When the Montreal Canadiens fired coach Jacques Martin over the weekend, it wasn’t a shocking move. The team, floundering in last place in the Northeast Division, needed a shakeup. And while the Canadiens’ head-coaching job has long been a revolving door, they weren’t even the quickest in the league to send it spinning: Five other NHL teams had already canned their head coaches this season. The biggest surprise of Martin’s dismissal was that it hadn’t already happened, or that GM Pierre Gauthier hadn’t been let go also.
Nor was it particularly unusual to promote an assistant coach to the top job. Plenty of NHL coaches have gotten their big break that way, just as plenty of others have served their temporary roles as placeholder and stepped back down once a flashier or flat-out-better replacement was found.
But when the Canadiens announced that an assistant coach would be filling the void on an interim basis, the reaction in and around some parts of Montreal was trés scandalisé. That’s because Randy Cunneyworth ne parle pas Français.
“Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson is seeking to soothe tensions in the city after hiring a unilingual anglophone head coach,” announced CTV, gravely.
Several angered nationalist groups called for boycotts of Molson products. Molson himself issued a statement: “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.”
“The coach of the Canadiens is the most scrutinized personality in Quebec,” explained Journal de Montreal columnist Denis Poissant.1 “Even more than the prime minister, Celine Dion and even [Quebec City mayor] Regis Labeaume.”
Indeed, many in Montreal cherish the Canadiens as a cultural institution, a civic phenomenon, an entity that transcends plain old sports. Serge Savard, the legendary former GM, said that the team “belongs to the people.” And the vast majority of those people speak French … even if the overwhelming majority of the Canadiens roster does not.
But none of this is about the composition of this particular Montreal lineup, nor is it even about Cunneyworth. This is a broader issue, much the way the Canadiens are envisioned to be some broader symbol. This same conversation is had any and every time there’s a vacancy, whether it be on the coaching staff or on the depth chart. Greg Wyshynski recalls various outrages over non-Francophone captains, as well as “dozens of draft picks and other transactions made out of concern for culture.”
It’s fine to do things out of concern for culture, and the franchise is free to operate in whatever way it sees fit. But it can also be incredibly limiting. Travis Hughes surveyed the NHL landscape and found that the array of French-speaking coaches out there is pretty slim pickins. Of course, there is that one “perfect” solution, the one talked about incessantly whenever a coaching change appears imminent: Patrick Roy. Questioned this weekend about whether he’d consider it, he chose his words carefully. “Yes, it is certain I would listen if the Canadiens called,” he said (presumably in French).
For the time being, though, the Habs stand just three points out of the playoffs (although it’s a crowded and competitive three points). And Cunneyworth has a merciful bit of breathing room for the rest of 2011 — the Canadiens don’t play their next home game until January 4. He already seems to be getting in practice.
“J’aime bien Randy Cunneyworth,” Twittered Renaud Lavoie, a hockey reporter for the French-speaking Canadian network RDS, yesterday. “Je viens de le croiser et il m’a dit en français ‘Salut comment ça va ?’ avec un sourire.”
For those unilingual Anglophones among us, that meant: “I like Randy Cunneyworth, we just crossed and he said in French “Hi how are you?” with a smile.”
Last night we were treated to episode two of HBO’s 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic. Watching the four-episode series is bittersweet, like reading a really great book: You rue your progress, wanting to read the next page but hating that it’ll put you that much closer to the end. I’m devastated that we’re already halfway there.
Peter Laviolette Would Be Great on HFBoards.com: One of my favorite small moments was coach Laviolette skating up alongside Scott Hartnell in practice to quietly congratulate him on his 200th goal, which led to this exchange regarding the coach’s own brief NHL career:
Laviolette: That’s 200 more than me.
Hartnell: You didn’t get one?
Laviolette: …12 games.
And Laviolette’s rally sputter of “Typical Montreal” to show his displeasure with the officials at the Bell Centre (this one in particular, I believe) was great for two reasons: (a) see above, and (b) taken in conjunction with his point-proving war of attrition with the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this season, it painted a picture of an NHL coach who shares many a fed-up viewpoint with even the most passionate NHL fans among us. Now, let’s just hope that the show got some good footage last night of him shoving Dallas’ Steve Ott.
