching changes for next year, and when the topic came around to the Montreal Canadiens, the guys mentioned the apparent necessity for any new Habs coach to be a French speaker. The commentators on the show weren’t necessarily in favour of the idea, but did acknowledge that it was basically a foregone conclusion that any new hire had to be bilingual.

To me, this seems utterly ridiculous in this day and age. The Canadiens of old used to have the market cornered on Francophone players, but they have now abandoned this practice and simply draft or sign the best players available. Sure, it does seem like many top French speaking players are interested in playing in Quebec and you often hear the rumours that so and so wants to go there, but in reality, few of them ever do. The Captain of the team is a Finn, and there best players are from all over the world. The Habs have even been known to draft Americans. Sacre bleu, quelle horreur!. If the language/heritage issue is no longer pertinent when it come skaters, who cares if the coach can converse in the mother tongue?

This begs the question, who in particular is demanding that the coach being a French speaker? The players? Likely not, since only a half dozen or so would likely understand it. The media? Perhaps, but I dare say most fo them speak English just fine. The ownership? Last I checked the Montreal owner was a Wisconsin born American, and I don’t believe Madison is known as Little Little Paris. By process of elimination, that leaves the fans. Now, I understand that language and culture is a touchy issue in the PQ, but as a hockey fan, wouldn’t you trade the language factor for wins? The Montreal faithful are notoriously passionate and knowledgeable, so do they not know that making coaches check two language boxes on the Coach Application automatically narrows the field by oh, say 75 or 80% right off the bat?

There are definitely successful and able Francophone coaches out there, but it seems insisting on this capability means you conduct the search with un arm tied behind your back. Do you try and fit a square peg into a round hole just to appease a province’s xenophobia? If the Canadiens do hire another Franco-coach, I won’t be surprised, but lets just hope that Anglais-only candidates are also considered. The Habs need a shot in the arm, and with the bucket full of free-agents they have, they owe it to themselves to put someone competent behind the bench, French speaking or not.

  • Bob Roberts

    Dick, Toe, Scotty, and Pat (not to mention Frank and Sam) have had some measure of success in Montreal I believe. Glory years? They were there. Mais oui.

  • Were some of those guys not bilingual? I believe Pat Burns was a Montreal police officer before getting into coaching. My bet is he speaks both English and French.

  • Kyle,

    Stop trying to use logic when dealing with the Montreal Canadiens and the French media. On the radio show a few weeks ago (I don’t remember which episode) I ranted about this issue. The Quebec media, specifically Le Devoir and La Presse are pathetic and take out their petty French squabbles on the Canadiens and their players. Who can forget, two or three years ago, when Saku Koivu was subjected to questions about his knowledge of the French language during his season ending news conference. Here is a guy who has given his blood, sweat, and tears for the Canadiens and all these separatist ignoramuses can focus on is his conjugation. I pity Don Lever if he is indeed the next head coach in Montreal, because the first Habs 3 game losing streak will result in the French media calling for his job because he cannot communicate well enough with his French players. The French media in Quebec is a sick, sick industry.

  • What I pity is when Celine Dion buys Montreal and takes over coaching responsibility herself.

  • Pat Burns is very bilingual, by the way. He was in either the RCMP or the Surete du Quebec prior to becoming a head coach.

  • Spikeplug

    Simply put. 80% of the fans speak french. We buy the tickets, we bring the money. Question of respect only. 30 NHL head coach gigs. You want the job? Why don’t you learn french?

    If that’s not enough, go back in the books and find out what Maurice Richard had to do to get the french hockey players respected. To place a comment here, I have to speak english. If I move to Brazil, I’ll have to speak portugese. You come to Quebec, try to speak french.

    That’s why people here loved Richard, Beliveau, Cournoyer, Lafleur, Roy, Savard, Lapointe, Richer. Not sure Koivu will fit in that list when he’ll be gone. We respect english people, we fall in love with french stars.

    Why do you think there were so many Lecavalier rumours for years now? Identity.

  • Spikeplug, I surmised in the commentary that it was the fans who were demanding a French speaking coach. My question remains; Is the language more important than talent?

    Because your team has a proud tradition, do you not want the most competent coach available? If the best French speaking coaches are otherwise employed, how far down the list are you willing to go so that the Habs coach will speak the same language as you?

    Richard was instrumental in getting respect for the French players, and he will obviously be remembered for that. French coaches are great talents yes, but because of this they have jobs all over the NHL and the world. There is no ready and waiting talent pool of French coaches waiting for their name to be called in Montreal.

    I agree with you in that when you go somewhere to put down roots, you should assimilate as much as possible. We both know that this thought process isn’t politically correct, but that doesn’t bother me a bit. In the limited coaching sense, an English only coach can still communicate with his team and likely most if not all of the media. I am sure that, as a fan, you would like to be able to converse with the coach in French, but very few of us get that opportunity for one on one contact.

