Monday, December 19, 2011

Montreal Canadiens: The Museum Exhibit

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.


Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I have been this low in spirit. I don't even watch the third period now most of the time. Its too hard to see this team try to compete when they just don't have the talent.
I feel its time for Cammy to be traded and start to build a team of size again and I really really hope the Ch never hire Patrick Roy !!!!!!

Raj said...

Well expressed post, JT, especially about drafting locally. Despite what you said, and the Habs' shortsighted policy of drafting heavily from the WHL in the mid 1990s until the Gainey era (when the emphasis then became the NCAA and Minnesota high schools), most fans will still place size and grit above skill if they're asked what the team needs. The assumption is that skill will somehow magically follow or that with the big bodies around, we'll need fewer skilled players. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Claude Giroux, Derek Roy, Erik Karlsson, Tobias Enstrom and Patrick Kane are not big players. We could have a team made up completely of Travis Moens (BTW, I'm one of his fans) and be worse off than we are now.

I'm a bit less exercised about Geoff Molson's statement than most of the people who've commented on hockey blogs today. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the tea leaves but he said "the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be an IMPORTANT factor in the selection of the permanent head coach." He DIDN'T say it would be a PREREQUISITE.

To me that doesn't mean ONLY bilingual candidates will be considered. Given two candidates of equal ability, I presume that if one were bilingual and the other not, the former would naturally be chosen. If Mike Babcock, LIndy Ruff or Barry Trotz suddenly all became available (I know, I know -- what have I been smoking?), Geoff Molson has given himself and PG leeway to consider them. Incidentally, Molson may have also given himself leeway to consider an anglo GM (Jim Nill from the Detroit organization, perhaps?) if the Habs miss the playoffs and PG is also relieved of his duties.

If Cunneyworth does a good job with the team, and is willing to learn French as Gainey was, I think he'll be considered. The language issue is moot if the team continues to play poorly. How the team plays has got to be Cunneyworth's focus right now. He can't worry about the language issue and what the French media might say.

As to the team, another loss tonight. Yes, it was close but Boston out-chanced the Habs by a wide margin, and the outcome was never really in doubt. PK is playing poorly and hurting the team. The team needs to get some confidence and swagger back, nothing a few wins strung together won't do. If Cunneyworth could at least do that, it will have been something. Let's hope he can.

MC said...

I wonder if the french thing gets blown out of proportion by the french media and by people who don't really care about hockey. The french media gets upset because it means extra work for them every night, having to understand the coach in their second language and ensure they translate properly. Nobody likes extra work, so they use their soap box to make a fuss. Political zealots who care little for hockey will feign outrage to advance their political goals, throwing the Habs under the bus without a second thought. Between the media's privileged access to a large audience and the political types often being a very vocal minority, I wonder if the requirement for a French coach gets blown out of proportion.

What I would really like to know is: what do most French-Canadian Habs fans think? I mean, the ones who follow every game and live and die by every win or loss; are they really concerned that Randy Cunneyworth does not speak french? Or do they just hope the new coach figures out a way to turn the season around? I would really like to know.

dusty said...

It doesn't make any sense to pay a half a billion dollars for a franchise and then not try to make it as good as it can be.

Molson's statement that the coach and presumably the GM must speak french is insane for all the reasons you have eloquently expressed. And continuing the Habs mediocrity will not improve their value, so even if he doesn't give a shit about the fans at least he should consider his shareholders. The Bronfman Habs were destroyed by the Molson family before and now they're at it again.

Changing the subject, I thought the game tonight was entertaining and the Habs weren't all that bad considering they are totally outclassed by Boston. I was upbeat for a few minutes then I realized that the Canadiens play their best games against the Bruins and on the road. We'll have to wait to see how they do at the Bell Center against an opponent such as the leafs or Senators before judging their chances at achieving respectability any time soon.

Anonymous said...

Actually I don't care if he speaks Mandarin as long as he wins games.

Anonymous said...

I think we often lose sight of a fact that the players are young men. Young men need motivation and leadership. They can play to the press, play to the crowd, act their hearts out, but that doesn't make them mature.

I believe the owner noted that language would be considered in the final coach selection. All I understood from that is "We're in a big hole right now, it's not working, we're changing some things, bear with us please." Some folks heard something else.

The Canadiens play on the perimeter. A good team can keep the Canadiens out of scoring position because many on the team don't want to go there. The Canadiens appear frustrated. They should be. The way they play isn't working. Pandering to the crowd isn't working.

I think moving a management member into the room as a coach is a good move. Probably Gill is the only one on the team smart enough to recognize what that means. Carriere isn't there to coach.

Anonymous said...

To MC, being french (although i'm quite bilingual) I do understand the fuss about a french coach. But I also understand that in today's market, if you look for a bilingual coach, you are looking in a smaller pool of coach therefor , your not actually looking for the best one.

I'm one of the biggest habs fan there is. But I want my Habs to win, no matter what. If there is no french player on the team, but we are in 1st place, I dont care.

Of course, for a similar coach or player, I will choose the french on, but this should never be a criteria or at least, the 1st criteria to look for.

I'm really on Dryden's page here. I dont want a french team, I want a winning one, one that I'll gladly cheer for no matter if the coach speak moliere or if any players do.

The french one

Anonymous said...

Well that really depends on your outlook on sports and society. Some think, like Dryden, that winning can only be achieved by doing as every other team while others (like Philippe Cantin of La Presse) think it is possible to become king while being in phase with the society you live in (à la FC Barca). To be more than a team is possible but it takes hard work and good management which we have not seen since before the Houle era.

