Tuesday, February 9, 2010

WHO'S the New GM?

One thing stood out to me when I watched the press conference announcing Pierre Gauthier as the Habs' new general manager yesterday: I didn't recognize him. He's been hidden so well behind the scenes, I didn't know what the man looked like. I knew he'd been the director of pro-scouting as well as assistant GM, which didn't endear him to me when you consider some of the players who've ended up in Montreal on his recommendation. If a boss is only as good as the people who advise him, then some of Bob Gainey's critics have to turn a gimlet eye on support staff like Gauthier and Trevor Timmins. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'll start today with a question. If you were responsible for filling the most important job on a National Hockey League franchise; the one in charge of drafting, trading and signing the players and managing the salary cap, would you pick Pierre Gauthier out of the crowd? Assuming you knew what he looked like? I confess, I wouldn't.

There's an argument to be made for his appointment on an interim basis, considering the timing of Gainey's resignation. This is a crucial point for the team in terms of approaching the trade deadline and opening negotiations with pending free agents, and it's best to have someone in that job who's familiar with the players involved. It would be a difficult thing for someone to come from outside the organization and take responsibility for important roster moves right away. That argument, however, doesn't support hiring Gauthier on a full-time basis.

Looking at Gauthier's record as a GM in Anaheim and Ottawa, the overwhelming impression you get is "meh." He drafted a couple of very good players and a lot of average-to-poor ones. But he had a reputation for relying heavily on his European scouting department at draft time so the fault for bad picks might have been more on the scouts than the GM. Gauthier made a couple of good trades, including dumping Alexandre Daigle for Prospal, Falloon and a pick and acquiring Wade Redden and Damien Rhodes for Berard, Beaupre and Straka. He also made some terrible ones, like Pavol Demitra for Christer Olsson. The rest fall into the category of what my father calls "dried shit on a blanket...neither hurt nor service." In other words, meh.

In terms of stature in the hockey world, Gauthier has no name like Stan Bowman or Ray Shero. He's got no on-ice career like Doug Wilson or Darryl Sutter. And he's got no off-ice force of personality like Brian Burke, Paul Holmgren or Lou Lamoriello. He seems like a nice, quiet man with fair-to-middling success in his previous roles in hockey.

I believe the personality of a team starts from the top. If you want a team that tries its best and puts the team concept first, you hire Bob Gainey. If you want a team that's disciplined and determined, you hire Uncle Lou. If you want a feisty team that doesn't quit even when it's losing, you hire Brian Burke. Want a team that makes the most of what it's got? Hire David Poile. Want a team that's never quite good enough to rise above mediocrity? Larry Pleau's your guy. So, what kind of team do you get when you hire Pierre Gauthier? He's like Mr.Cellophane in "Chicago." As the song says, "'Cause you can look right through me, walk right by me and never know I'm there."

I think the Montreal Canadiens deserve better. The oldest, proudest team in the NHL, which makes a lot of money for itself and the league, should have a head man who commands a room when he enters it. The Habs' GM should have deep respect from everyone in the league...inspire a little awe even.

I have to confess, I don't know what went into the behind-the-scenes decision-making involved in the Gauthier hiring. But I do worry about the publicly stated reasons for it. President Pierre Boivin said they didn't look far for a candidate because the qualifications he was looking for were already there in-house. Chief among the listed must-haves, right after experience, was the ability to speak French. When questioned about French as a requirement, Boivin emphatically stated that, yes, the Canadiens GM MUST speak French. His reasoning is that the team's clients and many of its fans are French-speaking, and the Canadiens are operating in a predominantly French province.

I ask this: Are the Canadiens a hockey team, or are they a cultural institution? You might answer they're both. But inevitably, one must take predominance over the other in decision-making. Take the Gauthier hire, for example. If you could choose anybody in the world to be your general manager, based purely on success in hockey, would Pierre Gauthier be your man? Probably not, right? You'd look at Jim Nill in Detroit, among others. Now, if you had to choose the best French-speaking candidate who has worked as a GM before, would Gauthier move up on the list? Probably, because that list has now become much, much shorter.

This is what will ultimately make the Canadiens a mediocre team for a very long time. When the direction of the team starts at the top, and your top man is a mediocre GM who has the good fortune to speak the right language, then your team will be just like him.

Pierre Boivin is a good customer-service manager. He's successfully managed to create a hype around the Habs that outstrips that the team enjoyed even in its glory years. But, it's a hype based on illusion and on history that will never be fulfilled as long as the team continues to dress itself in the flag and language. If the Canadiens are choosing to be a cultural institution and basing their decisions on that, well, that's fine. They will always be a great part of the province's history and culture, but their chances of returning to being a winning hockey team will be severely handicapped by pandering to PR.

In reality, how often does the GM of the Canadiens need to use French? Does he speak it with other GMs when he's working on a trade, or with agents when he's negotiating a contract? Does he need to announce the draft picks in French outside of Montreal? He may have to give a speech or two at a public appearance, but there's no law saying he can't learn some French AFTER he's been hired that would allow him to accomplish that much. The problem is, if the team doesn't look outside its narrow hiring restrictions, nobody with more talent, better vision or greater intelligence will ever get a chance to do the job.