Officiating Is an Art, Not a Science: As they did last year, HBO included footage from inside the officials’ locker room, which yielded some F-bombs as well as some interesting chatter about the reasons (some sketchy) for some of their on-ice decisions. But nothing was as direct as the mics picking up one official skating alongside the Flyers’ Max Talbot, who had just been called for a penalty, and admitting it had been a bad call. “But sometimes you just accumulate things,” he said. Terry Gregson must have loved that.
Dan Girardi Has the Most Adorable Son of All Time: That is all.
Henrik Lundqvist Looks Eerily Like Jon Hamm: Right?
Too Little on Pronger, Too Late on Giroux: For all the inside access we’re promised with the show, it seemed like kind of a cop-out to show the news that team captain Chris Pronger is out for the season with a concussion by just showing footage of a coach’s press conference, as Pierre LeBrun wrote. As for Claude Giroux, his return to the ice after a concussion of his own took place too late — last night as well — to work it into the show. A pity, because Giroux recorded a goal and three assists in the game. (Still, the scene of the team doctor asking him how his head felt during any texting was fun.)
Even When He’s Nice, John Tortorella Is Kind of a Hard-ass: Of course, the big lump-in-throat story was that of 10-year-old Liam, a huge Rangers fan with cerebral palsy who befriended John Tortorella at an MSG Garden of Dreams event. (I would do anything to read their text messages.) As “awww”-inducing as the Liam plot was, I had to laugh when Tortorella explained that following the kid’s hip surgery over the summer, the Rangers coach checked in with Liam frequently because he felt “he was getting a little lazy” with his rehab. Stop projecting your feelings about Wojtek Wolski onto innocent children, Torts!
The Show Has Become Self-Aware: Last week’s episode brought us the hilarity of Philadelphia goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov espousing on “the universe,” sacred tigers, and Chinese law. This week, Bryz walked into a team meal the way Forrest Gump boarded a bus: His teammates, having watched the program,2 had no desire to sit near him. (Jagr literally moved his tray to another table.) It was playful … but also kind of not? I dunno, I felt a little bit bad for Bryz, although I guess it’s hard to feel bad for someone who proceeds to happily sit down and begin comparing his “blue-eyed” Siberian husky to “basically a hot girl, man.”3 In another ouroboric scene, a pair of Flyers rookies lay in their hotel room and discussed how crazy it is to be on a team with Jagr. “He was on Sega Genesis,” said Zac Rinaldo. “I used to play that game religiously … I was Eric Lindros.”
My Parents Enjoyed the Show, Too: Because I am a person who writes things on the Internet for a living, it’s essentially part of my contract that I must at some point operate from my mother’s basement. And so, after calling my parents last week and informing them that in advance of my trip home for the holidays they needed to get HBO (with the same tone I once used to procure Trapper Keepers during back-to-school sales — Mo-om, I neeeeeed it! Loveyouthanks!), it was only fair to sit down and watch the show as a family. It was cool to see the things that they, the elusive “casual fans” whom 24/7 is designed to reach, latched onto. My dad was visibly amped to see John McEnroe playing guitar with Henrik Lundqvist, but he was a tough crowd: “They’re terrible,” he declared. And while I was busy giggling over inside-hockey things like Laviolette sputtering “typical Montreal,” my mother had her own take: “What!?” she exclaimed. “Didn’t the reffers see that?”
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
This Alex Burrows goal off a Sedin double-dangle is best summed up by the broadcaster’s Speed– like wonder: “Now … if you’re a defenseman, what do you do?” (Harrison Mooney answers that in his great breakdown of another twin-to-twin goal4 from the same game: “The secret to defending the Sedins is very simple: Don’t make any mistakes ever.”)
I also enjoyed this goal from Henrik Zetterberg, which was like watching a linebacker thread a needle on the first try.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performances
Terry Pegula, the natural-gas magnate who poured megabucks into the Sabres franchise this offseason, has, like most moneymen these days, grown unhappy with the return on his investment. After his team fell 8-3 to the Penguins Saturday — a particularly annoying loss for the Pennsylvania native — a frustrated Pegula snarked to the press: “We saw some great goaltending tonight, didn’t we?” before suggesting that his daughter might have been better in net.5
A few days later, Sabres president Ted Black — “Pegula’s trusted lieutenant,” per ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun — unloaded on the team in his own way. “I don’t know of a coach that has done so much with so little for so long than Lindy [Ruff],” he said.
While the Sabres are only a point out of the playoffs, the vibe surrounding the franchise has become increasingly bleak. The team has battled injuries and been rattled by mediocre goaltending — the one thing most people assumed they could rely on.
