MONTREAL – Guy Carbonneau can feel for Randy Cunneyworth, but he also believes the new coach of the Montreal Canadiens should learn to speak French as quickly as he can.
”He’s living a dream, which is doing what he loves for one of the best franchises in the NHL, and he’s caught in a storm,” said Carbonneau, a former Canadiens captain and coach. ”It’s premature. You have to give him a chance to show what he can do and if he’s willing to learn.
”But there’s no doubt in my mind that the coach of the Montreal Canadiens has to speak both languages, at least to some extent.”
The Toronto-born Cunneyworth, the first unilingual English coach the storied club has had since Al McNeil in 1970-71, landed in a swirl of controversy when he was made interim head coach after the firing of Jacques Martin on Saturday.
Cunneyworth has said he hopes to learn French.
The language debate was still raging Wednesday.
Many see the Canadiens as not only a hockey team, but as a institution representing the French-Canadian people, and that its coach should speak the language of the majority of its fans.
Canadiens legend and former general manager Serge Savard blasted the move, saying the team ”belongs to the people.” Team owner Geoff Molson was moved to issue a statement that underlined the job is “interim” and that next season there will be a French-speaking coach, whether it is Cunneyworth or someone else.
”Its one thing to say he’s willing to learn it and another to actually learn it,” said Carbonneau. ”The job he has now is really demanding. You have to prepare the team. You have to eat and sleep. I don’t know where learning French is going to fit in his schedule.”
That the struggling team has lost its first two games under the new coach has not helped his cause, and the French-language Le Journal de Montreal rubbed it in by printing its front-page headline in English: ”Another Loss For Cunneyworth” to make sure he understood.
After McNeil, a powerhouse Canadiens team was coached for eight years by Scotty Bowman, who spoke so-so-French, somewhat better than Bob Berry, who coached the club from 1981 to 1984. After that, an unbroken line of fluent French speakers went from Jacques Lemaire to Jean Perron, Pat Burns, Jacques Demers, Jacques Laperriere (for one game), Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Claude Julien, Carbonneau and Martin, with two short terms in between for the bilingual Bob Gainey.
That string ended with Cunneyworth, a highly regarded coaching prospect who moved to Montreal as an assistant coach after guiding its Hamilton farm club to a strong 2010-11 campaign.
Some suggested Quebecers would be more willing to accept an English-speaking coach if it was a big name with a proven winning record, like Detroit’s Mike Babcock, but not a debut NHL coach like Cunneyworth.
Others see the Canadiens as a conduit to the NHL for French-speaking coaches not likely to get a chance with other clubs.
But Vigneault takes issue with the notion that he, Therrien or Julien got their first NHL job in Montreal because of their mother tongue rather than their coaching ability.
”I like to think we were hired on our hockey background first and foremost,” Vigneault said in Vancouver. ”I think all of us (former Canadiens coaches) that have gone on to other teams have proven that it was the right decision at the time.”
Vigneault’s Canucks met Julien’s Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final last spring, while Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the final in 2008, losing in six games to Detroit. Therrien, Tremblay and Carbonneau are now commentators on the French-language all-sports station RDS.
Asked if Cunneyworth can succeed in Montreal, Vigneault said ”Any coach anywhere, if you win, you’re good.”
Julien declined comment when asked about the language issue by Montreal reporters in Boston on Monday.
The soccer world has had numerous imported coaches who don’t speak the native language.
They have got around the issue in different ways. Italian Fabio Capello has worked on his English since taking over as England coach.
Former Japan coach Philippe Troussier had fellow Frenchman Florent Dabadie as an interpreter who became almost as famous as the coach himself, hardly ever leaving his side.
Arsene Wenger, manager of England’s Arsenal, has gone the other route. The Frenchman speaks five languages including Japanese.
In Montreal, all the players (except Russian rookie Alexei Emein) speak English. It has more to do with speaking to fans, directly at public appearances or through the media, as an acknowledgment that they are in a province in which French is the official language.
Vancouver forward Alex Burrows, a bilingual Montreal native with an English father and French mother, said it makes sense to have a French-speaking coach in the Quebec market.
”I understand what anglophones are thinking, that all that really matters is winning games,” said Burrows. ”But I totally understand the French people that are the fans.
”Probably 80 to 90 per cent of the Montreal Canadiens fans in Quebec are Francophone and they’d like to get the answers and read the newspaper and see the coach respond to some questions in French, so they can understand and relate to the team they’ve been cheering for all their lives.”
With files from Monte Stewart in Vancouver