Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Le Coach

So the city of Montreal, or at least its citizens who depend on stirring the public pot for a living, are all in a lather about whether the next coach of the Canadiens will be French or English. Poor Guy Carbonneau isn't cold in his grave of public exile and already there's a manufactured controversy about what francophone could step into his wingtips behind the bench, and the tragedy of management potentially asking an anglophone to coach the team instead.

What a giant, ridiculous crock of crap. For years now, we've seen the team stagnate in the coaching department because of its insistence on hiring a francophone in the top job. As a result, the Habs have had a series of inexperienced rookie coaches who inevitably make many mistakes at the NHL level, last a couple of seasons and get turfed. Their problem wasn't that they were necessarily bad, (although the palpable relief in Pittsburgh at "Mike" Therrien's firing makes me wonder) but that they were learning on the job. And the Canadiens keep providing a training ground for baby coaches largely because of language.

I have no problem with giving some weight to language when hiring a coach in Montreal. After all, the city is bilingual and it's to the coach's benefit to speak both languages for facility in dealing with the ever-present media and for social appearances. But a coach's mother-tongue should be a consideration, not a requirement. Make no mistake, the language in the dressing room isn't French. These days it could just as easily be Czech or Russian as English or French. As long as the coach can communicate effectively with all the players, regardless of language, that should be all that matters.

I often quote Ken Dryden's book, "The Game," to make a point because even thirty years after Dryden made the notes for that book, it's full of truths that apply to the team today. One thing he wrote with quite a spark of prescience is that the Habs teams after the seventies dynasty would have to make a choice. They could either be competitive or they could have a French identity. He could see that economics, the draft, expansion and the coming influx of European players would inevitably change the game and the way teams are built. Dryden wrote that in regard to players. But I think it's equally applicable to coaches.

In a quick read of various Canadiens' message boards and fan sites, it seems the vast majority of people who actually root for the team and pay to go see games want to see the best possible coach hired for next year. They want a strong, experienced man who can manage the team well and contribute to on-ice success. If he happens to speak French, that's great. If not, who cares? The main thing is the team and bringing the right person in, with the right consideration paid to his coaching talent before anything else.

Unfortunately, those who cover the Canadiens think the fans of the team for whom they collect the quotes and video want to know about the language issue. So they spent a good chunk of time today grilling Don Lever about whether he'd like to be the next coach, and if he plans to learn French. I think Lever did a great job in Hamilton and the players he's graduated to the NHL seem to have a great deal of respect for him. Whether that will translate to his becoming the best candidate to coach the Canadiens remains to be seen. But if he is the right man, I would hate to see him elimated from contention for the job because his mother tongue isn't the right one.

The fact...sad as it is to, Dryden was right. The team had to make a choice, to either be successful or be French. The prominence of players like Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Komisarek and Carey Price indicates which choice the team has made. Fans, no matter what language they speak, want the team to win. And that means hiring the right coach, no matter what language he speaks.


Unknown said...

Most of the time I agree with your comments. This time however, I strongly disagree.

First of all, the Canadiens are more than a Montreal based team. They are the team of the Province of Qu├ębec. People from all over the Province have cheered for the team well before the Nordiques came and went. Francophones are also the ones watching the games on RDS and buying the stuff the publicity department of RDS sells, during the Canadiens's games.

RDS pays the Canadiens millions of dollars for the exclusive rights to braodcast the games and they certainly deserve a little respect. Why should they have to "subtittle" every word the coach has to say ? Isn't it enough that they have to be satisfied with the comments of the 3 or 4 "Francophones de service" the team (so nice of them) have in the line-up, most of the time ?

If the freaking Prime Minister of this country thinks it's important enough for him to be billingual (well ???) shouldn't the guy getting the most visible job in Canada, have the decency to address 85% of the people of the Province, in their native language ?