No, this was not a hockey decision, at least not altogether. If it were, the team would have been beating the bushes for the perfect candidate. Admitting they stopped looking when they found an adequate candidate who fulfills the language requirement was disappointing because it proves the team is looking first at PR rather than winning.

There's an argument that says Boivin doesn't really mean that. He's just giving the only possible answer a public-relations manager can give when asked about the importance of French at a press conference in Quebec. I don't buy it. It's one thing to pay lip-service to the concept to please the masses, but another to back it up by basing important hires on it.

Also of concern when you're running the team as a culturally iconic business rather than as merely a hockey team is the question about what to do when public pressure to make a move mounts? Do you ignore it and do what's best for hockey like Gainey did, or do you bow to the pressure and do what the public wants because that's better for PR? We don't know the answer to that anymore, and that's scary. The ultimate irony of this is if the team focussed on winning hockey games above everything, all the other problems solve themselves. French-speaking players would actually WANT to come to Montreal, fans would be happy and the team would have the luxury of time to develop the upper management it wants.

In any case, maybe the Canadiens are really doomed to be...as a friend of mine says...an historical curiosity at this point. They're the team about which you say, "Je me souviens..." instead of the team about which you say, "I hope."

Still, expectations and the reasons behind his hiring aside, it would be wrong to write Gauthier off without at least giving him a chance. He's got a huge challenge with the cap and with roster issues like upgrading the D and the bottom-six forwards while still trying to keep players like Plekanec, Price and Halak. I'll give him some time to prove what he can do because now that he's installed as full-time GM, he's all we've got.

51 comments:

Pierre B. said...

May I respectfully ask you why does the best writer on the Net cheer for a hockey team that seems to be so often a disppointment, for her ?

Many of the problems that appears to be bothering you seem to be culture related. I understand where you come from and how emotional this issue must be for you but I can't help but wonder why do you deliberately choose to live with this situation.

Chances are very slim that the French/English issue ever arises in any other NHL teams.

By the way, Pierre Gauthier was the head scout with the Nordiques when they picked up Owen Nolan and the first ever European born #1 draft choice, Matt Sundin. That does not mean he's going to be the next Sam Pollock but most hockey fans in this Province would not have had any difficulties recognizing him, on the street, before yesterday's press conference.

Anonymous said...

J.T. it is not a so bad thing we ask to get hockey peoples who can speak and understand french culture in Montreal specially for the line President, GM and Coach. As for the assistants we don't care.
Yes you are right that can limit choices but we can live with that vecause we can produce a lot of good hockey coaches and GM like Pollock, Bowman, Savard, Lacroix, Gauthier, Vigneault, Therrien, Hartley, Burns, Julien, Roy etc... and we accept with open arms peoples like Gainey, Robinson, Martin etc... who make an effort to speak and understand our french culture.
But we won't be softer on them if they don't deliver. As for Gauthier I agree with your post but like you said we should at least give him a chance and from here to middle of the next hockey season we should have a good idea of what he has in his pants. (sorry for my poor english writing)

Kyle Roussel said...

Agreed on all points. Mediocrity will reign supreme barring pure blind luck. When you dismiss 90% of candidates right off the bat, mediocrity is the cost of pandering.

I don't know what else to say on the topic. The Canadiens have been unforgivingly lazy in their approach to the replacement. Gainey falls on the sword for "the man he trusts the most", but this stinks of Boivin's directives.

On one hand, we can hang our heads in disappointment. A new GM that nobody seems to have much faith in, but as you said, he deserves the chance now that he has the contract. On the other hand, if you're like me, it's the start of the clean sweep. I believe that the whole group had to go, including Boivin. If it's going to be a trickle out the door, so be it. It will be a longer process and will likely be a painful one, but we can always hope that these dominos will fall, one by one.

Patrick said...

I'm seriously sick of the French argument. Enough with this. I can understand that fans want more Québécois players, but come on! A GM! There's not a pool of 900 GM to pluck in! There is at best a 100 guys pool!

It's really time someone makes the distinction between culture and sport. The CH is not a museum, a bookstore, a theatre or l'Usine C.

In a perfect world, French journalists would have a real flow, and a real linguistic power, a real capacity to unleash the powers of French, which they don't, even when they achieve not to make any mistakes (I'm a French teacher at Cégep level). And then, the CH would focus entirely on ice performance, which is to be done and not to be said.

French to the press, and performance to the sport!

AndyF said...

This move has to be looked at objectively from a business standpoint.

The Habs are really just another promote-from-within organization, like Hydro-Quebec, BCE, The SAQ, and a host of other Quebec companies that are successful only because they are monopolies.

Incest is best, as the famous movie saying goes! :-)

dusty said...

You said it all. Expect mediocrity going forward. A very sad day for the Montreal Canadiens, the fans and the city.

Shan said...

I think on the French issue, you are kinda stating the obvious. It's more of a personal thing now whether or not you think it should be a factor at all.