I don't know why the "winning" types are all up in arm each time there is talk of bilingual coaches/GM/players, the Canadiens are certainly not sucking because they are drafting french players...

Steve said...

Great observation by Savard on how to build a winning team in Montreal. The post game interview has a vocabulary of 200 words, surely any coach could learn that in 6 months, its not like they dont spend hours stitting around traveling.

the Maritimer said...

Montreal (and Gauthier) should have moved heaven and earth to get the rights to Jonathan Huberdeau last June. Best prospect from Quebec in over a decade. They should still try and get him. Other than Price there are no untouchables on this team. BTW, Huberdeau grew up a Habs fan.

dusty said...

With the Habs falling like a stone in the standings, RC is talking about baby steps and having to persuade the players to put the puck on net and go for second and third chances to score. It apparently doesn't come naturally to them.

This leads me to believe that he hasn't quite got the post game interview down yet. He has all but said the season is over. The truth should be hidden at all costs and in 2 games he has let the cat out of the bag. Not a good career move.

Maybe he has an early termination clause like JM . Boy, I wish I had had one when I was working. I would love to get paid extra for being fired. What a concept!

MC said...

@ Anon 2:33 am

Thanks for your feedback, your position is what I would expect from most francophone true-Habs fans (And I am lucky to get any feedback asking what francophones think on an english-speaking blog!!). I do understand that a bilingual coach (and Capt, for that matter) is highly desirable if the option is available, and should be the first tie breaker between similar candidates.

I agree with your opinion that when there is little to choose between, then choosing a local boy is a better option. JT mentioned that the Habs could have had Giroux and Perron instead of Fischer and Pacioretty. If you go back further and take the next drafted francophone player, they could have had Derek Roy instead of Perezhogin, Antoine Vermette instead of Hainsey, and Daniel Briere instead of Matt Higgins, so your view, and the view of Savard, has merit. But picking Gilbert Brule over Carey Price would have been a mistake, so its not a perfect rule.

Anonymous said...

True MC...other then the fact that Gilbert Brulé is not french :o)

moeman said...

Merci J.T.

Rev. Ron Grossman said...

As long as Geoff Molson is now voice & face for this franchise by virtue of having sold out his coach, he makes clear he is only interested in 'the almighty buck.' As we all know this is a business one would hope a certain loyalty to ones employees might also be a part of the overall package. What is apparent is that Molson has
succombed to political correctness and suffers from Stockholm Syndrome. Having been a teacher of Mr. Molson long ago this disappoints me immensely.

Anonymous said...

This article is well written and I agree with most of its sentiment. One correction though: Giroux gew up in Hearst, ON, and moved to Ottawa (where he currently lives in the offseason) in his early teens. While he was a Canadiens fan growing up, he most certainly is not a "local" boy.

dusty said...

The remark by Dryden that the Habs can be good or they can be French is truly offensive. He is clearly saying that French people are no good. How ignorant is that? No wonder the French fans are up in arms over RC getting the job. Never fear people, he is a long shot to even finish the season.

I'm not sure why JM was fired anyway since RC's choices so far are just as strange. Nokelainen had more ice time that Eller in Boston and Blunden the same as AK46.

Playing Budaj in Chicago and benching Emelin is truly Martinesque. I guess Randy doesn't think a win is possible. I've got news for him, Winnepeg is more than capable of beating the Habs so if he is saving the players for the next game he's nuts.

A strange thought has occurred to me regarding the game with the Hawks. My favorite players are Toews and Kane yet my favorite team is the Canadiens. I know I'll be pulling for Montreal to win but I'm not sure why.

There seems to be some fans calling RC "Cunney". That's quite an insult unless they don't know what the word refers to.

Raj said...

Just watched the Chicago game. I don't think we need to worry about the language issue in regards to Cunneyworth. He won't be back as coach; the team is terrible. He overplays the 4th line in close games and seems clueless as far as line matchups. But the team outhit the Hawks and had a 2-man forecheck, and everyone 'worked hard and brought their hardhats", at least for 2 periods, so he must be a good caoch, right? (They gave up the ghost in the 3rd, but that doesn't fit with the narrative).

As far as other anglo coaches, let's see if Muller, Trotz or Ruff become available, to test the language issue anew. Babcock won't be available but we could worse than hire a Wings assistant. Paul Maclean is doing well so far in Ottawa with a team that on paper is worse than Les Glorieux.

As far as francophone coaches, I still think the best guy is JM. Perhaps Stevie Y will panic and let Boucher go. Perhaps Gillis will do the same with Vigneault (hey, we can all dream in technicolour). Perhaps the team brass will have a brain fart and retread Carbo, Therrien, or (God help us) Mario Tremblay. St. Patrick would at least be entertaining for a while until he inevitably loses the room.

Doesn't look good so far for the remaining 47 games. But maybe we'll get a high draft pick for a change, silver linings and all.

dusty said...

Scene 1. Winnipeg - 12-22-11 11:30 PM EST - Price on the phone to his agent. "Trade me right fucking now".

Anonymous said...

This season so far has been the "PERFECT STORM" for the HABS Injuries which sunk us early.It was bound to happen without creative activity from our GM .No such luck....we have been picking high for several years now.I expected a more creative approach in the off season.Never happened.We will not make the playoffs...I expect it..and the coach and GM are toast.Clean house and make changes that will shape the team for the next 3 years .

Cheers happy holidays everyone!!