Will the Montreal Canadiens ever have an anglophone coach?

The Habs tend to gravitate towards fluently bilingual coaches. But that narrows the options. Is it time to put identity politics aside?

An expert weighs in on the unwritten rule that a Habs coach must speak French

Bilingual francophone Claude Julien is the new coach of the Montreal Canadiens. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

For a moment of levity during this week's Montreal Canadiens news conference, GM Marc Bergevin jumbled English and French as he spoke about Carey Price's recent lacklustre performance.

When the reporter pointed out that he switched midway, he laughed and apologized, admitting that answering questions in both languages had him mixed up.

It's that kind of ease with Canada's official languages that the Montreal Canadiens have prioritized when looking for people to fill out its top brass, including head coaches, over the last few decades.

Bergevin fired head coach Michel Therrien Tuesday and brought in Claude Julien, himself recently fired as head coach of the Boston Bruins.

Both are bilingual francophones and both have coached the team before. The Habs are limited in their choices because there is an unwritten rule that the coach must speak French.

But will the team ever branch out and source a coach from the pool of anglophones? 

The Randy Cunneyworth experiment

Randy Cunneyworth, an anglophone from Etobicoke, became the Canadiens' interim head coach in 2011 after the Habs fired Jacques Martin.

Cunneyworth was the first coach in decades who only spoke English. At the time, he said he knew a few words in French, but "not all the good ones."

His appointment ignited a firestorm of criticism from Quebec journalists, radio hosts and politicians. Even the provincial culture minister, a Liberal, criticized the move.

At the end of that season, he was replaced by Michel Therrien.

It certainly wasn't the first Habs-related language flap — beloved captain Saku Koivu was criticized for his lack of French skills.

His successor, Brian Gionta, started learning French before Koivu even vacated the position.

Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was fired Tuesday afternoon, after eight seasons with the team. (CBC)

That kind of language-related furor never happens with the Montreal Alouettes and it wasn't an issue for the Expos either. But the Habs, of course, are more than just a hockey team.

"Hiring a coach is a political act for the Montreal Canadiens," said Nicolas Moreau, an associate professor of social sciences at the University of Ottawa.

Moreau, who co-edited a book about the team, says the team is a social institution.

They represent the city at a local level, but can even be considered a national team in their representation of the Quebecois and French-Canadian nation.

Moreau even posited that the team is a symbol of French resistance to English domination.

He pointed to the 1955 Richard Riot, when Canadiens fans revolted over the perceived injustice of Habs legend Maurice Richard, a francophone, being suspended from the playoffs by NHL boss Clarence Campbell, an anglophone, as one example of the connection between the team and its fans.

When Cunneyworth was hired, Moreau started analyzing the opinions that fans and bloggers came up with.

He classified them into two groups: the romantics, who felt the coach must speak French, and the pragmatic fans, who only cared about having the man most qualified for the job.

He found that while the romantics were mostly francophones, they weren't exclusively French-speaking, and vice-versa for the pragmatic bunch.

It helps, of course, that in coaches such as Therrien and Julien, there exists both those criteria — coaches who speak French and have brought their teams to the playoff promised land.

Is winning the most important thing?

Even Habs legend Guy Lafleur is on the record as saying though the coach speaking French is important to some, in the end what everyone wants is a winning team.

As far as an anglophone coach in the near future, Moreau wasn't too hopeful.

"Maybe if the coach is Canadian. Probably not an American, or a [European], but a Canadian. Maybe. If he is very good and he's won, for example, four or five Stanley Cups," he said.

But Moreau said that coach would probably have to learn French eventually, like Bob Gainey did.

Montreal is a particular market, Moreau pointed out.

Habs fans are bilingual and so is media covering the team. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Dealing with the media is a daily thing, and the majority of the media here is French, as are the majority of the residents. Speaking French is crucial to communicating with a passionate fan base.

So the Habs probably won't have an anglophone coach any time soon. But what about in the future?

Moreau says it's possible.

"Sports are political. They reflect society. If there are a lot of debates about identity in society, there will be a lot of debate about identity with the Montreal Canadiens," he said.

Identity politics are still very much at play in today's Quebec. So the appointment of an English coach may not be a reality for the near future, but it may still prove less impossible than in the past.