And I disagree about needing to hire a GM with a reputation or big personality. A GM who has flown under the radar could be just fine too. We need people who can do the job, not necessarily characters. I don't know if Gauthier is the guy, but the fact that we don't know him or he doesn't have some clear identity is not a fault.

J.T. said...

@Pierre B.: Thanks for your readership and your kind words about the blog. However, I don't appreciate the message that if I don't like the French Rule in Montreal I should go cheer for another team. It may come as something of a shock, but Montreal doesn't actually OWN the Habs. Believe it or not, there are thousands and thousands of Canadiens fans who actually live outside the province of Quebec. Some of us speak French and some of us don't. All of us are frustrated when we see the team we love sacrificed on the altar of the language gods. Telling us to go cheer for another team that doesn't have to deal with the language BS is like telling a husband to go find another wife because the one he's got has a wart on her nose. Basically, it's not that easy to fall out of love, and we fans who exist outside of Montreal or Quebec love our team as much as you do.

The problem I have isn't culture related in any other sense than the negative impact making decisions for cultural reasons has on the on-ice product. Give me a winning team with twenty-three French-speaking players, a French GM, coach, assistants and mascot and I'm thrilled. Give me a losing team and I'm unhappy...all the more so when the team is artifically held back because of self-imposed "cultural" reasons.

dusty said...

The French Rule is what has handcuffed this franchise and dooms it to mediocrity. The team cannot compete if the racism of language continues. As Ken Dryden clearly stated the Habs can be french or it can win championships. English and French speaking fans want a winner, only a few political hacks make language an issue.

Paul B. said...

Howie Morenz, Elmer Lach, Bill Durnan, Sprague Cleghorn, George Hainsworth were not French and probably never spoke a damn word of French but were nevertheless part of the successof les Canadiens, amongst other players. Dickie Moore was my first and only sport idol and he could barely speak French. Nobody in his right mind would expect the Montreal team to have only French speaking players, in the line-up.

The main argument of the English speaking fans (and I don't believe there are THAT many, outside the Province of Québec) is that les Canadiens are limited by choosing someone who does not speak French. That's bullshit because the potential for talented coaches and GM's who are either French speaking or are simply people who have had the decency to learn the language of the majority where they earn a living, is more than enough to provide quality people.

As much as I hated Therrien, Vigneault, Julien, Lemaire and Burns, they all have had some success with other teams. Hiring them was probably not that big of a mistake. Now, tell me (without laughing your ass off, that Calgary, Toronto, Atlanta or Tampa Bay would have hired any of these guys if they had not been coach in Montreal.

All you request from your favorite team is to be winning. I also want the team I cheer for, to win. On top of that, I demand some respect. That's a word Pierre Boivin and Goeff Molson are familiar with. Mr Molson is a shrewd businessman who knows that the team is before anything else, mostly a fantastic beer selling tool. He will always do what's necessary not to alienate the indigenes...

But you still have not answered my main question. Why would anybody from outside Québec be so passionate about a team that is located in the world's second largest French city ?

Anonymous said...

I heard Pierre Boivin mentioned on French radio yesterday that when Houle was fired, Gauthier was the man they wanted but at the time he didn't want to move (he was living in Philadelphia). They then hired André Savard

J.T. said...

@Paul B.: First, if you think there aren't many Habs fans outside Quebec, you really are isolated. Atlantic and Western Canada and many parts of the US are full of Canadiens fans. Do you think all the millions of votes Habs players get on the All-Star ballot, and all the thousands of jerseys that get sold every year are all in Quebec? Hardly. In fact, thousands of Canadiens fans from all over North America and the world make the trek to Montreal every year to buy seats at the Bell Centre, which actually takes a pretty high level of dedication.

I agree management with the Canadiens should be open-minded enough to learn the language of the province in which they work. But I disagree with making it a requirement for the job. That's where things start to go wrong. You point out all the coaches the Habs have broken in for other teams. Great. But what good did it do MONTREAL? Not a lot, since the Habs had to be the training ground for all these coaches before they learned the job properly.

You talk about the team respecting you. But you know what? The Canadiens aren't about YOU. They aren't about language or culture or individuals with agendas, and if you want them to be so, then you might as well retire the team from the league and call it a museum exhibit. As far as I know, the Canadiens are supposed to be a hockey team, not a bastion of language-based affirmative action.

Why do I love the Habs? Well, why do YOU love them? I love the great players, the Cups, the legends, the cachet, the uniform, the history, the pride. I fell in love with players like Mats Naslund, Patrick Roy, Claude Lemieux, Bobby Smith and all the rest of them in the early eighties and now I'm hooked for life. For me, it has nothing to do with French or English or where the team is based. They could be the Timbuktu Canadiens, and I'd still love them. Unfortunately, they're the Montreal Canadiens and they come packaged with all this language crap. Doesn't mean I can switch teams any more easily than you can.

Anonymous said...

Paul B
You are kidding right!! Are the people outside of Quebec not allowed to be passionate about this team. Give your head a shake!! Being passionate about this team has nothing whatsoever to do with the language you speak or where you live. It has everything to do with its history of winning, of world class human beings that happen to be good/great hockey players of classy rememberances, its involvement with and classy treatment of its players on and off the ice.
As J.T. says dont tell me to go cheer for another team. This one has great potential!! Its a crying shame that the politics of language are going to impact its future and not in a positive way.

