The Montreal Canadiens are in an interesting position these days. While nominally maintaining their position as an active NHL team, they are, in fact an historical curiosity. The great Flying Frenchmen, the team that cloaked Quebec in the pride born of victory, are gone. That, however, doesn't stop the current, slickly packaged, version of the team from pretending there's still a semblance of that great franchise in existence.
In 1982, Ken Dryden wrote that the Canadiens going forward could either be good, or be French. A number of factors, from expansion, to the draft, to free agency to an influx of foreign-born players would inevitably mean that the best French Canadien players would not be so easily available to their local team. That's come true in many ways. What Dryden perhaps didn't foresee, however was the salary cap that would put the squeeze on so many teams, the Quebec tax structure that makes Montreal salaries 25% less than those in some U.S. states, the drop in the number of Quebec children who play hockey and the mid-nineties insistence on drafting big and tough rather than looking for the good local guy. Add bad management and poor drafting and the team Dryden knew deteriorated perhaps more quickly than he expected.
Many, many factors contribute to the league-wide parity that means the slightest disadvantage can make the difference between winning or losing. The Canadiens, rather than recognizing that the past is the past and winning today requires playing on the same level as every other team, insist on limiting themselves to only French-speaking candidates for important positions like GM and coach. So, since Jacques Martin has been fired, the team has installed Randy Cunneyworth as interim coach. Yet, right from the start, he's hamstrung by the language issue. Geoff Molson, with today's statement that the coach must speak French, tells Cunneyworth that no matter what he does...even if he were to drag this underachieving team into the playoffs and somehow win the Cup...he'll be let go at the end of the season unless he can learn French between now and then. What kind of motivation is that for a coach?
The irony of the insistence on French speakers at the management level is that there's very little regard for having French players on the ice anymore. Serge Savard, in the recent book "Behind the Moves," which offers a look inside the philosophies of winning NHL GMs, said he believed in making up to half his players local. He said those guys lived in the city, so if they performed badly, there was no place for them to run and hide during the summer. They had a vested interest in winning. They also had a sense of local pride, having grown up cheering for the team. Savard said the Q was underappreciated in the NHL, so a team willing to take a chance on Quebec players would find some gems. He said he never would have passed up players like David Perron or Claude Giroux in favour of American guys. Not, he said, that the players the Habs picked were necessarily bad (although, in David Fischer's case, he's got a more than valid point), but taking a chance on the guys who grew up as Habs fans in the team's own back yard would have paid off in those cases.
In any case, the Habs as they used to be...the dominant, winning team...are gone. For nearly twenty years they've been a bunch of also-rans or worse, while preserving the precious illusion that they're still the pride of Quebec. Certainly Quebecers are proud of the history of the team, but I wonder how many of them are proud of the current incarnation? How many of them would honestly say it's better to preserve the team's place as a cultural and historical icon than to pursue winning in the modern NHL?
Maybe it's the majority. Maybe people are willing to accept mediocrity, as long as the coach and GM can mumble meaningless platitudes for the edification of the French-language media. If that's the case, then the Habs are nothing more than an historical oddity; a once-great team wallowing in the increasingly distant memory of its own glory. The question is, how much longer will the marketing team be able to disguise the reality of the on-ice product? With no reasonable chance of topping the league these days, the vital youth fan-base, most of which don't remember the Habs winning the Cup at all, won't keep buying what management is selling.
The thing is, there are a lot of Canadiens fans who just want to see a winning team, who don't give a crap if the coach can speak French or not. So, for us, it was very, very disheartening to see Molson tell Cunneyworth he's not good enough because he doesn't speak the right language. For those of us who cheer for a hockey team, not a cultural institution, it was disappointing. About as disappointing as the cultural institution has been on the ice for this season and most of the last twenty.