By Michael Farber
January 03, 2012

(Montreal) -- Listening to Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier speak is like reading the front page of The New York Times aloud. Publicly, he refers to defenseman Josh Gorges, who he signed this week to a six-year extension worth an average of $3.9 million annually, as Mr. Gorges. He calls Randy Cunneyworth, his interim coach, Mr. Cunneyworth. Whenever he mentions Andrei Markov, his injured star defenseman, it is invariably Mr. Markov or M. Markov, depending on the language of the question.

Gauthier handled all the questions, French and English, during his annual midseason press conference on Monday, dishing out spin and honorifics in a way that sounded more stilted than classy. (Next summer, if Montreal signs Mr. T, Mr. Ed and a Mr. Smith, who will get a ton of ice time when the team goes to Washington, the GM will be on firmer ground.)

Gauthier stood at a lectern in front of a blue background dominated by the familiar CH logo, infrequently making eye contact with inquisitors, and seemingly gazing at the two banks of cameras at the back of the room at the Canadiens' practice facility. Or maybe he was staring out at Middle Earth. From a seat in the back row, it was tough to tell.

Gauthier's disquisition -- if affected language is going to carry the day, bring it on -- followed a practice that featured a drop-the-gloves tiff between Tomas Plekanec and P.K. Subban, the outgrowth of a hit along the end boards during a spirited drill and a surfeit of New Year's testosterone. The lads weren't exactly throwing haymakers, but they scuffled (video) and did land a few shots until the newly flush Gorges, whose contract apparently includes a Mills Lane clause, stepped in and broke it up.

The dressing-room consensus was that the blow-up increased the intensity of practice and ultimately will prove good for morale, a predictable smiley face that masked an unsightly blemish. Plekanec shrugged it off as one of those things, but Subban, the target of an apparent racial slur by Florida's Krys Barch last Saturday, was not made available for comment.

The point: things are never dull around the Canadiens. Lousy, yes -- they are 13th in the Eastern Conference -- but never dull.

Assuming they carry out their threat on Wednesday, a provincial nationalist group will hand out blue-and-white Quebec flags outside the Bell Centre before the Canadiens play Winnipeg. The group is sorely irked, not because of Montreal's one win in seven games since Gauthier fired coach Jacques Martin and replaced him with Cunneyworth, but because the Canadiens are being coached by a man who speaks English exclusively.

In Montreal, you not only have to win the game, you better win the press conference.

Gauthier was clear when he announced the coaching change that Cunneyworth would be the interim coach until the end of the season. This, of course, did nothing to douse the linguistic firestorm that seemed to blindside the organization. The principal owner, Geoff Molson, who clumsily inserted himself into the foofaraw surrounding Zdeno Chara's shove of Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty into a stanchion last season, again issued a press release, outlining that the ability to speak French and English were essential to the job, and emasculating Cunneyworth before the man could scribble any new breakout plays.

The previous owner, the avuncular George Gillett Jr., who bought (and helped revive) a distressed franchise when no local ownership was interested, was peddling snake oil. Molson, by definition and tradition, is peddling beer. He is member of the famous Molson family, which has been brewing suds in Montreal since 1786, making it the second oldest Canadian company. Before allowing Gauthier to turf the stolid Martin and install, however temporarily, a unilingual English speaker, he should have assessed his market and referred to a guiding principle in the family business: the customer is always right.

In the province of Quebec, the customers are predominantly French speaking. They want a coach who can speak to them in their language. That pretty much is game, set, match ... as difficult as it might be to grasp for outsiders, who ponder the Canadiens' standard of historical excellence -- the record 24 Stanley Cups, the voluminous collection of some of the most important players in hockey history -- and think that winning alone should be the sole criterion. If the Canadiens existed in a vacuum, or in, say, New Jersey or Alberta, that reasoning would fly. They don't, of course.

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The internal logic in Montreal, however twisted, is unassailable in the curious context of Quebec. In a poll published in the La Presse newspaper on Dec. 24, 79 per cent of respondents answered "yes" to the question of whether the Canadiens, which currently have three local French speakers on the roster, should hire more francophone players. Among French-speakers, that figure rose to 88 percent. Another 71 per cent said they would be more proud of the team if French speakers constituted a majority of the players.

