Sacre bleu: New Habs coach unilingual

The year is ending with a bit of linguistic controversy in Montréal. The nomination of a unilingual coach at the helm of the Canadiens two weeks ago didn't go unnoticed and this grunge is being carried over in the new year. A demonstration [Google translation] is under preparation for January 7th at the Bell Centre.

A recent poll [Google translation] suggests that as much as 80% of the population disagrees with the nomination of a unilingual coach. "What's the fuss?" you wonder... there are only a few French-speaking players in the team and talks in the dressing room are by far predominantly in English. Is this yet another example of Québec's intolerance towards English? Well... the players aren't the only ones the coach has to talk to and... you see... the Québécois like to understand what they're being told.

The relationship between the Habs and their fans is deep and goes a long way back. Founded in 1909, "Le Club de Hockey Canadien" was to be the team of the Francophone community in Montréal, composed of Francophone players. Why use the word "Canadien" then? Simply because that's how the French-speaking population called itself in those days. They were neither French nor British North Americans, like their English-speaking counterparts who had yet to acknowledge their Canadianity. For the undereducated that he was, up until the 60s, the average French Canadian didn't have much of a model to relate to other than hockey players. And what models!... six championship cups in the 50s, four in the 60s, six in the 70s... 24 in total.

Today, the team counts very few French speaking players and its fan base is much more diversified then it originally was. But the team's past success left deep marks in the population's psyche. The Montréal Canadiens continue to take an immense share of media coverage in the province. In 2010, Influence Communication reported that sports were at the top of all priorities in Québec media and that 85% of sports news is about les Canadiens. Other NHL teams and other sports, be they professional or amateur, accounted for less than 10%. Every day, 35% of what was written on the NHL in media around the world came from Québec. The rest of the country, then home of five NHL teams, produced 50% of NHL coverage. The USA, with 24 teams, produced 15%. For comparison, sports news in Québec accounted for 16 times the weight of national news.

Randy Cunneyworth is in the spotlight. The team isn't doing well. The fans want to know why and they want to hear it from the horse's mouth... in the language of the majority.

Writer's note (from the Urban Dictionary): The word "Sacre Bleu" is a stereotypical French curse that is actually never used by real French people. Same as the mustache and the beret - something only non-French people think is typical of the French.


Ian Gillman said...

I think the main reason the Canadiens have become such a big part of Québec culture is because they WON. The fact that they WON with players predominantly from Québec (not all necessarily French-Québec, BTW) is ancillary.

The organization of today's NHL and how the draft system works (and free agency and millionaire players, etc) makes it immeasurably more difficult for the Canadiens to put a predominantly Québecois team on the ice that would WIN the way those legendary teams of the 50's, 60's and 70's did. If they could, they would.

All sport has always been, and will always be, about competing and WINNING - not politics.

That being said, should the Canadiens always have a coach that can address the fans and media in French? Yes - as long as he delivers a winning team. Will there always be one available that qualifies without making concessions (like, "we fired him 3 years ago and he hasn't worked since, but he should be good now")? Not so sure. Then what?

Raman said...

I believe you are wrong on this, Ian.

Whether a team wins or looses, if the people cannot identify with it anymore because its members are all mercenaries with no emotional link to the place and to their fan base, then people will feel detached regardless.
Plus some would add that, if the team members felt more emotionally attached to their fans, because they felt they are "local boys", they'd feel a lot more motivated on the ice. (No need to be born here for that : Think of the Stastny brothers, who became local boys.)

Granted, some people are just attached to the game and to the team : Not so much to the players, but more to the jersey. Such people don't care that this game has become just one big commercial enterprise, with interchangeable players. But there are a lots of would be fans who have stopped being interested altogether when they realized that it doesn't mean anything anymore. That's my case.

Ian Gillman said...


Unfortunately, players feeling a true emotional attachment to their team is a vestige of the past now only very rarely seen in any professional sport. And you're also right that it isn't necessary for players to be locally born/raised for that attachment to occur when it does, which is precisely my point - being French-speaking or from Montreal has very little to do with it. Gary Carter, André Dawson (Expos), Anthony Calvillo (Alouettes), Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden (Canadiens) are all examples of players who became local heroes in Montreal because they were successful individually and/or on winning teams.

