MONTREAL – Claude Noel opened his talk with the Montreal media Wednesday by explaining in very good French why he could only answer questions in English.
The Winnipeg Jets head coach, whose parents are French-Canadian, lost much of his mother tongue the result of playing and coaching hockey in the U.S. but still speaks enough to get by.
”I’ll take questions in English because I’m more comfortable,” he said after switching to English. ”And I hope by next year my French will be good enough to take questions in French.
”It’s difficult for me to express myself in hockey language. I do fine, but after a few questions, trust me, marbles start to fly out everywhere. So we’ll speak English. No Disrespect.”
A coach’s ability to speak French has been a hot topic of late in Montreal.
Some in Quebec saw it as unpardonable disrespect that the Canadiens named an English-speaking only coach in Randy Cunneyworth to replace the fired Jacques Martin last month. Cunneyworth is the first Canadiens coach in four decades unable to at least have a conversation in the language spoken by most of the team’s fans.
He has vowed to learn French in time for next season, by which time team owner Geoff Molson has promised a French-speaking coach will be behind Montreal’s bench, be it Cunneyworth or someone else.
The Toronto-born coach tosses out the odd French expression, but seems to have a long way to go before he’s fluent.
Noel has made the same promise, but for different reasons.
”I’m going to take an on-line course this summer to get better because I’m living in Canada now,” the 56-year-old said. ”Winnipeg has a French community and I like speaking French.
”I have good days when the words are coming back and I have bad days when I can’t think of my name in French.”
Noel spoke French as a child in Virginiatown in northern Ontario near the Quebec border. But when the family moved to North Bay, Ont., and later when he went to play junior hockey in Kitchener, Ont., he spoke almost entirely English. Between that and his time south of the border, some of his native tongue slipped away.
He feels for what Cunneyworth is going through, not only over language but also his tenuous position as interim coach of the storied Canadiens.
Noel’s first NHL head-coaching job was on an interim basis, when he replaced the fired Ken Hitchcock in Columbus for 24 games (10-8-6) in 2010.
”I had to go through that in Columbus, but not to this magnitude,” he said. ”You’re caught in a Canadian culture thing that’s difficult.
”Coaches and players look a themselves as coaches and players and no one wants to get involved in the other parts of things. I sympathize with him. It’s a really hard job as it is to be an NHL coach, let alone dealing with some of the things that are happening. It’s not only Montreal. Canadian markets are way different from American markets and here in Montreal there’s a high expectation level because of the success this organization has had.”
After Columbus, Noel became coach of the Manitoba Moose, the Vancouver Canuck’s AHL team. He stayed on with the Jets when the Atlanta Thrashers franchise moved to Winnipeg.
It has been argued the Canadiens need French-speaking coaches because they are the only team that gives Quebecers their first chance. They did with Claude Julien, now with the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins, Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks and others.
But one of the Jets’ first moves was to hire Pascal Vincent as an assistant coach. Vincent formerly coached the Montreal Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and is considered a bright prospect for an eventual NHL head coaching job without ever working for the Canadiens.
Vincent, who also worked within the national junior team program, was surprised to land the Winnipeg job because he didn’t know anyone in the Jets’ organization. He said Vigneault may have recommended him, but wasn’t sure.
”I don’t know why, but the message was ‘You’re being looked at if you’re coaching in major junior and your team is progressing.’ ” he said. ”It’s a positive thing for major junior coaches.”
The Jets are on a four-game road trip that will also take them to Toronto, Buffalo and Boston.
Stuck in Atlanta’s spot in the Southeast Division for a year while awaiting realignment to be confirmed for next season, the Jets’ schedule features long stretches at home and away.
They just finished a sequence of 11-of-13 games at home and used that to go 10-3-1 and get back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
But now they play 12 of their next 16 games on the road, where they are 5-8-4.
”I don’t think we were playing as well as we should have in the first part of the year when we were on the road a lot and our record reflects that,” said captain Andrew Ladd. ”We’re looking to improving our road record in the second half of the year while still playing well at home.
”We were still trying to figure out roles and the systems that we were trying to install, and in the last six weeks we’ve done a good job of that.”
Forward Bryan Little, out since Dec. 20 with a lower body injury, skated with the team but Noel said he would not play and may also miss the game in Toronto.