Those who follow hockey know that the Montreal Canadiens simply aren’t a hockey team to the people of Quebec. They represent so much more. While, the governments of Quebec and Montreal continually raise taxes, roads and overpasses crumble, public transit is in a constant state of confusion, and the health & education systems are a mess. Some people get upset and send letters to the editor of the local paper, or phone in to the local AM talk radio show to offer up their anger and suggestions, but overall, these issues are met with a collective shrug. Very few things can move the needle among the population, but the Habs are undoubtedly one of those things. From the Richard riot of 1955, to the 1993 Stanley Cup riot, to the ”Bring Back Kovalev” protest of summer 2009, people mobilize in celebration, anger and randomness in the name of le bleu, blanc et rouge.
In case you missed the bulletin, let me refresh your memory: Bob Gainey stepped aside as General Manager of the Canadiens, passing the torch to the “man he trusts the most”, Pierre Gauthier. The move has people scratching their heads. The biggest question on the minds of Canadiens fans now is why was Gauthier handed the General Manager’s position without the team conducting a thorough search for the best replacement available. In what is perhaps a classic case of fence sitting, or public relations posturing depending on your view, Canadiens President Pierre Boivin strongly asserts that the Head Coach, General Manager, and President at the very least be bilingual, if not Francophone altogether. According to him, given that the majority of Quebecers are Francophone, hiring people that can communicate in both languages at that level of the organization demonstrates the “minimum of respect” to the majority of French-speaking Quebecers. I’m sure people here appreciate that. But to suggest that the talent pool of bilingual candidates is a wide ranging one is cockeyed optimism at best. The result of Boivin’s policy is that now the Canadiens are stuck with Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin; two men who define mediocrity no matter how you spin their careers. These two are a package deal, each with 3 years left on their contracts. Perhaps when that day comes for the Molsons to give them both the axe, they will also fix their gaze on President Pierre Boivin, who clearly cares more for marketing, politics and profitability than excellence on the ice. Perhaps that’s his job description, but if the team realizes any on-ice success, it is merely a bonus. This philosophy has trickled down the Habs org chart, right down to the coach and players, who, to a man seem happy and satisfied with just making the playoffs. If, as most believe, they are summarily bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Washington Capitals, we can expect to hear the same old platitudes: “We’ll work hard in the off season and come back fresh, strong and re focused for next season”. If you are unable to distinguish if that comes out of the most of a player, coach or executive, you would not be alone.
I always thought that excellence was the expectation of the Canadiens. With Boivin’s current policy, he is probably eliminating 90% of candidates that would be be otherwise qualified to work for 29 other teams in the league. I can willingly accept the notion of having a francophone/bilingual coach, under the condition that he be the best man for the job, and not someone who benefits simply by virtue of being a Quebecer (when Guy Boucher becomes Head Coach, I will be among the first to roll out the red carpet for him). But to suggest that the General Manager and President must be bilingual is silly. Ask yourself this: Would Pierre Gauthier be on any other team’s shortlist if they were looking for a new GM? Highly unlikely given his track record, unless the NHL expanded to 45 teams. I believe that while the 29 other teams go after the best personnel available, the Canadiens are tying one hand behind their back with their self-imposed restrictions. Would shareholders of a company search far and wide to hire the best qualified CEO, or would they settle for the best guy from their own backyard?
It goes without saying that the bond between Quebecers (not to alienate the legions of fans outside of Quebec) for their Habs is deep and undying. Being able to understand the words that come out of the mouths of the men who lead the organization is important to many native Francophones who may not speak any English. But I would venture to guess that winning transcends any linguistic boundary. It certainly did when Bowman, Blake, Selke and Pollock were hoisting banner after banner after banner to the rafters at the Forum. I would wager that fans of any language would prefer to see a multilingual team popping champagne corks together in celebration rather than a bland, passionless, morose, sullen, platitude, cliché-ridden press conference expressing disappointment at how the season just didn’t work out the way they had hoped. Again.
I’ve been asking myself if the linguistic abilities of the managers, coaches and players on the rosters of other deeply important teams matters to their local fans. To get an idea, I’ve asked a couple friends that I follow on twitter to answer some simple questions. This is about as small and unscientific of a process that you’ll find. While these are the opinions of a couple of dudes, they are nevertheless well informed sports fans.