David said...

Let's look at some of the names from the past. Leo Dandurand, though not born here, was essentially a Montrealer and he ran the team. I'm guessing he spoke French. Frank Selke was one of the most successful GMs of all-time, and I suspect he did *not* speak French. Sam Pollock... I could go on. The point is, our greatest achievements occurred when language was NOT a determining factor in who ran the team.

DB said...

The language issue is the third rail of Canadian politics. It is often raised by some on both sides of the fence to explain poor team performance or to promote some agenda. When the team is winning it disappears.

The Habs have a large english speaking fanbase and a larger french speaking fanbase. Requiring the coach and GM to be bilingual so that they can talk to fans in both languages is not unreasonable. This policy does reduce the size of the talent pool, but that doesn't restrict the Habs to only mediocre talent. It might make it harder for them to find a top person, but so what. We always hear the cliche about the importance of working hard so shouldn't it apply to finding a coach and GM?

The better question is why wouldn't someone from outside of Quebec cheer for the Habs? People around the world cheer for Manchester United, the New York Yankees, and the Dallas Cowboys so why not the Montreal Canadiens? The Habs have an illustrious and storied history. Their fire-wagon brand of hockey was exciting to watch and very successful. They've had some of the greatest and most exciting players in the history of the game on the team.

There are a lot of ex-Montrealers around the world who still cheer for the Habs and who have brought up their children as Habs fans. I'm one of them. I've lived in the Toronto area most of my life, but have always cheered for the Habs because I was brought up as a Habs fan. My father was born and raised in Montreal, regularly attended Habs game in the "rush" seats, and even went to the Morenz Memorial game (I have the ticket and program to prove it) so why wouldn't he pass his love for the Habs onto his son? And I can tell you that I regularly see people around Toronto wearing Habs gear. Once the Habs bug has bitten you, you're hooked for life, no matter where you're from.

Anonymous said...

I live outside of Canada. I love the Habs. I have one question:

Would teams like Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa ever hire a GM who solely speaks French. And if so, what would the population of that area say?

As an American, a neutral to your linguistic issues, I have to say that I completely understand the Quebecois stance.

Paul B. said...

@DB. "The better question is why wouldn't someone from outside of Quebec cheer for the Habs? "

Anybody can cheer for whichever team they like. It's only a matter of adapting to reality. Could you imagine someone coaching the New York, the FC Barcelona, the Real Madrid or the Juventus without speaking English, Portuguese, Spanish or Italian ?

The Montreal reality is whatever it is and no matter what anybody thinks or simply wishes, it will remain what it is, probably quite a while. All the complaining in the world won't change anything. Anybody who has watched Goeff Molson at "Tout le monde en parle" is well aware of that.

My own choice for GM would have been Patrice Brisson or Vincent Damphousse.

V said...

I don't completely understand the Quebecois stance like the previous poster but I am sure sympathetic to it. And he has nailed the great un-spoken principle that lies at the very foundation of the Canadiens. From their inception, they have been a team founded for people tired of being screwed for their heritage and culture by English Canada... extending to and through the infamous Rocket Richard riot. If people don't like the French culture the team wears on it's sleave (including language), maybe it's not the team for them (JT - this is not for you. I know you bleed bleu, blanc and rouge). But the French culture permeates the team, language is a critical part of any cultural expression so language is a key determinent in senior positions shaping the culture of the team.

If Jesus Christ himself only spoke French, he would not be hired to coach hockey in an English market and it feels like hypocricy to point to the Canadiens when they do something 29 other teams would... hire a coach who speaks the predominant language in the community hosting the team.

Sure, the Canadiens are a French institution that has become part of a broader non-french community but Israelis are Jews forming part of a much larger diaspora and no one would seriously suggest that Jewish institutions in Israel need to deny cultural symbols like language to honor that diaspora. We become Habs fans in part to honor the teams culture, not deny it. In part, I think I became a Habs fan because as a young student I always felt bad to learn how the fiery, passionate Montcalm lost to the drab, Wolfe... Habs versus Leafs was just an extension of my desire to see the little guy finally get one up on the big guy. And a way for the beautiful joie de vivre represented by the Canadiens play to prevail in world dominated by the drab, Anglo-Saxon work-a-day world personified by the Leafs.

Finally, I don't give a fig about how Gauthier got hired... hell, he has good quals, has built great relationships within the organization, has proven he can work with his new boss and has been admirably supporting the guy doing the job for the past few years. I'm sorry, but those are the criteria for 98% of senior coporate hires.

I have always been struck how we all tend to want completely un-biased, merit-based hiring for other people. But when we look for a job ourselves, the first people we tend to check with are people who will be biased and who will favor us over others with more merit - beginning with family members. Un-biased, merit-based hiring is just fine for other folks but according to research, we'll take the greasy, easy, biased way ourselves any time it favors us.

In the end I agree with you JT. Let's give the guy some time and cut him some slack. In fact, can we cut the Habs some slack on this language thing. It's a French Canadien team afterall and I love them for it.