Don Lever might be the best coach the NHL ever had, I don't know. If he wants the job bad enough, let him spend the summer in Chicoutimi and learns French 101. We don't need him to recite Beaudelaire or cite Chateaubriand. Just a little bit of that Gainey decency, will do.

By the way, Bob Hartley is a Francophone with 10 years experience in the NHL and a Stanley Cup ring to show for it. And he is free, at the present time. However, I'm sure he doesn't come at the same price that 8 of the 9 last coaches that came here, in the last 26 years, Francophones, inexperienced AND cheap.

Kevin said...

Nicely written post J.T. as usual.
I love BG. I loved him as a player and as a GM/Coach. As a player he always played like it was the Stanley cup final. He showed great leadership, honesty and the willingness to compete through serious injury. He brings these qualities as a GM/Coach as well. BG will not bow to any pressure and will do what he thinks is best for his team and if that means an unbalanced languaged coaching staff, then so be it. If this team focused on trying to be french or english or Russian for that matter we would be doomed. I mean, so many Pure-laine players do not want to play in this city because of the pressure. BG tried to get them here ( Briere, Lecavalier ) and they won't come. I don't want to sound racist but Les Habitants are a real lifeboat to the francophones for whatever reasons and a good portion of them see themselves as being represented on the world stage by this hockey team. I would absolutely love to see a pole done on RDS asking the question "what's more important to CH fans: 1. aquiring francophone players as first priority or 2: Making this team the best it can be no matter who plays. I would pay to see those results. Anyway just my two cents.

pierre said...

Its great when the coach can communicate in french and its even more fun if they are from the area...... Bowman was from Montreal so was Sam Pollock if my memory is correct.

Unilingual Bob Babcok in Detroit would meet very little resistance from the locals and the presse if he would be invited to come here...... but it wouldn't be as smouth going if it was pretty much anyone else...... the population in the province is largely french so there is a distinc preference from the people to have a coach that can communicate in french.

Personally I want to see a brilliant hochey mind behind the bench..... nothing else would matter more to me than that.

To be honest I am really disapointed of Gainey.

His selection and handling of Carbonneau to me was a desaster.

Patrick Roy talked a litle bit to a local journalist today.... its interesting to know that Carbo asked him in 2006 if he wanted to assist him.... it was also interesting to know that the CH had only a very little budget for the position.

As an aside in Roy's own thinking Carbo should never have been appointed chief coach without the assistance of a veteran on his side...... and Roy also doesn't understand as to why the team doesn't use someone for the coaching of the defencemen......

This seems to suggest that the CH is trying to run the show on the cheap....... thats surprises me.... and I dont like it because the more money you spend on training, on developpement and on scouting the more result you can get.

Dman said...

Bottom line, if you are a true Habs fan, which I am one, then you want the best, absolute best coach available for your team, race, creed, language profile aside.

I am an Anglo who lives and dies with this team and have for many years and as such, I am sick and tired of the 'French first' attitude of everything that surrounds the Habs. Do the Al's have to suffer through the same kind of garbage? No, of course they don't. Then why do the Habs have to? To satisfy the Francophone supporters?

Why would you want to sacrifice the potential just so the coach can explain to the media in French and English that he has no idea why his team is doing so poorly?

The French/English debate is history, let it go. Build a bridge and get over it.

Let's get the best coach, players and management for this team. IF you wanted to see them succeed and win the cup, you will agree. If not, then you are more interested in history than winning.

James said...

I have to disagree with you on some points... First of all let me mention that I'm french myself so I'm not bringing any form of Anglo bias to the table.

RDS has a contract with the Canadiens. Is it written in that contract that the head coach has to be Francophone for soundbites after a game? If it is stipulated, then fine - respect that contract and get a Francophone there.
If it's not written in the contract, then this argument is void. Hockey, and broadcasting, are businesses. Any ideological concepts are invalid - it's a business. If RDS is not happy with having to interview an english speaking coach, they just need to not renew the contract - or negociate a new clause within the next contract.
I'm quite certain some other broadcaster would LOVE to have exclusive distribution rights on all things Habs. RDS needs to understand that it needs the Habs more than the Habs need it. And considering the fact that the on air product is nearly consistently poor, they are not in a position of strength.