I’ve asked Michael Carter, who hails from England, to answer on behalf of Manchester United fans; and Howie Sussman to answer for the New York Yankees, two teams who I think you would agree mean as much to their local fanbases as the Canadiens do in Quebec.
1) Here’s a classic “would you rather” scenario: A championship-caliber team year after year, with a mix of nationalities, or a mediocre team (that is as likely to be successful as they are to fail) loaded with with guys that you can understand when they speak, and come from your own backyard?
In my own opinion, the well-being of the team should be the priority rather than just which languages the coach can speak, although I realise that having a grasp of the French language would benefit a Habs coach during his media duties. I know this first hand after getting lost over in Gatineau, QC in November and not understanding anything anyone was saying to me!
From my soccer team’s (Man U) point of view, we have a long standing coach of 24 years who is from Scotland and a wide mix of different nationalities, including home grown British talent as well. If a overseas coach were to eventually succeed our current coach I would welcome them as long as he were the right man for the job.
If any coach over here only had limited English then it would only be scrutinized by the media here if he were not getting results. If the team were playing well and winning then it would not be an issue where he was from or which language was his mother tongue.
The British media made a big issue a few years ago when Arsenal fielded a whole first 11 for a game which did not include a single British player. Whereas I would always like good homegrown talent coming through for my team too, I would not like the whole team to be made up of overseas players, but then I guess it all comes down to how the team is performing.
From a Habs point of view I think it’s important for the club to always remember the French roots of the team and the region, but not to make this the only option for a coach and/or players.
I want the best team possible and am not concerned about where they come from since to me that has no bearing on how well they play.
2) Is the mother tongue of your team’s roster, coaches, and management a topic of discussion among fans and media currently? To the best of your memory, has it ever been an issue?
This has never been an issue at my club, but the only times I can remember it has been an issue is as stated earlier when Arsenal fielded a whole team of overseas players for a game, and to a lesser extent when Chelsea hired an Italian coach around 5-6 years ago who had very limited English and needed an interpreter during interviews.
The latter issue did not dominate the press pages too much as the team were not exactly struggling because of this, for instance his team already had Italian players who could speak English so I don’t believe it caused too many problems.
I don’t think that’s the case, I believe that the team goes out and tries to acquire the best talent available, whether through trade or free agent signing. They also try to draft the best players they can at their position, regardless of where they come from. I really don’t think it matters where a player comes from; if they can play their position well even if they don’t speak the native language, that is the only thing that should.
3) Do you think your team proactively seeks talent that can communicate with the fanbase so that this doesn’t become an issue, or will they take on the best player, coach, or manager, period? In other words, is the focus on politics and public relations, or winning?
The majority of clubs in the Premier League do spend a lot of time and money on their academy systems and bringing young British players through the ranks and up to the first team, but at the same time there is a good mix of overseas players in 95% of the team rosters over here, which has helped the league here become one of the best in the league. There is a great belief here that if British players are good enough then they can break into the team rosters here regardless of the overseas talent available.
If you asked most fans here, the bottom line is performing well and winning. It’s not much enjoyment for anyone in any sport just to keep it to a homegrown roster while the team is failing miserably. British players aren’t always the best policy in improving the team in soccer, and I guess the same can be said about French Canadian coaches and players in hockey.
I don’t think that’s the case, I believe that the team goes out and tries to acquire the best talent available, whether through trade or free agent signing. They also try to draft the best players they can at their position, regardless of where they come from. I really don’t think it matters where a player comes from; if they can play their position well even if they dont speak the native language, that is the only thing that should.
Although these represent just two opinions, clearly the priority is on getting the best people in to the organization, and language is not much of a consideration if the team is successful on the diamond or pitch. As I said at the outset, winning is the universal language in sports.
I’d love to hear your take. Is Pierre Boivin correct to suggest that finding bilingual people is the “minimum of respect” that the Canadiens can show to the majority of Quebecers? Is he being ignorant of the millions of fans outside of Quebec who perhaps feel as though they are being shortchanged by his policy of nepotism? After all, how could the Habs be considered a global brand if all of their global fans were driven away by mediocrity?
How would you run things if you were calling the shots?
I’d like to give a big thanks to Michael and Howie giving up their time to answer these questions. I owe you both a tall, frosty one!