Anonymous said...

@ our American friend: your analogy doesn't hold since the rest of the Hockey world speaks English and the GM's job is to communicate with it. Nobody is arguing whether the Montreal GM should be able to speak English along with his French - the choice is between bilingualism and English-only, as per the nature of the NHL. A strictly French speaking GM would have a hard time here.

You are misunderstanding the role of the GM and his connection to the rest of the NHL. It is the media's job to communicate in the language of their subscribers. Hockey is a game in ice and is not played with language; reports, commentating, news columns, etc are language-based. The GM does not really need to use French often anyways, since he is dealing with other GMs, written announcements (call ups, etc), and internal matters. On the contrary, it seems he uses English more often in order to communicate with the rest of the league regarding his duties. Of course, everyone would agree that the Montreal GM should speak English, but must he be denied the job if he can't speak French, even though he could still do it just as well regardless?

J.T. said...

@V: Two things. First, it's true the Canadiens were founded to give French Montrealers a team to cheer for. But it quickly became apparent that French players alone weren't enough. The team gave up its original plan to be a French-only team and brought in English players because it wanted to win.

Second, the idea of the Habs as a cultural institution is exactly what I'm talking about. If they're an institution, then retire them from the league and let them live on in history as a great French-Canadien cultural icon. But if they're supposed to be competing within the reality of today's hockey world, they can't afford that luxury when it comes to important hires. As I said earlier, I think it would be wonderful for senior management to be the best in the business AND speak French. But I don't think good candidates should be discounted out of hand because they don't speak the right language.

Anonymous said...

@ V
All I can say is... WOW

Anonymous said...

This is truly the best article and follow-up comments I've read on the Montreal situation. What a sad commentary on how low this great organization has fallen when the primary question is not who is the best candidate for GM, but who is the best French-speaking candidate? What's the next criteron: he must be French and Catholic? Needless to say, the Boivin mentality eliminates women (what next?) even if the most outstanding candidate were a woman. Perhaps if she were French and lived in "Old Town" and her surname was Molson, she may be considered. Good grief! Rome is burning and what does Nero Boivin?

Anonymous said...

I think the answer is pure and simple: we need management to have the skills/knowledge to speak and understand French. It's really not that complicated, it's really not asking for much. Our province is unique in that we have a multi-cultural society.

Besides, we all know that if you want a job in Quebec you need to speak French. Why should this not apply to those working for our hockey team?

lr said...

I'm happy the GM has to be bilingual. I can't imagine an english speaking only GM - we would never hear the end of it from the french media. Look how horny they get whenever Gomez speaks 4-5 words of french! Hilarious!

Anonymous said...

American here...

In answer to your question (anonymous at 10:52am), yes, I do believe the GM outta have the ability to speak in the language of the people (as well in English if this is the business language with the rest of the NHL). I read in a comment that the Habs teams was formed as a French Canadian team. Despite what it may have amounted to being today, while looking at the make-up of the province, fair is fair. Asking the GM to make efforts to speak in French is really not asking for much -- in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

...and one more thing...from down here in the US. It would seem to me that the title of this blog "H does not stand for Habs...says a lot about the author's feelings towards the whole cultural thing. I may be wrong, but there's a lot in a title.

Have a good day.

J.T. said...

@anon: (the one just above) The blog is called 'The H does not stand for Habs' because of the common misconception that it does. It actually stands for 'hockey.' Maybe you're right, and there actually IS a lot in a title. The H stands for Hockey and so should the Habs.

V said...

JT - with respect, there is no evidence that good candidates were discounted out of hand because they didn't speak french. We only have evidence that a sound candidate got hired partly because he does speak French and has the other good qualifications I mentioned in my post.

And none of this matters for two reasons... first, we don't know what will actually happen so unlike the madding crowd over at Habs Inside Out let's hold on our judgment (and be fair with them as you usually are when they are rendered) until we can honestly say what kind of hire he really is. Second, I live by the principle credited to Charles Bruce Brownson, 'never argue with someone who buys ink (electronic ink in this case) by the barrel'. Especially someone who weilds it with such power and poetic courtesy as you do... I would prefer to graciously yield the field and watch a Habs game together.

J.T. said...

@V: Done. When we put everything else aside, all that matters is the team on the ice and winning. I hope Gauthier can give us a winning team and we can all celebrate together. I'm willing to wait and see how he does on that front. I'm sure if the Habs ever win another Cup anytime soon, nobody will care if we celebrate in English, French or Mandarin.

Anonymous said...

Considering the number of qualified and somewhat bilingual people who can either manage or coach the Canadiens, I wonder why all this drama.

It's not as if the well has dried, yet.It seems to be "in" to hire ex-agents to be GM. There are plenty of those who are bilingual. Bob Perno, Patrice Brisson and Bob Sauvé just to name a few. Ex NHLPA's VP Damphousse could very do as well as Serge Savard who had no experience whatsoever when he got hired as GM. Two Cups in the next 7 years, is that enough ?

