Montreal Canadiens Dissolving into Chaos of Burnt-out Nationalism and Mediocrity

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIDecember 22, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21: Chris Campoli #17 of the Montreal Canadiens moves across the ice against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on December 21, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canadiens 5-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There are several NHL cities this year in which one does not want to be the coach or a fan. Sadly, one of them is Montreal.

The most blatant symbol of Montreal's troubles was the recent firing of their coach Jacques Martin and his replacement by Randy Cunneyworth.

Martin was never a great coach, anyway, having achieved little of note in his career. But his replacement, Cunneyworth, is being crucified for being of the wrong race and speaking the wrong language.

It's tough enough to coach and play in Montreal with all the baggage of the legacy of the team's glorious history hanging over a player and coach's head. But the Quebec media insist on hanging something that is a non-issue in every other NHL city on the new coach's head.

Ironically, their racist rants are identical to the Anglo-mutterings of the media man they probably dislike the most—the tiresome, boorish remarks of Hockey Night In Canada personality Don Cherry against Europeans.

One might have expected such an outburst by French media in Quebec City, but it's hardly appropriate in cosmopolitan Montreal.

It's a rant that is as tiresome and out of touch as the current team's resemblance to their glorious predecessors.

Cunneyworth may not be the right coach, but the media damned him on a non-hockey issue, and the owner, Geoff Molson, played pile-on-the-rabbit by agreeing in sentiment.

The main victim is Cunneyworth, whose NHL coaching career is probably over before it had a chance to start.


He has been hung out to dry with a bad team, trying to make chicken soup out of chicken feathers.

Montreal has long hovered at the mediocre .500 mark for the past few seasons with little attempt to improve their team. They keep dreaming that the brittle Andre Markov is the main difference between being a mediocre team and a Stanley Cup contender.

The media forgets that in Montreal, the coach is only the second most important person.

The most important figure is the general manager. But the kind of general manager that the Quebec media dreams about—the one that builds dynasties—disappeared 30 years ago when Sam Pollock stepped down.

Fans and media alike to reminisce about the glorious quarter-century of 1955-1980 when they mention the players and coaches, but the one constant was general manager Pollock and his predecessor, Frank Selke, who created those teams.

The present team bears little resemblance to the "Flying Frenchmen" of those times, and poor Cunneyworth is left to pay the price for it. It is the creation of the current management and ownership.

The present management already made the controversial decision to trade Jaroslav Halak, who gave the Canadiens their best playoff goaltending since Patrick Roy, in favour of Carey Price.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Randy Cunneyworth of the Montreal Canadiens gives instructions to Andrei Kostitsyn #46 during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on December 21, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeat
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Halak was the main reason that the Canadiens were able to pull off monumental upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh, while Price was the goaltender in defeats to arch-rivals Philadelphia and Boston.


By continuing with the never-ending language issue, the Quebec media are playing a foolish and limiting game.

They are creating a poisonous atmosphere in which no one—English, French Canadian, American or European—will want to play or coach in Montreal or Quebec City if it returns to the NHL.

For the French-Canadian coach, there's the legacy of the great Montreal coaches of the past to live up to. Ask Claude Julien, Alain Vigneault and the recently retired Jacques Lemaire if they preferred coaching in Boston, Vancouver, New Jersey and Minnesota to coaching in Montreal, where the lineup cards are scrutinized by the media based on who speaks what language.

But there are only so many good French-Canadian coaches to go around. And fear of repercussions from the Quebec media is going to limit the choice that management can make to be the team's coach. It will also make English-Canadian or American candidates think twice before considering Montreal as a place of employment.

And lest we forget, in these modern sexually-equal times, there is also the influence of "Mrs. Coach" on where her husband will be employed. She may not like to see her husband, her children and herself tarred and feathered for speaking a different language.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21: Peter Budaj #30 of the Montreal Canadiens reacts after giving up a third period goal to Viktor Stalberg of the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on December 21, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canadi
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For the French-Canadian player born in Quebec, playing in a city outside of his own province may now be a blessing; he won't have to live up to all the expectations that the nationalist media will heap on his head.

But the Quebec media's language-stance also hurts French-Canadian players in other NHL cities, where they don't want to be seen as bigots and want to fit into their teams as just one of the guys.


In the event, so far replacing Martin with Cunneyworth has only made clear that the team's troubles are far more than who paces behind the bench.

It's been a long time since a Montreal team inspired the fear and awe from their opponents that Pollock and Selke's teams used to create.

Montreal is mediocre at best. They seem poised to go backwards instead of up the ladder. It will take several seasons of rebuilding before they get a team like those of Selke and Pollock.

And Montreal may never get the best coach possible for a rebuilding team because of the language issue that the media creates. 

It's interesting to speculate what might happen should the NHL ever setup a European division of the league.

French and English Canadians might enjoy playing and coaching in front of fans and media who speak only Czech, Finnish, Swedish, Russian, German and Slovakian more than their stay in Montreal and Quebec City.