    To me, it seems that getting the best talent (on and off the ice) is the best way to serve the team. I am sure all greats you mentioned would want the team they played so hard for to be in the best hands possible.

  • Bob Roberts

    Spikeplug — GET IN THE GAME: no one plays hockey to tie or lose, they play to WIN. In hockey WIN = RESPECT. Kyle’s right. There’s an old saying (probably a similar one in French): “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

    Besides, how many good french coaches are coaching elsewhere because they weren’t good enough in Montreal? That guy in Boston, he’s in with a chance for the Cup, isn’t he? Not good enough in Montreal, or New Jersey either, come to that. What about that guy in Vancouver? His team has a better shot at it than the Habs (who don’t have to beat Detroit or SJ, and who won’t beat that guy in Boston — won’t that be sweet for him?)

    (Drew — I think it’s “ignoramousi”, but either way, thanks for the great bonus mini-rant.)

  • Spikeplug

    Kyle, as Bob Roberts said, we had great french speaking coaches in Montreal like Lemaire, Vigneault, Therrien, Julien, Burns… we have the same problem here, the full NHL has the same problem.

    When things go wrong, you fire the coach. So the coaching talent here is not an issue for me anyway. If our ex-coaches weren’t good, why were they hire elsewhere?

    The talent of the players group might be. So, by extension, the draft, scouting and developping players could be the achille’s heel. I’m not gonna go on that side, too complicated and not qualified for that.

    I’ll just say that the Habs have been, are and will be the talk of the town in Montreal and the province of Quebec. We live and breathe with the Habs. They get more news coverage than the prime minister or anybody else. The CH is more iconic than anything for us. Montreal is a bilingual city but almost entirely, the rest of the Quebec province speaks french.

    I’m not saying that the new coach has to be 100% bilingual. Bob Gainey is not. But at least, he tries to speak french. And he does so because he understands the importance of french speaking people. I respect the man a lot for that.

    As you know, Montreal is one of the three biggest markets in the NHL. Put on your resume that you worked for the Montreal Canadiens and you should not have a lot of trouble to find another job in hockey.

    So again, why not learn a little french if you don’t know it? You’ll be like God here…

    Quick notes:
    1- The TV broadcasting rights for the Habs in Quebec belong to RDS, a french station.
    2- Even Pierre Boivin, the team’s president said he would like to add a world class french player this summer because of the market place.
    3- Just imagine, in a utopic world, if the head coach of the Leafs or the Rangers just spoke french. It just wouldn’t be right.
    4- This problem goes way beyond the language of a coach and you know it. It is directly related with our roots, the assimilation dangers, the wars and more recently the referendums about separation in ’80 and ’95.

    So, to answer your question, to respect 80% of your customers (ticket buyers, companies that advertise in the Bell Centre, rent privates boxes, pay huge braodcasting rights, buy sweaters and flags…) YES you have to hire a french speaking coach. Bottom line, it’s marketing 101

  • Very interesting point Spikeplug.

  • Spikeplug, thanks for your reply. Having a local perspective is very helpful.

    One last question to spur the conversation. You mention that you might not have a problem if an English speaking coach were hired and attempted to learn French. How long would such a coach be given, and would that coach’s language skills be judged by the media or the fans?

  • Spikeplug

    Kyle, you have a tough question here and I don’t think I can answer it. I’m speaking for myself when I say I would be ok with an english coach learning french but I don’t know if the majority of the fans would be ok with it. Correct me if I’m wrong but the last unilingual coach in Montreal was Bob Berry almost 25 years ago. So the french fact in hiring a new coach is on top of the list.

    If that happens, would that guy be on a short leash? Possibly. Would he be judged on his language skills? I hope not but I won’t say it wouldn’t happen. When the team is winning a couple of games, people, fans and media go crazy and begin planning a parade on Ste-Catherine street. When they lose 4 in a row, they want to fire everyone. This city is passionnate about his hockey club. It’s almost insane.

    Anyway, your question is hypothetical because it’s not going to happen. They will hire a french speaking coach. I could bet my house on that.

    It’s always a losing situation for a coach in Montreal because every single thing he does is under a giant microscope. Must be the hardest job in hockey. You have to take care of the coaching responsabilities and deal almost daily with probably 80 to 100 journalists, both in french and english. Stupid and insane the coverage this team gets. Too much.

    By the way, just as a disclaimer, I’m not a big fan of the Habs. I’m just a huge hockey fan. A fan of great players instead of teams. So my pick is Boston in 6…Cup stays in Detroit.

  • Once again, thanks for the info from a local perspective Spikeplug. I agree that it is unrealistic to expect a hiring of someone without a background in French.

  • I am with David here. I don’t expect an English only coach to be hired, but the discussion has been great. Thanks very much Spikeplug.