And what about Patrick Roy ? As coach and GM of a junior team, he's getting quite a bit of experience. With some of those I have just mentioned, we're good to go at least until I'm in my grave and don't have to hear/read about this political bull....

V said...

OK... I just read some new posts and I'm back. To hell with yielding the field but I will try to remain gracious. In response to various things above...

First, why do people lament the state of the Habs organization... this is a 100 year old entity that is as vibrant today as it was throughout it's history (this kind of succes is extremely rare). It's just not winning as many championships - but no one is. The kind of dominance the Habs enjoyed is likely gone for ever given the economics of the day and it does not mean that the organization is any less sound. Rome is definitely not burning.

As for making French an issue of discussion here... JT did that and it's OK. When the culture of your team is as closely identified with the culture of a people (and I am a little shocked that some here seem to be just waking to this now) as the Canadiens, it should be part of the discussion.

Raphaël said...

Wow great follow up comments. I guess going for controversy (and I mean this in a non-accusing way) tends to do that.

As a totally biaised Québécois living in a english-speaking province I will only say that "yes! The fact that the Canadiens are and remain a predominently French team is important". French is a struggling, if not dying language in North America. Symbolisme, identity and meaning are an important part of a nation's idea of itself. In many ways the Canadien Hockey Club is one of the key elements of this symbolism and identity in the Québécois nation.

"Nos bras meutrit vous tendent le flambeau, à vous toujours de de le porter bien haut..." (A translation of one of John McCrae famous lines in his In Flanders fields poem "To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high").

The canadien's slogan has a much more deep meaning in this perspective. Their is a burden to bear when wearing the "sainte-flanelle" that goes beyond athletic excellence.

dusty said...

Boy, all these racist remarks are really depressing. Gillett must be glad he got out of town. We all love the Habs and we all want them to win, so what's all this bickering about?

dusty said...

Just listened to the Puckcast on HIO and they said they felt Gauthier was instrumental in hiring Jacques Martin so that's another reason for those of us who aren't crazy about the coach to further despair over the choice of GM.

Anonymous said...

Precisely my point about your blog title. I get what you mean. My point is that you are basically taking a dig at those that think proudly that H stands for Habs, and if I were a betting man, I would guess the Habs sayers are francophone...

DKerr said...

Nice to hear from many US based Habs fans. I grew up in Connecticut surrounded by Ranger, Islander and Bruins fans (later Whale). I was drawn to the Habs after #4 retired and during Henri Richard's captaincy - so I have a good decade on JT. Tim Ryan called games on NBC and he pronounced the french players names with such reverence. That combined with the uniforms (Roger Doucet's anthems), the saturday night games against the Rangers (WOR carried the Ranger road games but used the HNIC feed). WOR also carried the Habs-Bruins game 7 because the Rangers were awaiting the winner for the final. I can still remember the local press thinking the Rangers would have an easier time with the Habs then the tough Bruins (ha ha).

When local cable expanded in the 80's, I could see Bruin and Whaler telecasts and catch the Habs so many more times, I was especially proud that the Habs were ahead of the power curve in selecting players from US colleges. I thought it gave us credability that the world's greatest hockey team would compete with US born and trained players on their roster.

It is so easy to love this team. I respect their history and the fact that while the Flyers of the 70s resorted to goon tactics, the Habs were above that and utilized skill and strength.

I made my pilgrimage to the Forum, only to see Hartford win it's first game there ever (can't have everything) in 1986.

I thought Mr. Gainey did a fine job in creating a better organization and hope that Mr. Gauthier takes us to the next level. Running the Canadiens is a very difficult job and we deserve the best effort in finding the best person to do the job.

I remember one house cleaning where Savard/Demers were replaced by Houle/Tremblay. I know Houle still gets crucified, but ownership did not help his situation by openly calling for salary dumps. We will see if the new owners give the new GM the backing he needs. So, like everyone else, I hope Mr. Gauthier succeeds, but the owners also need to be scruntized.

Patrick said...

At the same time, people say that les Canadiens are all about French identity, and that French is dying in the province of Québec (false).

Yet, some don't care reading the books that are made in Québec. Don't care about dramas in theater, in French, don't bother reading novels and essays (not just one or two a year) in French. Those people will tell me that hockey should be about promoting French? Come on! Get in a library store, get out and read. It's not watching hockey that will help you appreciate French, it's reading in French, seeing cultural pieces actively and intensively made with French.

When you watch hockey, you watch a sportive spectacle, not a linguistic feat. Believing the contrary is a thick sophism.

Et j'écris tout ça en étant francophone, by the way. Et en aimant ma langue intensément... ;)

Patrick said...

Oh, and I love your blog J.T. I think you're really the kind of anglo I enjoy seeing and reading around! :)

Great job!

And this blog is a great place of discussion, I must say--and to everybody.

Better than any RDS talkback...

Denise T said...

With all due respect to everyone on this blog, it's 2010 and hockey is first and foremost, a business. It's not the 1950's anymore and anyway, if some have noticed, during that time, Quebec experienced a cultural REVOLUTION. Deal with it. (Funny, it's not the first time sports and politcs are intertwined...)