The Prime Minister speaks french because he has to be elected by French people. He has to sell his own person constantly, his entire job is PR.
The Habs head coach needs to coach a winning team. Comparing the 2 makes no sense.
And I would strongly argue that there are dozens if not hundreds of more visible jobs in Canada than being the Canadiens head coach.

Asking a potential head coach to learn french to take the job, as nice as it sounds, will in the end ensure you don't get the best man for the job.

The population of Quebec needs to accept that the NHL functions in English. When a french person rents an American movie, if they don't want to watch it in English, they watch the translation. Same thing with a book. Same thing with half the population plugged into 'Series +'. They don't seem to mind translations then... why does it matter if 3 times a weeks, for 10 minutes, the guys who COACHES the hockey team, is translated? It makes not a damn difference.

In the end, the french media will probably triumph in this retarded crusade and we'll get another francophone. Maybe it'll turn out well, maybe not. But to me it's plain stupid to pass up on the best coach because he doesn't speak French.

Christopher Sama said...

James (oh yeah - and J.T.) make good points.

The only language the coach needs to speak is hockey. The only thing he needs to bring to the press conference are W's.

I was speaking with some of my (franophone) friends and they completely agreed. They rather see the Habs win in English than lose in French.

RDS is obviously lobbying for Bob Hartley, who they seem absolutely in love with, and that's why they are making an issue of this now.

The Canadiens don't need to show any "respect" to RDS; if it wasn't for Habs broadcasts, RDS would still be primetiming the Val d'Or snowmobile semi-finals. RDS needs the Habs more than the Habs need RDS.

We can claim culture heritage, but the NHL is still a business and numbers rule. Wins bring in dollars. Good coaches, regardless of language, bring in wins.

Anything else is gravy.

Anonymous said...

The first thing I heard yesterday morning, on the radio when going to work, is a playback of Bob himself talking about the previous night game, what happened, what worked, what didn't. This morning again, he was talking on the same station, about Don this time.

He was talking in french... on a french station... because, you know, I'm french... and I listen to french stuff.

When I watch the game, I like to listen to Jacques comments, relating his experiences in the NHL as cup winner and ex head coach of our great team. Again in french, because I watch the game in french.

Therefore, I will feel a little bit cheated if this part of enjoying our team goes away. I like to hear people from the team talk to me in my native language; it makes me feel part of the action, it makes me feel part of the team.

Now, supposing Hartley was a lesser fit, should we sacrifice french representation for a chance to win the cup with Don? Most english speaking fans will undoubfuly say "Yes!", french fans will throw a ressentful : "Why not..." As marginal as the sacrifice may seem today, we all know it's by making many small sacrifices that we end up totally giving up anything we cared for.

My point is, we should not be too quick on dismissing the Canadian's billingual heritage. It's part of what made this team, us fans and this country special in the first place.

Excuse my english.

punkster said...

J.T....have a look at the comments by Coincoin. He makes a valid point regarding bilingualism.

We have to keep in mind that this is a game. It's not real life. It's just a game. If the Habs want to hire a bilingual coach or even a whole team of Quebec born players then it's their choice. And it's our choice to go to the games, buy the merchandise, support the team, or not...whatever. You're a Habs fan or you're not...whatever.

Personally I couldn't care less what language a coach, GM or player speaks. I'm a Habs fan and I just want good quality entertainment from them.

James said...


I understand your point - and to an extent I agree. I listen to the broadcast in french as well, and I admit it's nice to be able to get the coach's conference in french after a game.

But the point is, if the best coach available is anglo, do you still go with the french guy? Are you willing to sacrifice wins, to have a french interview on the radio?
That's the bottom line, and to me asking the question is answering it right away.