Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, released a statement Monday afternoon saying that the ability to speak French is important to coaching the Montreal Canadiens.
Francophone coach important: Gagnon
Where does having a francophone head coach rank in the eyes of Montreal Canadiens fans?
Ask La Presse newspaper columnist Francois Gagnon and the answer is second behind winning.
"Good luck Randy Cunneyworth. You have 50 games to remind us that you don’t speak French," Gagnon posted to his Twitter account Saturday, shortly after the Canadiens fired head coach Jacques Martin and promoted Cunneyworth from the assistant’s role.
Later, Gagnon appeared on Hockey Night in Canada’s Hotstove segment and was asked by host Ron MacLean about his tweet and thoughts on the coaching move.
"I have the utmost respect for Randy Cunneyworth," said Gagnon, who covered the Ottawa Senators when Cunneyworth was team captain in the mid-1990s. "It’s a tough situation for him.
"He has 50 games to show that he can coach in the NHL, and not only that, that he can coach the Montreal Canadiens, and that he can learn French.
"It’s impossible for him to do all of that," Gagnon added. "He needs to win games first and foremost. After that, French will be a second issue. But here in Montreal, the language barrier is an issue."
"Is it important to the fans of Montreal that there is a French-speaking head coach?" Elliotte Friedman of HNIC and host of the iDesk asked Gagnon. "Or, would they accept a great candidate that they knew was a great candidate if he didn’t speak [French] to start?
"That’s the biggest question of all. For me, a GM [general manager] could be in Montreal and speak only English," Gagnon said. "[Tampa Bay Lightning GM] Stevie Yzerman would have been a wonderful GM for this franchise. If you told me [Detroit’s] Mike Babcock, who I think is the best coach in the NHL, would be available, I would write in my paper and say, ‘Let’s see fans, we have a chance to get the best coach in the NHL, so let’s be patient.’
"But [in] this situation, depending who’s going [to take over full-time], [the language barrier] is a big issue. If there’s nobody that great available, then the fans will say [winning] is No. 1 priority but the No. 2 priority is the issue to find a way to get a francophone coach."
— Doug Harrison, CBCSports.ca
"Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, 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," said Molson in the statement.
He also said that the head coach position will be "revaluated" at the end of the season.
Molson's statement comes after criticism from Quebecers who say the new interim head coach, Randy Cunneyworth, is a poor choice for the job because he doesn't speak French.
Impératif Français, a nationalist group based in Gatineau, has called for a boycott of Molson products to protest the hiring, with another group, Mouvement Québec Français, adding its name to the call.
Cunneyworth was promoted from assistant to head coach after Habs management sacked Jacques Martin on Saturday morning. The Twitter-verse immediately began buzzing about the appointment.
Cunneyworth told reporters at the Bell Centre on Saturday that he had no plans to take French lessons, but hoped to pick the language up on the job.
Sports columnist Philippe Cantin, with the French-language daily La Presse, wrote the club has failed in its responsibility to protect and promote the language.
Cantin went on to say the Habs are much more than a simple hockey team for Quebecers.
Cunneyworth became the first Canadiens coach who speaks only English since Bob Berry's reign in the early 80s, and even Berry could hold a conversation in French, according to Cantin.
Mario Beaulieu, head of Mouvement Québec Français, called Cunneyworth's appointment "unacceptable," and said it shows that the team's management is "indifferent" to fans' wishes.
Along with calling for a Molson products ban, Beaulieu hopes fans will avoid buying Canadiens-related products for Christmas.
Twitter respondents back new coach
Some fans said they wouldn't be so upset if the Habs had brought in a highly regarded Stanley Cup winner instead of an assistant without NHL head coaching experience.
Others say if the struggling team goes on a winning streak, all will be forgotten.
La Presse sports editor Jean-François Bégin conducted his own informal survey among sports fans who follow him on Twitter. He posted the results from the 140 respondents: "60% of you finds it OK that the coach doesn't speak French, 40% thinks it should be a hiring condition."
Habs blogger Allen Mendelsohn said even anglophones believe what languages the team's head coach speaks is an issue.
"I understand the political, historic, sociological history of this city and this province to the point where I really think there's a need for a French-speaking coach," he said. "I truly believe that even as an anglophone."
With files from The Canadian Press