Finding a good coach in the NHL is a difficult task. Many teams conduct extensive searches and consider myriad factors in order to find the right guy for the job. A candidate’s personality is examined, his coaching history is closely scruitninzed and the relationships he has developed along the way are all significant factors in being chosen as one of only 30 coaches in the NHL.
Already this year openings have popped up in Edmonton, Washington, Calgary and Montreal and the season is not yet complete. The Flames wasted little time hiring former Avalanche and Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley for their head coaching position. This move obviously had significant ramifications for the Flames but it also directly affected the search for the head coaching job of the Montreal Canadiens.
Imagine if 100 candidates applied for a job and 95 of them were quickly disregarded due to their inability to speak French fluently. Well, that would be the circumstances that newly hired GM Marc Bergevin had to face when looking for the next head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
That coaching pool was cut down almost entirely by the language barrier that exists when any candidate is considered for any position with the fabled Canadiens franchise. Bergevin, of course, recently benefited from those same limitations when the owners conducted the search for his general manager position this past month. That is not to say that Bergevin is not qualified—in fact, he very much is. However, the competition he faced for that position was limited and thereby provided him with a greater chance of being hired for the position.
If the Canadiens franchise was prepared to handle the political backfire that would result from hiring a strictly Anglophone head coach or general manager, maybe Marc Bergevin would not be the current GM of the franchise.
Communicating with all of the major papers, radio stations and television networks in town is understandably important—but is it bigger than winning itself?
The goal of building a hockey franchise is winning. But is that the foremost concern of the Montreal Canadiens? If it were the case, would the franchise not consider all candidates—whether they could speak French or not?
Remember when the Pittsburgh Penguins hired Ivan Hlinka? His first language was not English. He was not eloquent and was not expected to be. The team hired him because they thought he could coach a hockey club successfully.
Hlinka coached the Penguins to the conference finals in the 2000-01 season. While language was an issue—Mario Lemieux was disappointed he did not take English classes in the summer—one can see that expectations were not high for his English speaking skills.
Learning the English language—while difficult—is not an impossible task, especially with a summer to prepare. Coaches do not have to defend a dissertation. They require a rudimentary understanding of the language and need to be able to speak to the team and surrounding media. They simply have to have enough proficiency in the language to communicate their message—it does not have to be eloquent.
The language barrier, at its basic level, is not as difficult to overcome as the political backlash that would follow.
There is an undeniable French/English political background that most non-Quebecers cannot understand. Appeasing both sides is seen by the ownership of the franchise (both Geoff Molson and his predecessors) as such a stressor that adding this to the responsibility of the coach of this famed franchise is very possibly overwhelming.
This predicament begins at the top of the franchise. If the ownership believes that the GM needs to be francophone, then how can that new GM, hired on that basis, then turn around and not follow the very footprint that got him hired.
Remember, this is a hockey cultural issue more than anything else. The Habs have won 24 Stanley Cups and are a religion that French and English speaking Quebecors share. It is not a sports issue.
Remember the Expos? Did Felipe Alou speak French at an extended level? Remember Frank Robinson? Did he speak French? Sure the Expos were not the model franchise but they were successful before poor ownership and an awful stadium pushed fans away. More importantly, they were successful with non-French speaking managers in the dugout.
What about management? Did Dave Dombrowski speak French? Did Omar Minaya speak French?
The restrictions were not placed at any level, starting with the GM. Without restricting the GM hire to someone who was bilingual (in French and English—Minaya speaks Spanish too) the eventual GMs were not restricted in their managerial search. Again it starts from the top down.
Maybe the Canadiens should have taken some pointers from the now defunct franchise. The organization’s search for a GM led to qualified candidates such as Marc Bergevin and Julien Brisebois but was not seriously extended to a level that would have considered a number of non-French speaking GMs.
When Bergevin was hired, he then began his head coaching search. The prevailing theme is that his candidates were Bob Hartley, Guy Carbonneau, Patrick Roy and Michel Therrien. Of course, all four of these candidates are proficient in the French language—more specifically French is the first language of all of the above candidates.
Nowhere in the list did we hear the names Troy Ward, Brent Sutter, Dallas Eakins or other non-French speaking candidates. The restricted searches limited the Habs to two coaches who had already coached the team in the past ten years. Think about that for another team. What if the Leafs restricted their coaching search to four coaches, two of which were Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice?
So, if the same fans who wanted a French speaking coach are complaining about the hire of Michel Therrien, maybe they have done this, in part, to themselves?