Black continued, admitting: “I recognize the inherent cruelty of asking fans who have been through 40 winters of disappointment to have patience or to ask them to have a sense of hope and promise.”
Inherent cruelty? Winters of disappointment? Buffalo is starting to sound more like Westeros — a place where things end up badly for just about everyone involved.
Taking It Coast to Coast: A Lap Around the League
- White Cover Mag got into the holiday spirit by assigning a Christmas movie quote to a player on every NHL team. Alex Ovechkin gets a line from Bad Santa: “Are you saying there’s something wrong with my gear?” while the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Cullen is like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation: “If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.” I have to admit, I’m a little sad he didn’t go with the “You’re what the French call les incompétents” for … well, you know who.
- Beware the boards. First San Jose’s Martin Havlat got caught up while trying to hop onto the ice; the team announced today that the injury-ridden player will now miss up to two more months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn tendon in his hamstring. (OW.) On the brighter side, this botched hit by the New Jersey Devils’ Cam Janssen that left him comically upended on his own bench inspired NHL.com’s merry band of mischief-makers to go with the video headline: “Janssen in the Dark.” Someone at league HQ is a Bruce fan!6
- This Hartford Whalers tie by Vineyard Vines could make the Connecticut man in your life prettttty happy.
- The Washington Capitals’ Mike Knuble played in his 1,000th career game Tuesday, making him the second-oldest player to reach the milestone. He was given a silver stick, a Tiffany crystal, and a certificate for a Sea-Doo. Best of all, the Capitals won the game, topping the Predators 4-1 and getting goals from the guys they’re supposed to be getting goals from: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin. (Troy Brouwer added a score as well.)
- The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Colby Armstrong, who has been plagued by one injury after another, tried to conceal a concussion he received in a game Saturday night against Vancouver. Liam McHugh of NBC Sports asked VP of player safety Brendan Shanahan about the incident during the Flyers-Stars pregame show last night. “I think players are getting adequately educated, and the Colby Armstrong situation is actually a great example,” Shanahan said. “He was probably outed by teammates or coaches. The peer pressure used to be that you weren’t telling anyone. Now it’s that you do.“
- With the World Junior Championship set to commence Monday, Team USA received a last-minute setback. Defenseman Seth Jones, the 17-year-old son of Popeye7 who is projected to be a potential no. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, sustained an upper-body injury during an exhibition game that will keep him out of the tournament.
- As the old sports cliche goes, you can’t win the championship early in the season, but you sure as hell can lose it. The most ominous thing I read this week to that end came care of the Edmonton Journal‘s Jonathan Willis, who looked back at the mid-December standings over the last several seasons and found that teams sitting more than a few points out of playoff contention were extremely unlikely to make up that ground, despite the season not even being half over. I’ve collected his tweets on the subject here; but the money line: “Out of TB, NYI, CAR, LA, CGY, EDM, COL, ANA, and CBJ, it’s probable that just one team will make the post-season.”Let’s hope it’s the Kings!
- With the Florida Panthers down a goal against the Coyotes on Tuesday and with just 24 seconds left in the game, Stephen Weiss was awarded a penalty shot. What transpired had more in common with curling than hockey.
- Some sundry statistics: Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, a leading candidate for the Hart (MVP) Trophy, is currently the league’s best faceoff man, winning 60.5 percent of his draws … He’s also third in the league in takeaways with 42. (Colorado’s Ryan O’Reilly has 51, while the Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk has 45.) … With their 3-2 shootout win over the Flyers on Monday, the Avalanche improved to 6-0 in the “skills competition”; only the Devils, at 7-1, have had more wins … Speaking of the Devils, Patrik Elias became the franchise’s all-time leading goal-scorer this weekend with his 348th career goal and had six points in his last four games before coming down with the flu … That point streak pales in comparison to the one being put together by Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who has totaled 15 points in his past six games, including a three-goal, two-assist night against Buffalo.
- Here’s a sentence, presented without commentary: “Children’s singer and longtime hockey fan Raffi Cavoukian is so fed up with Don Cherry’s rock ’em sock ’em antics he has started a Twitter campaign to mute Canada’s most colourful commentator.”
Chirping Like a Champ: The Week’s Best Mouthing Off
This video isn’t quite the hockey trash talk that usually fills this section, but trust me: It’s so much better than that.
Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.
To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.