French Speaking Coaches: An In-Depth Look

Ah the language issue tied to the Montreal Canadiens. We’ll never get away from it, are we? Well let’s see… In a world where people are offended by a 1940’s ‘Baby it’s cold outside’ Christmas song? In a society where you have to tell people not to eat Tide Pods or lick public toilet seats? And a society where you have to remove the guns off cartoon characters like Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam? Allow me to doubt it will ever go away. If anything, it will only get worse as people are offended by everything and anything. Worse, they are encouraged by the fact that we live in a world where they get their way regardless is it benefits the majority or just themselves.

With the uncertainty regarding Claude Julien‘s future as a head coach due to his recent health issues, the topic has resurfaced. Some people were up in arms against Marc Bergevin after his announcement of having Kirk Muller replacing Julien in an interim basis. They were upset that the Canadiens’ GM had to almost apologize for the fact that Muller wasn’t bilingual. Here are his exact words, straight from the press release:

“We understand that Kirk does not speak French, but these are exceptional circumstances and we’re asking you for your understanding. Out of respect for Claude and his family, I will not answer any further questions about his medical condition.” ~ Marc Bergevin, August 13, 2020.

But why did he feel the need to talk about the fact that Kirk didn’t speak French? If you’re sincerely asking yourself that question, let me refresh your memory. Back in 2011, after firing Jacques Martin, the team named Randy Cunneyworth as the interim head coach until they could find another coach. And this happened…

Whether it’s about having more French Canadian players or the criteria of having a bilingual General Manager and coach, you will always have the crowd who feels it’s a ridiculous criteria. They feel like it’s limiting the selection. They are butting heads with the ones who understand the need of having people in the Montreal Canadiens speak the language of Molière.

We have touched fairly extensively in the past on the reasons for the need of having French speaking Canadians on the Habs but has that changed since? Keep reading and mostly, please try keeping an open mind. If you’re unilingual anglophone or if you’re fully bilingual, understand that not everyone is.

The population demographic

We know that Quebec’s first language is French and many don’t speak English and that’s some of the reasoning for the Canadiens to have this bilingualism criteria. But what are the actual most recent numbers? According to Statistics Canada, here are the most recent numbers in the categories of ‘Mother Tongue’ and ‘Language At Work’.

Yes, the Habs have fans around the world and chances are that most of them speak English or another language than French. Yes, other languages likely outnumber French in the fanbase. But Montreal is located in Quebec and so is the Bell Centre. So is the Bell Sports complex in Brossard, so are the reporters. Last but not least, so are most of their sponsors whose clients are predominantly… French. Let’s not be selfish here and think of them, not you who, by reading this, understand English.

The NHL numbers

The Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques have been huge contributors to giving local coaches their first chances. Since 1979, we saw Jacques Demers, Michel Bergeron, Jacques Lemaire, Jean Perron, Ron Lapointe, Pat Burns, Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, and Guy Carbonneau become NHL head coaches.

Six out of those 10 coaches find themselves in the top-50 of all-time for wins. Their careers resulted in eight participations to the Stanley Cup finals, four championships and nine Jack Adams trophies.

Of course, most of those coaches worked at different places in the NHL after getting their breaks in Montreal or Quebec City. But had they not been given the opportunity at home, how many of them would have found work in the NHL? Likely none of them.

Across the border, only five teams since 1979 gave French Canadians their first chances at coaching in the NHL. The Minnesota North Stars (Pierre Pagé), the Pittsburgh Penguins (Pierre Creamer), the Chicago Blackhawks (Denis Savard), the Colorado Avalanche (Patrick Roy) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (Guy Boucher). In two of those five cases (Savard et Roy), we’re talking about former players who had huge impacts on those teams. For two others (Creamer et Boucher), they were working in the Canadiens’ organisation as they were coaching their AHL farm team, so once again given a coaching chance from the Habs.

So let’s sum it up, shall we? Since 1979, a period of 41 years, 15 head coaches from Quebec made their debuts in the NHL. A dozen of them owe it to the Canadiens or the Nordiques.

Conclusion

We can safely say that if it’s not for Montreal, many talented coaches would never get a chance to make a career at coaching in the NHL and show what they can do. The fact that Geoff Molson and his management team understand the issue and are committed to putting an emphasis on it is a good thing and that, in spite of the grumbling of many.

In the summer of 2018, Bergevin and the Canadiens have hired two great up and coming coaches in Dominique Ducharme and Joël Bouchard, who then added Alex Burrows to his staff. Time will tell how far they will go as NHL coaches but if they do, they too will have gotten their first gig in the Habs’ organisation.

By adding the bilingualism to the search criterias, is the team uselessly tying their own hands by limiting their selections for their candidates? Yes, they might pass on some excellent candidates. No one in their right mind will deny that. However, looking at the Burns, Lemaire, Bergeron, Therrien, Demers and Vigneault, to which we must add French speaking Ontarians Jacques Martin, Bob Hartley and Claude Julien… Those names are undeniable proof that there is plenty of talent to pull from in order to find quality candidates to coach the Montreal Canadiens while being able to communicate with the local fanbase in Quebec. Go Habs Go!

Crédit pour les nombres d’entraîneurs: @GBertrandMedia

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