You could almost feel the tension in the room, and you didn't even have to be in the room. Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier was introducing Randy Cunneyworth as the club's new interim head coach, and as he sat down at the dais and began speaking, the words were in French.
Cunneyworth just sat there next to his boss without understanding a word.
For millions of Quebecois this weekend, the firing of Jacques Martin, and in turn the hiring of the Anglophone coach in Cunneyworth was more than just a hockey decision. In fact, for many it wasn't a hockey decision at all. It was a slap in the face.
Nevermind that Cunneyworth seems to be an extremely logical choice for the Canadiens head coaching gig. He's coached for 11 years now, all at the AHL or NHL level. He's been fired from a coaching job only once in that time, and that was as an assistant coach in Atlanta. He was given a pink slip along with the entire rest of the coaching staff under head coach John Anderson.
Every other time Cunneyworth has switched coaching jobs in the last decade-plus, it's been as the result of a promotion. After eight years with the AHL's Rochester Americans, where he compiled an impressive 306-267-67 record, Cunneyworth left that job to take the assistant gig in Atlanta. He was unemployed for just three months after leaving Atlanta, being hired by the Canadiens organization to run their farm club in Hamilton.
In his only full season behind the Bulldogs bench, the club finished first in their division and came within one game of reaching the Calder Cup Finals.
Cunneyworth has paid his dues and is highly qualified to run an NHL club. It only helps that he was, you know, already under contract with the Habs organization and already familiar with the way things work there. But apparently, none of this matters. He doesn't speak French.
This isn't a fringe position, either, even if it's one also held by many of the fringe Separatist groups in Quebec. It's being discussed on the radio, it's being discussed in the blogosphere and it's being discussed in the newspaper. A quick Google search for "randy cunneyworth" will show you all you need to know. Compare the number of stories about the language issue to the number of stories about Saturday's loss to the Devils.
This is the general sentiment from angry Francophones, as expressed by the head of one of those Separatist groups, Gilles Rheaume, and translated by CJAD.
"There are many in Quebec and in all of French America who are asking, the day after a unilingual anglophone was given the head coaching job, if the Canadiens' management hasn't been stricken with francophobia, characterized by a total insensitivity to the French fact in Quebec," Rhéaume wrote. "Not being able to speak French is a severe handicap for someone who occupies such a position. Knowledge of the language of Quebec is an integral part of the skills required to lead the Montreal Canadiens."
Not being able to speak French is a severe handicap for someone who occupies the position as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. Let's think about that for a second.
NHL rosters are comprised of players who speak any number of languages. English, French, Russian, Czech, Finnish, Swedish, Boston. Communication in the National Hockey League between players and coaches happens in English. Maybe in one-on-one situations, a guy like Claude Julien might talk to a French player in French. But when the coach is addressing his team, he's doing it in French. It happens this way in the Dallas Stars locker room, and it happens this way in the Montreal Canadiens locker room.
In no way is the inability to speak French a "severe handicap" on Cunneyworth doing his job as a hockey coach.
Maybe it's just a matter of preference. When given the option, Quebecois would rather have a French-speaking head coach, and the Canadiens certainly had the choice here. But did they? Are there Francophone options out there that are better hockey coaches than Cunneyworth?
It doesn't look like it. There are no NHL head coaches out of jobs that speak French. The Habs lost out on Guy Boucher two summers ago when they let him walk to become the head coach in Tampa Bay. Among current NHL assistant coaches, only three speak French, according to my rough count.
Sylvain Lefebvre in Colorado has only been coaching since 2009, and most of that time was spent in the AHL. Pascal Vincent in Winnipeg has been a professional coach for a matter of months, spending most of his career prior to joining the Jets as a coach and general manager in the QMJHL. Dan Lacroix left the Canadiens organization with Boucher and is an assistant with the Lightning. He's never served as a head coach at the professional level.
It seems there are two interests when it comes to hiring a head coach in Montreal -- winning hockey games and the language that man speaks -- and at least in this situation, those interests seem counter to one another. I won't pretend to completely understand the politics involved as an ignorant, English speaking American, but I know that as a hockey fan, my chief concern is that my team win as many games as possible.
If Cunneyworth is the best option for the team on the ice, what does language really matter?
Morning Skate is a daily NHL column. It runs Monday through Friday. Check the archives.