Coming from Montreal originally, I am a Habs fan for life, even though living out West for the last 15 years has made it very tempting to root for other teams, I just can't change my true colors. In the end, the flavour of the French and English mixed, keeps me coming back to cheer for the best team ever, French or English, win or lose.

Rookie said...

JT, I think your opinions on this matter are spot-on, and you've handled criticism with patience and grace.

The language issue is constantly waiting in the shadows to jump out and cause trouble, and clearly some people just want to enable it instead of, you know, being sports fans, and it's an unfortunate reality we have to deal with. It's a fight that just can't be won, because the craziest of fans (for any team in any city, yes even Spanish Barcelona and anglophone New York) will always find something to gripe about if they're disappointed. So I'm agreeing with you: before pulling out any knives or planning any parades, we'll have to find out what Gauthier can do for our team.

Anonymous said...

@ dusty
Gillett was a lot more open mind than you think and I am sure he didn't feel any racism from the french canadians and the only reason he may be happy he got out of town it is because he came here with empty pockets and get out with lot of Queen Elizabeth bills.

Anonymous said...

Well said JT well said!

Stephane Ethier said...

I'm a lurker here - if a faithful one -, but this post really got me thinking.

The closest parallel I see, regarding the Habs' place in Quebec is FC Barcelona's in Catalonia. Barça's slogan is "Mes que un club", or "More than a club" in Catalan. Club president Joan Laporta said this in 2006: "FC Barcelona is not only a football club, but a club with a soul".

Laporta is a strong supporter of Catalonia's independence from Spain, but Barça has occupied a special place in the Catalan nation for decades, especially during Franco's rule from the 30's to the 70's. You won't see too many Spanish flags being flown at Camp Nou, Barça's stadium. The Barça anthem is sung in Catalan only. And so on.

The fact that Quebec's (linguistic and cultural if not political) place in Canada also closely mirrors Catalonia's in Spain should come as no surprise. I think the religious fervor that surrounds both the Habs and Barça is rooted in the minority status of both nations within a greater national entity: it is a historical symbol of resistance in the face of a more powerful culture.

Now, of course, Catalonia and Quebec can no longer be regarded as being "nations under siege", notwithstanding what some hardliners like Joan Laporta may claim. Both cultures are vibrant, both languages enjoy some legal protection (although care must be taken not to let this protection disappear, while allowing it to evolve over time), and both economies are strong.

Still, the Habs and Barça are more than just sports teams. They *do* belong to their nation - and in Barça's case, it's not a figure of speech: 163,000 registered fans are the actual owners of the club, and the team president must stand for election by those fans.

Barça players are obviously not all of Catalan descent. (Professional football is much, much more multilingual and multinational than hockey.) But foreign players - Lionel Messi, Dmytro Chygrynskiy and Thierry Henry come to mind - are strongly, strongly encouraged by the team to learn Catalan, which to my knowledge is actually the common language spoken in the clubhouse.

No one's suggesting the Habs should be a "pure laine" team. But committing - really committing! - to learning the language and culture of most of your fans shouldn't even be a matter for discussion. If Argentine, Ukrainian and French football players can learn Catalan - which is spoken nowhere in the world but in Catalonia -, I'm sure American, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Finnish... and English Canadian hockey players, coaches and managers can pledge to learn French.

Pierre Boivin has been derided in this forum for his insistence on requiring the new Habs GM to be bilingual. But I'm sure he had Geoff Molson's blessing: Boivin certainly didn't shoot from the hip. Indeed, Geoff Molson and his brothers have acknowledged in many interviews, since they became owners, that "le fait français" is an essential component of the Club de hockey Canadien. In their minds, the Habs are "plus qu'un club", and they are prepared to make decisions that recognize that fact. As well they should.

J.T. said...

@Stephane Ethier: First, thanks very much for your faithful readership, and for your very well-thought out and informative post. The only problem I have with the idea of strongly encouraging players to speak French in Montreal is whether many of them would want to bother, when they can play for 29 other teams that don't require it. Sure, you could make your draft picks study French. But what about free agents who are just looking to play some hockey and earn a paycheque? High-profile French-speaking players like Briere and Lecavalier have chosen not to come to Montreal as free agents. So, assuming the best free agents you can get are not French-speaking, do you think they'd want to come to a team that puts them outside their comfort zone like that?

I think what it comes down to is the fans see the team as a cultural institution, while the players see it as an employer. And like most employees, they're going to go to the job where they're most comfortable. If the Canadiens make it harder for them with language requirements, they're not going to sign on.

V said...

Great post Stephane...

JT, I think you're right that fans may tend to see the team as cultural institution and the players see it as an employer. But what if the players begin to see it as a cultural institution - what if playing for the Canadiens means fighting for something bigger, an ideal, a people or a mission.

Most employers have lots of people working for them that see their employment as nothing more than a meal ticket. But that is not what the employer wants... they want employees to strive to fulfil something bigger, i.e. a mission. And when they succeed at doing that, they get greater engagement and performance (or so the research says).

It is much harder to get employees (players) to play for something bigger, but when it works you get something special. That's what the Canadiens used to be about and if standing up for the french culture (symbolized by language) creates the deeper meaning every employer wants to establish in their people, we should applaud the team for trying.

