MONTREAL – Randy Cunneyworth is aware his future as coach of the Montreal Canadiens is in grave doubt, but he still hopes to be back behind the bench next season.
Unfortunately, the no-win situation the 50-year-old was thrust into this season did not produce enough victories and the chances are good that his first NHL head coaching job will end after only 50 games.
With the Canadiens about to name a new general manager, who will no doubt want to name his own coach, the regular-season finale Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs was likely Cunneyworth’s last in Montreal.
“The future is left up to the new management,” Cunneyworth said after his team got him a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the season finale on Saturday night. “Those decisions will come in good time.
“Obviously, I’ve enjoyed being here in Montreal and being a part of this organization, so my answer would be to remain in the organization.”
He ended the campaign with an 18-23-9 record, which left Montreal last in the Eastern Conference, the first time the Canadiens have finished at the bottom of the league or a conference since 1939-40.
As the game ended, the coach went onto the ice to join the players as they waved goodbye to the fans and got warm applause in return.
“Every night you win it’s a good feeling,” he said. “Without getting too high, you want to enjoy those times. That’s what you work for and what you get paid for.
“It was nice to go out there and thank the fans for being so supportive all year. There were a lot of well-wishers through the course of the season and I certainly did appreciate it when times were difficult. That was great.”
Cunneyworth’s fate was probably sealed only days after general manager Pierre Gauthier promoted him to the job after firing Jacques Martin on Dec. 17.
A controversy erupted immediately over naming a coach who can’t speak French to one of the most high-profile jobs in Quebec. He was the team’s first unilingual English-speaking coach since Al McNeil four decades earlier, and it became a public relations disaster.
Quebec nationalists and members of the provincial government blasted the move and there were even calls to boycott Molson’s beer, until team president Geoff Molson issued an apology to fans. He underlined that Cunneyworth’s position was “interim,” and promised that the team’s next head coach would be bilingual.
That pretty much threw Cunneyworth under the bus, even if the Toronto native vowed to take a crash course in French.
It didn’t help that the injury-plagued team lost six of its first seven games under the new coach and never got on a roll the rest of the season.
“I don’t think it was an easy situation for him to come into,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. “There was a lot of stuff going on.
“The team was struggling, and you get labelled with that ‘interim,’ which doesn’t really promise anything. And then on top of that being English and having that whole fiasco of not being a French-speaking coach and that being a concern. I think that’s where we needed to be better for him as players, to make sure we played that much harder, that much more desperate, to help ease the situation.”
Another blow came two weeks ago when Gauthier was fired.
Asked if his interim status affected his job, Cunneyworth said: “I don’t really think about that. I think about the job and (the team). It’s not about me. It’s not about the interim head coach or the head coach. It’s about everyone.”
Cunneyworth, who played 866 NHL games over a 20-year career as a left-winger and served as captain of the Ottawa Senators in the 1990s, seems to be well thought of in hockey circles and he it is expected he will end up with another job in the league one day.
There was certainly a lot of sympathy for the situation he was put into, which came from one of a handful of strange decisions the club made this season. They included Gauthier firing veteran assistant coach Perry Pearn from under Martin’s feet just before a game in October.
Cunneyworth joined the Canadiens as assistant coach this season after leading their top farm club, the Hamilton Bulldogs, to an American Hockey League conference final in 2010-11.
He had previously coached Rochester in the AHL and spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the defunct Atlanta Thrashers.
There was no turning around the Canadiens this season, however, as injuries, some bad luck and plenty of shoddy play left them out of the playoffs for the first time in five years.
He was appreciated by his players, however.
“You guys don’t see what happens behind closed doors, but I can tell you Randy did a great job this year,” said forward Max Pacioretty. “The guys in the room wanted to get that win for him tonight.
“Throughout this last stretch we wanted to get him some wins just to prove that he belongs here.”
Cunneyworth said it was frustrating to fall short of the playoffs.
“Coming together a team and a group takes a lot of work,” said Cunneyworth. “We had a lot of guys put their best foot forward.
“Some things you can’t control—injuries and unforeseen things that crop up. Everyone talks about how hard it is to make the playoffs and this year was an example of that. It’s what you work for all season and when you fall short, it hurts. You feel bad for the players because it’s the greatest time of the year. Hopefully, it makes you a better player and want it that much more next year.”