Like I said, they have to win first. Then, being a local boy is gravy. Question is, given the way free agency and the draft work today, can the Canadiens put a competitive team on the ice with, say, 8-10 French-speaking players on a consistent basis? I say no.

As to the would-be fans you refer to, a whole lot of them where happy to jump back on the band-wagon when Jaroslav Halak took us 3 rounds into the playoffs and nearly became the 2nd coming of Patrick Roy, who, it just occurred to me, was the 2nd coming of Ken Dryden.

Michel Bolduc said...


You mention that the fact the players are local boys is gravy on top of a winning team. This gravy was so thick and generous up to the 70s that this is precisely the reason why le Canadien marked the population's psyche and keeps getting the media attention it does today.

Ian Gillman said...

That's true, Michel. However, free agency didn't even exist back then and the draft system guaranteed Montreal the number 1 pick from Quebec EVERY season. Also, the league was almost half the size it is today, meaning Quebec players were more concentrated in less teams.

So back then Montreal could have a predominantly French AND a winning team. I'm just saying that it is much, much harder to do that in today's NHL and that we will choose a winning team of international players (including as many Quebecois as possible/available) over a losing or average team of predominantly French-speaking players. And, by extension, the same is true about the coach. Of course I want a French-speaking coach behind the bench! But he has to win!

Raman said...


I completely agree with you that the rules of the game have changed. I simply disagree that "winning" can completely replace "local" in terms of arousing passions.

You see, I'm not a hockey fan, or a sports fan, per say. But, as with most people, in any given competition, I'm likely to feel a pinch and root for "my gang". The way that hockey has been commercialized has completely emptied such feelings from my part towards this supposedly local team.

For me, rooting for Le Canadien is like rooting for a German movie at the Oscars, only because one or two scenes were shot in Montreal, and because there happened to be a Maple Leaf somewhere on the poster...

And I believe I'd feel exactly the same towards any other team, if I were from any other city.
Except maybe it is harder to pretend here, precisely because the language situation makes it so obvious that they are not locals.

Raman said...

Reading the news these last days, two current stories made me think about this debate…

The first one concerns the capitalist business world.
It’s a complete lie to keep pretending that hockey is still part of a realm made up of sporting competitions opposing local teams. Hockey has been completely integrated into a neo-liberal capitalistic paradigm. Hockey teams have become exactly like modern-day companies.

It used to be that a company was a fairly stable entity, where an individual could very well spend all, or a very good part, of their career, all the way to their pension. Was that a better or a worst time than now? I’m not saying. One thing that’s for sure is that companies then, their bosses and employees, could pull together as much through good as through rough times. Now, a company is nothing more than a name, a brand, where no permanent human factor is involved. Employees and CEOs have become like playing cards which are hired temporarily, discarded at will and exchanged freely, as stocks rise and fall.
On a purely economic level, this appears to be a more efficient system. But humanely?... One thing for sure, nowadays employees do not leave for work in the morning feeling they share any kind of a common destiny with the enterprises they work for. And no amount of “feel good posters”, office parties or coffee mug company gifts can create that illusion. And when a company goes through rough times, an employee (as well as an investor) will easily and very quickly figure that it’s time pull out; leave the boat for another, before their cheque starts being affected. A system which prevents any kind of long-term strategic calculations.

Now isn’t that exactly what’s happening with Le Canadien and other teams? Aren’t the star players that all teams are fighting for exactly like modern-day CEOs, who keep getting paid fatter and fatter bonuses; even while their performance is questionable, and even while they keep sending us into massive recessions? And aren’t the other regular players like modern-day disgruntled employees, who do not feel bound to the destiny of their team, while they constantly keep an eye on their next possible move?
Again, that maybe good for “das capital”; well, that of a few… But humanely, and on the long term?...

The other news event that reminded me of this little debate is all the defections from MNAs to other political parties these days. I was wondering if, after business and hockey, this paradigm wasn’t finally being applied to political parties. I don’t think so. Yet. But imagine…
How about if political parties started exchanging “players” in exactly the same way? How crazy that would be! Yet, somehow, I feel that scenario, in the current world, isn’t so far-fetched. I somehow feel that, if the trend came about just smoothly enough, people would come to accept it as normal, having been primed enough.
After all, they did come to accept that their “local team” can be completely made up of foreign mercenaries, haven’t they? Imagine going back to the time of Le Rocket and explaining that to the Flying Frenchmen’s fans!