I’ve been getting a little behind in writing due to Christmas, but I did want to touch on the story of Randy Cunneyworth being named head coach of the Montreal Canadiens the other week. As you’ve likely heard, there was a bit of an uproar that the head coach of the Canadiens couldn’t speak French. I think that this uproar suggests that the idea of the Montreal Canadiens is obsolete. Why? Well, let’s look at the history of the club.
The Montreal Canadiens were first formed slightly over 100 years ago. Back then, it was quite common for teams, even those competing at the highest level of play, to be composed solely of people from the same ethnic group. You can find teams named the “Bulldogs”, “Shamrocks”, “Thistles”, and other ethnic designations on the Stanley Cup or in the standings for various leagues. It was in this atmosphere that the Canadiens were born. Their roster was populated solely with French-Canadians. And, unlike some of their competitors, this idea actually worked out pretty well for them, and they survived and won lots of Stanley Cups.
During the “Original Six” era (I don’t like that name, since four of the six teams weren’t original, but I won’t dwell on that here) each team had the exclusive rights to juniors who were from the surrounding area. For the Canadiens, that primarily comprised, you guessed it, French-Canadians. The fact that they had access to all of this talent was a big reason for their success in the “Original Six” era (and a big reason why Boston, Chicago, and New York, who at the time were surrounded by relative hockey wastelands, were unsuccessful back then). During the mid 1960s, the NHL, anticipating expansion, switched to a draft. Now, the talented French-Canadian might end up anywhere. However, the Canadiens still had lots of talent in their farm system, which enabled them to remain a strong team until the end of the 1970s (they won four cups in a row between 1975-76 and 1978-79).
Over the next 32 years, the Canadiens have only won the cup twice. Now, that’s a bit better than chance and a bit better than some other teams *cough*Toronto*cough* but the Canadiens are far from the dynasty that they were when they had exclusive access to some of the best hockey talent in the country. Things have changed. First, there are a lot more sources of hockey talent than Quebec. Second, if they want that hockey talent from Quebec, they can’t get it for free anymore; they’re going to have to pay for it. Basically, the Canadiens must make a choice. They can either choose to be a French-Canadian team, or they can choose to be a winning team. Either they choose the best players they can get, or they choose French players that may not be as good.
The same goes for their head coach. They can either choose a good head coach, or they can choose one that speaks French. The choice is theirs, but it’s an either/or choice. They can’t have it both ways. If the Canadiens want to win, they need to realise that the idea of the team as a French-Canadian team is an anachronism and abandon it as obsolete.