Sure, it's much harder and in this 'it's just a business world' it's tempting to take the easier route, but I am glad the Canadiens are trying to establish a stronger bond to something that is bigger than winning a hockey game or two.

J.T. said...

@V: They may be trying, but I think it's naive. Why should players buy into that idea when they can make just as much (or more) money playing for better teams with no issues about politics or culture? You'll get the scattered player who enjoys the challenge, but you can't build a team on one or two dedicated guys. When even your own home-grown players don't come back to play in Montreal, it's hard to back up the idea that hockey players will play for idealistic reasons. Who should buy into the idea of carrying the glorious francophone banner more than a guy like Vincent Lecavalier, who'd be idolized in Montreal? But where did he choose to play?

The fact is, the Canadiens compete in a world of business, and the business is hockey. The fans are the romantic dreamers who pay the bills and keep coming out in the hope that their team brings home the big prize. The Canadiens feed the French ideal because it keeps romantic dreamers believing there's something greater than business there, when there isn't really. Not anymore. But it's very hard to let go of something we've clung to for generations. We don't want to let it go and we look for scraps of it to help us keep the dream alive. The Canadiens' policy of hiring French-speaking management is one of those scraps. If you can't have the Rocket and Beliveau on the ice, they're saying, we'll show we're still French Canada's team by hiring French-speakers to run the team. For me, and I suspect, for many of the people who want the Habs to still mean something...really mean something, not just play at it...that's not good enough.

Stephane Ethier said...

@J.T.: Thank you very much for your kind words. Yours is my first destination every day in the blogosphere for intelligent, smartly written and entertaining analysis about all things CH! Regarding your concern that adding the language hurdle could make it that much more difficult to attract superstars to Montreal - not that we've been too successful lately in doing so -, I think the same argument could be made for Barça. Thierry Henry could well have decided not to bother with learning Catalan, and stick to playing in the Premiership. But Barça has had no shortage of international superstars, language requirements notwithstanding, in decades.

So, what's the difference between Barça's situation and the Habs'?

I think you're absolutely right in saying that Habs players see the team as an employer. But I believe the main reason for that is that the team has been seeing *itself* as a mere employer for a while now. That would never happen at Barça. Fans - fan/owners and regular fans - would never let it.

I'm happy to see Geoff Molson sow the seeds of a "mes que un club" attitude. It's a good start. It sends the message that wearing the Tricolore is special once again. Maybe it's not for everyone. But for those who wear it, it's a badge of pride and honour.

And when this happens, when wearing the bleu-blanc-rouge is once again something a player *should* feel proud of, because it's more than just another logo for just another commercial enterprise, requiring players, coaches and managers to learn French if they don't speak it already won't even be an issue. They'll be happy to, just like Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden were, back when the Habs were truly les Glorieux.

Anonymous said...

I'm too old and too much of a cynic to believe the Molson kids bought les Canadiens as some sort of toy for rich boys. The Molson family's bread and butter has always been and will always remain brewing and selling beer.

What better vehicle to promote beer than professional sport, especially hockey in Canada.I believe that Coors also uses professional sport to do the same, in the US.

Rookie said...

"So, what's the difference between Barça's situation and the Habs'?"
... You mentioned General Franco? He was a bit more of a tyrant than we've seen from our federal government in recent years.

Stephane Ethier said...

@Rookie: I shouldn't even have to point this out, but you understand this is completely irrelevant to the discussion we're having. I mentioned Barça's role under Franco only to provide historical context, not to draw a parallel with Canada's politics.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you Patrick (he left a comment above). I really can't draw a parallel between francophone not supporting their French culture through the arts and believing that our hockey team and it's employment of francophone is in the best interest of conserving our heritage/culture. Also, your identity (be it French or English Canadian) does not need to be strong or reinforced by reading cultural essays, seeing local plays. Simply 'being' is enough.

I apologize to go on about this post of yours J.T., as I see we've moved on in the last few days with last night's awesome victories, but whole language issue is dear to my heart. I grew up with a French Canadian father and European mother -- I'm a mutt I guess. I attended French school until Cegep and lived in an English community. In a nutshell, I got a good dose from every angle. I've had rocks throne to me for being French, (although I spoke English with no trace of French and actually speak better English than French) and have been called names for having a mother who was, well, from a European country no one ever heard of. I bleed for what my dad went through in the work force, surrounded by the English, forced to learn English to earn a pay check, struggling up the ladder whilst being reminded that there was a ceiling because of his heritage. The pendulum has swung since those days in the 60's and 70's and the English now feel what the French felt (actually not as bad). I hope the pendulum settles so we can all get along and appreciate each other. I love the English, I love the French, I love people. Until then, our hockey club outta reflect our heritage, allow it to represent our people. If this means we hire people in management who can converse in English (for business sake) and French (as way to communicate to our fans - our huge fan base that speak more than one language) than it's fine by me. And if some of you can't understand either of the languages in question, then I suggest you learn it. I speak four. Very fluently.

My apologies for any typos...I am not going over this, I'm hitting "post comment" now.