A few years ago, emails sent to an NHL general manager started bouncing back to my inbox. It was a strange phenomenon, because he hadn't been fired.
"I had to change my email address," he laughed. "Fans weren't happy with one of my moves."
"Fan" may be short for "fanatic," but people aren't just passionate. They are clever and creative. If they want to let you know how they feel, they're going to find you.
But, even though this GM's move was unpopular in the short term, it turned out be the correct decision over the long run. And that's the moral of the story. To run a team properly, you must be bold enough to make difficult decisions. Winning championships is about making hard choices and sticking to them, no matter what the reaction from the outside.
Which brings us to the Montreal Canadiens.
Quebec hasn't seen a siege like this since Louisbourg in 1758. But while most of us poke fun at the silly language attacks on Randy Cunneyworth
-- there is one important point being overlooked.
This mess is the organization's fault. It could -- and should -- have been avoided.
When you're a Canadian NHL team (or the Dallas Cowboys, or the Los Angeles Lakers, etc.) you know that every move you make is going to be heavily scrutinized. Your smallest waiver transaction is going to be dissected in print, over-the-air and online. Solid plan
That's why it's essential to have a solid plan and a reasonable explanation for everything. That way, when you get the inevitable disagreement, you can confidently say, "We're going ahead with it. We've done the research, we believe in our choices and we're confident they're going to work out."
Then, if those decisions do prove to be correct, you gain credibility with your fanbase.
Unfortunately, over the last two months, the Canadiens have made a series of moves that lack any sense of solid planning or reasonable explanation. The unprecedented decision to fire assistant coach Perry Pearn
two hours before a game, the Tomas Kaberle trade
, and the removal of former head coach Jacques Martin
have done nothing to improve the team's on-ice fortunes.
Instead, Montreal is getting worse.
Consider this: since the lockout ended in 2005, there have been approximately 75 head coaching changes. Martin became just the fifth to be fired on a game day. (The others were Andy Murray, Steve Stirling, John MacLean and Claude Julien -- also by Montreal.) If you include Pearn, the Canadiens have done it twice this season.
In a league where players' game-day routines are considered sacrosanct, you would think that's as bad as it gets. But the language fiasco is far, far worse.
It's impossible to understand how the Canadiens couldn't have anticipated such an angry reaction. From ownership on down, the organization is full of people who should have realized what was going to happen by promoting Randy Cunneyworth. But when you're blinded by panic and don't have an organized blueprint to fall back on, this is what happens.
In a perfect world, Cunneyworth would use the Canadiens' next few days off to stabilize the situation. Then, he'd become a hugely popular figure by leading a New Year's charge into the playoffs, before running to another city whose fans actually appreciate and deserve him.
But those odds are long now, thanks to Monday's statement from owner Geoff Molson, indicating, "It is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach."
Cunneyworth could learn the language, but the damage is done. The Canadiens are 0-4 under his stewardship and each loss is getting worse. Thursday's defeat was a 4-0 sleep walk in Winnipeg that would've been twice as bad without Carey Price.Potential behind the bench
It's tough. Cunneyworth has got potential behind the bench and deserves better. But it's extremely difficult for someone whose position is far from secure to control a sagging team whose seven highest-paid players are signed into next season.
As bad as all of this is, the Canadiens are just four points out of the playoffs. This season is not lost, unless the organization believes it's time to start over. But the patient is not going to survive unless someone steps up with a defibrillator.
That person is not Pierre Gauthier. It's not Cunneyworth. And it's not Brian Gionta, or any other player -- at least, not at first.
It's Geoff Molson. As far as I see it, he has two options.Number one:
When the Canadiens reconvene after Christmas, Molson's got to be there. I'm not a big believer in owners entering the dressing room, but this is a special occasion.
He should admit that the organization's done a terrible job this season of putting the players in the best environment to succeed. The two game-day coaching changes, the language controversy -- terrible. There's enough craziness in Montreal without that stuff. You cannot demand others' accountability without showing yours.
Then, he should bluntly tell the players that it's time to move on. As the owner, his is the one voice they must listen to, because he determines their futures. He's got to let them know that he will make painful decisions -- including putting players in the AHL -- if things don't change.
Or, there's option two
Bring back Bob Gainey, because Gainey will gladly do all of that stuff for him. And, there is a belief around the NHL that Molson is trying to convince him to return.
Whatever he decides, it's also time for Molson to come up with a long-term plan for the future. It's non-existent, which only makes present-day decisions worse.
The Canadiens didn't respond last night when Cunneyworth benched PK Subban and Lars Eller. Unless ownership is willing to accept a total disaster (and its reaction to the Cunneyworth fallout indicates otherwise), it must demand better from itself and the rest of the team.
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