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Habs owner issues statement amid controversy over coach who can't speak French

Randy Cunneyworth speaks at a news conference in Montreal Saturday, December 17, 2011 after being named as interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. The Quebec government has weighed in on the hiring of a Montreal Canadiens coach who can't speak French — and it isn't pleased.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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Randy Cunneyworth speaks at a news conference in Montreal Saturday, December 17, 2011 after being named as interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. The Quebec government has weighed in on the hiring of a Montreal Canadiens coach who can't speak French — and it isn't pleased.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL - The owner of the Montreal Canadiens was forced to issue a public statement Monday amid an explosive clash between hockey and language.

For weeks Quebec has been awash in reports of the perceived erosion of French-language rights, with constant news about companies failing to provide services or hire employees who speak the province' majority language.

Enter the Montreal Canadiens, perhaps Quebec's most cherished institution.

The team once known as the Flying Frenchmen now has almost no francophone players. And on the weekend, it did something that triggered a firestorm of controversy in Quebec—it hired a coach who speaks zero French.

The hiring of Randy Cunneyworth was enough to prompt calls, from nationalist fringe groups, for a boycott of products related to the Habs. One political commentator even suggested local hockey journalists should refuse to address Cunneyworth in English.

And Quebec's entire political class predictably weighed in, with politicians of every stripe calling the move unacceptable.

Habs owner Geoff Molson responded with a statement, crafted so cautiously it could have been penned by a political speechwriter.

In it, Molson performed a delicate two-step. First he explained why Cunneyworth was the right man for the job, then in the next paragraph stressed how important French is to the organization.

Molson explained that Cunneyworth was hired because he is talented and also, as the team's assistant coach, is in the best position to step in immediately and help the team win.

Cunneyworth was hired with a unique title—as interim coach for the rest of the season.

"The action was taken to remedy the situation without further delay," Molson said. "Randy Cunneyworth is a qualified and experienced coach who has earned the respect of the players and everyone within the organisation."

Molson pointed out that the position will be re-evaulated at the end of the season.

He said language will be a factor when, after the season, the team has to hire a permanent coach. He said finding a coach who can win is the main priority, but language ability will also count.

"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," he said.

This is the second time the youthful owner and team president has issued a statement to fans amid controversy.

Last year, Molson expressed his disappointment that the league did not suspend Boston Bruin defenceman Zdeno Chara for his hit on Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.

The new coach told reporters that he couldn't let himself be distracted by external controveries; he said his priority was turning the Habs' season around.

"My first focus and first responsibility is to the team," Cunneyworth told journalists in Boston, where his Habs were playing Monday night.

The Cunneyworth hiring also prompted Quebec's entire political class to clear the bench Monday and start pummeling the Habs.

Two government ministers weighed in with similar messages: that the Habs are ingrained in Quebecers' DNA, and people in the province expect the coach to be able to speak their language.

The issue is a particularly sensitive one for the Charest government, which tends to come under fire whenever a language controversy pops up.

The governing Liberals are seen as the least nationalist political party in the province and are constantly prodded by opponents to take a tougher stand on language-and-identity issues.

Asked about the latest controversy, the province's culture minister said she expects the Habs to correct the situation.

Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre didn't quite call for Cunneyworth's firing. But she said the Habs had given the impression his hiring was temporary, and she takes them at their word.

"The Canadiens say this is temporary—but it's unfortunate," St-Pierre said in an interview.

"It's important for the head coach to beable to communicate with fans."

Critics of the hiring say the Canadiens are more than just a hockey team and, for more than a century, have been an institution that represents French-Canadian pride.

One columnist today compared them to Spanish soccer team Barcelona, which expects its players to learn the Catalan language and whose slogan is, "More than a team."

Francophone hockey writers are also wondering where else Quebecers can get a start in the NHL if the Montreal Canadiens won't give them one.

They point out that most other Quebecers coaching in the NHL, including both of last year's Stanley Cup finalists, got their start coaching the Habs.

Another common refrain heard in Montreal is that fans would be willing to support the hiring of a coach who can't speak French—if it were someone like the accomplished Mike Babcock, or local hero Kirk Muller.

The Habs have not had a unilingual Anglo coach since 1970-71 season, when Al MacNeil coached them. They won a Stanley Cup that year but MacNeil had a poor relationship with some players and was demoted to the minors after the season.

Opposition politicians in Quebec were talking an even harder line on Monday.

Parti Quebecois language critic Yves-Francois Blanchet said he wasn't quite joining the call for a boycott of Habs-related products. But he said he might not be buying Molson beer for a while.

"If I go into a depanneur there's a chance I'll buy something other than Molson because I'm mad with them," he said.

"For the rest, I'll leave it to the good judgment of consumers."

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