The Montreal Canadiens' wacky season just got a little weirder.
The team's general manager took the unusual step today of issuing a qualified apology, two weeks into the reign of new coach Randy Cunneyworth.
The Dec. 17 hiring of Cunneyworth, on an interim basis for the rest of the season, touched off a language controversy. He is the team's first coach in decades unable to speak French.
"I'm sorry if we upset people. Because that certainly wasn't our intention," Pierre Gauthier told reporters Monday.
It was a far cry from the defiant response Gauthier offered last month, when a reporter asked about Cunneyworth's inability to communicate with francophone fans in their language. At the time, his testy reply was that languages could always be learned.
On Monday, he stressed that Cunneyworth's hiring was not necessarily permanent and he said his status would be re-examined after the season.
"What will happen in the future, at the end of the season, is that we will re-evaluate the whole file," Gauthier said.
"As [owner Geoff] Molson said in his communique a week ago, it's very important to us that our head coach be bilingual.
"So that will be part of our decision at that point."
The Cunneyworth hiring touched off a language flap given that the Habs, for their entire century-long history, have always marketed themselves as French Canada's team. It's been 40 years since the team last hired a coach who couldn't speak French.
That controversy has merely been fuelled by the team's poor play; under Cunneyworth, the Habs have won only one of seven games.
The Canadiens (14-18-7) went 1-5-0 on a road trip that ended with a 3-2 loss in Florida on Saturday. They have just one win in their last nine games.
Gauthier said getting injured veterans like Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez back and getting some other players to play better should help the club out of it's slump.
"It's a trickle down effect, because there are people missing and there are veterans not performing as they should, and now there are extra demands placed on young players," Gauthier said. "And if you're going to count on young players to get you out of your problems and if you're getting into slumps, it's going to be very difficult."
He said the team has blown a lot of leads this season due to mistakes by individual players rather than the team's system of play. Many of the mistakes are made by "young players that are probably overexposed.
"One problem causes another problem and another problem. So we have a lot of work to do to turn this thing around."
The Habs 11 of their next 15 games at home, and Gauthier said he would wait until that is over to decide whether the Canadiens will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. He said the team rallied from a December slump last season to reach the post-season.
Gauthier said defenceman Andrei Markov, who has yet to play since signing a three-year contract last summer, will have his reconstructed knee evaluated by doctors this week. However, he said the team's top rearguard will not be back before the all-star break.
The normally potent Montreal power play has dipped to 29th in the 30-team league with a 12.8 per cent success rate, although they operated without Markov for most of last season as well.
Gauthier's main reason for holding a news conference was the signing on Sunday of defenceman Josh Gorges to a $23.4 million US contract.
Gorges said the team wanted to see how his knee responded to reconstructive surgery last season before committing to a long-term deal, and that he was delighted with the contract.
"I don't think it's Pierre Gauthier's usual way to sign guys during the season but it's more of an extension of negotiations from the summertime," said Gorges. "I said right from the start this is where I want to be.
Gauthier has more than $45 million committed to only 13 players for next season, and has five players headed to unrestricted free agency.
His restricted free agents include goaltender Carey Price and defenceman P.K. Subban, of whom he said "we have every intention of keeping with the franchise for a long time. So, in due time, we'll address those contracts."
Just before Gauthier's appearance, Subban and centre Tomas Plekanec exchanged punches during practice on Monday.
The two clashed during a one-on-one drill. Both dropped their gloves and threw punches until Josh Gorges and other teammates stepped in to stop it.
No big punches landed, neither player was hurt, and both players stayed on the ice as practice resumed.
"It's nothing personal between me and P.K. It's about the team and to realize we have to start playing as a team," Plekanec said. "Those things happen."
"It's not the first time. It happened between some other guys. That's what happens during the course of the year when things are not going well. I wouldn't say it's a frustration thing, it's just that we realize we need to be better," he said.
Subban was not available for comment. He has been in the spotlight in the last two weeks. New coach Randy Cunneworth made Subban and Lars Eller healthy scratches for a Dec. 22 game in Winnipeg.
Subban on Saturday was involved in a first period scrum with Florida forward Krys Barch.
According to a report in the Miami Herald, a lineseman alleged that Barch used a racial slur during the tussle, although Subban said after the game he didn't hear anything.
Barch was given a game misconduct, and the league is expected to further investigate.
Montreal next plays Wednesday at home against the Jets.