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The Canadiens represent a patrimony beyond any team, and sometimes seemingly beyond all reason, in North American sport, but they are no more of a public trust than, say, a Tim Hortons double double -- a popular coffee with two creams, two sugars. (I have fallen down that rabbit hole of Canadiens = public trust/religion a few times myself during the years. Won't happen again.) They certainly are a sports entertainment business in which their customers have imbued a heightened and even mystical sense of meaning, which the team has profited from over the years. But remember, at their core, the Habs are a business.

Gauthier actually offered an apology, of sorts, on Monday for promoting Cunneyworth, an assistant, to head coach. Some two weeks after making the coaching change, the GM said, "I'm sorry if we upset people (by not hiring a bilingual coach). Because that certainly wasn't our intention ... Having a bilingual coach is very, very important and will be part of the decision process going forward."

A bystander caught in a socio-linguistic crossfire, Cunneyworth has gone about his job with a minimum of fuss. He is, according to one of his prominent players, "an-over-the-top nice guy." Well, that's good. Of course, not all his moves have worked. (Maybe somebody should have whispered in his ear and ordered him to venture a "bonjour" or "merci" at his first press conference and acknowledge the importance of learning French "tout de suite." Not only the owner and GM have tin ears.)

The first thing Cunneyworth told the team, according to Canadiens' fourth-liner Mathieu Darche, was, "I believe in Jacques's system." Still, the new coach has fiddled, moving Lars Eller into the middle between Pacioretty and Erik Cole. He has paired David Desharnais with slumping winger Mike Cammalleri, a partnership that shows some promise. He also scratched Eller and the daring Subban for a game. He has amped up the forecheck. He has trimmed some of Plekanec's responsibilities, sometimes using the team's most technically sound player on the third line.

Unless Montreal, which has won 14 of 39 games, abruptly reverses course, those tweaks will all become so many rearranged deckchairs on the Titanic, part of Cunneyworth's audition to coach another team next season or return as an assistant under the bilingual new guy.

Early in the 2000s, Cunneyworth, then in AHL Rochester, was considered a rising star, a flavor-of-the-year young coach. But then he dropped off the NHL radar until joining Atlanta as an assistant in 2008.

"I know his teams were always hard-working," Darche says. "I was in Syracuse for three years and he was in Rochester, and we played them 12 times a year. Maybe I played against him 50 times over the years. Certainly his teams battled. They were always hard to play against. It's tough that he had to come in here with a lot of media attention and be at the center of a political debate for a while."

For a team that simply is too easy to score against and ranks 14th in the conference in goals-scored, there are no quick fixes for a coach with precious little time. Darche thinks his team, which already has lost 15 games in which it has held the lead, needs to just grind away and stick to the game plan. Goalie Carey Price thinks improvement is imminent if Cunneyworth continues to hold players accountable for mistakes.

While not exactly throwing himself a pity party, Gauthier mentioned that the Canadiens' total payroll on the ice exceeded the NHL cap floor for just four games because of injuries to key players. Presumably he meant Mr. Brian Gionta the captain, Mr. Scott Gomez the center, and Mr. Markov the unrestricted free agent who signed a three-year, $17.25 million contract during the summer but has yet to play because of his surgically-reconstructed knee. Gionta and Gomez, who have left more of an impression on the balance sheet than on the ice, were signed or, in Gomez's case, acquired by Gauthier's predecessor, Bob Gainey, when Gauthier was the assistant GM. Maybe the contract awarded to the combative but undersized Gorges will also ultimately be considered hopelessly bloated, although that might be the worry of the next GM. Gauthier can parry questions in two languages, but it will be a Houdini-esque escape if he keeps his job beyond this season.

Maybe Cunneyworth can find a way out of the mess that was not apparent in his first seven games. He, like Subban, was unavailable Monday. Presumably he was tending to coaching stuff although if he were really clever, he would have had been reading Voltaire's Candide. In the original.

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