Institutional Irrelevance

Last Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens announced the firing of Jacques Martin as head coach, and the promotion of Randy Cunneyworth as his interim replacement. Martin’s release was hardly a surprise; the hockey team has struggled this year, never truly owning a playoff berth and looking as though they might not by the end of the season. Whether you agree or disagree with the philosophy, when a team struggles the coach usually takes the blame for it. Martin’s fate was sealed as the team entered the holiday stretch stumbling and inconsistent, at best.

The anglophone Cunneyworth’s appointment has been met by a massive backlash of criticism from francophone fans, community and media. The Montreal Canadiens, they say, are an institution that represents French culture, and appointing a unilingual anglophone to lead the institution is tantamount to sacrilege. Some would say this is all a symptom of the religious devotion people have to a team with an incredibly long history, and some would say that even a sports team can be a part of a people’s identity when that lengthy history overlaps the prevailing currents that shaped the heritage of those people. Others would say they are just a team, and Cunneyworth just a coach, and winning is the only standard he should be held to. Nobody, however, would deny that Quebec has a habit of deconstructing every topic down to the level of language in the focused, self-involved defence of their “distinct culture,” whether the habit itself is ridiculous or not.

The Montreal Canadiens have a history stretching back over 100 years. That is really pretty impressive, when you consider how many defining world and Canadian events have occurred during that same timeframe. There are very few sports teams that can boast such a heritage. The Canadiens were part of the original six teams that formed what is now the modern day NHL, and they are the winningest team in the league, with an army of players, coaches, managers and others proudly enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

To call them an institution with a responsibility to the francophone community and defence of the French culture is, on the one hand, understandable, but also entirely unfair. First and foremost, the Montreal Canadiens are a sports team. The greatest obligation any sports team has, whether to the fans, owners, shareholders, or investors, is to win games and championships. Everything else is patently secondary. Put another way, it makes no difference if a player contributes to the community, donates time and money to local causes and is a solid role model for the youth if they are a terrible player and contribute negatively to the team on the ice. The team, as a collective, needs to be good on the ice first, and good at those other things second.

The coach’s role in this is to prepare the team well for each game and to define a system of play for them that allows the talent on the team to be as effective as possible. The coach constructs wins through working with the human resources he is given. Communicating with the public and providing the community with the appropriate cultural personality is not the primary mandate of a professional coach.

I can’t begin to express the frustration I feel every time I hear the media in Quebec talk about how the team needs to bring in more francophone players. I don’t give a flaming pile of shit whether the player is French, english, russian or Taiwanese, so long as he can play the game well and contribute to the puck winding up in the opposing net more often than in our own. This notion that the team is obligated to have a certain number of French players, and that they aren’t doing their duty if they don’t meet that obligation, make me want to puke. What’s more important here, winning games and Stanley Cups, or pandering to the exclusionary sovereigntists that think enforcing their culture through legislation and bullying is really the right way to protect their dying culture?

They are a sports team. Let them play sports, well.

I was positively disgusted with the Montreal media when they lashed out at former team captain Saku Koivu because he did not speak French. Koivu is possibly the best role model in the league, a small man with a big heart who played hard every night, through injury and illness, donated generously to the community, fought his way through cancer, and selflessly defended his team and teammates at every opportunity. And, some pompous, narrow-minded separatist has the nerve to call him an embarassment and an inappropriate leader for the Canadiens because he doesn’t speak French? If that’s what the “distinct” Quebec culture represents, I truly hope it dies a natural death. We don’t need more bigotry like that in this world.

The current backlash against Cunneyworth reminds me of that brief debacle. The topic has even been brought up in city council, with calls for the Mayor to step in and get involved in the matter! How utterly ludicrous is this? A team struggling to find its legs and make a push into the playoffs, and everyone is worried about whether the coach can say “bonjour” and represent both official languages?

The team itself is far from French. With the abundance of Czechs, Russians and other nationalities represented on the team, I would argue that not only French players are a minority, but North Americans as well. And, quite frankly, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me in the least, so long as the team plays well and competes.

Besides which, Cunneyworth is an interim head coach. He was given the position until the end of the year, largely so that there would be some consistency in direction with Martin relieved of his post. At the end of the season, Cunneyworth’s continued tenure in that position will be reevaluated along with the candidacy of any other coaches available around the league. I’m sure that if he wins the Stanley Cup, which at this point seems highly unlikely, people will care less that he doesn’t order his coffee in French. If he doesn’t make a success of the team, and it is far too early to tell, one expects the management will be looking for the best possible fit elsewhere. If the primary qualification for coaching the Montreal Canadiens, or being a player on the team, is that they can speak French, we’re missing the point entirely.

Let the coach coach, and let the players play. The best thing the team can do for French culture is win.

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