Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth talks with players during first period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Montreal, Saturday, December 17, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
WINNIPEG - They're marching in the streets, or at least planning to, over the need for a French-speaking coach to guide the Montreal Canadiens.
But for interim coach Randy Cunneyworth and an NHL team struggling to find an Eastern conference playoff spot, winning a few games is all they can think about right now.
The latest headline concerns a pair of small Quebec nationalist groups planning a protest at an upcoming Montreal Canadiens home game.
Mouvement Quebec francais and Mouvement Montreal francais have picked the Jan. 7 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We will give fans Quebec flags and, by waving them during the game, they can make their opinions felt," the groups said in a statement.
Cunneyworth insists he isn't paying attention and dismisses suggestions the criticism may undermine his authority with players he is trying to motivate.
"I'm not reading those articles or listening to that kind of media," he said before Thursday's game in Winnipeg.
"It may be going on. I only know of it because I get the odd positive comment from a stranger or somebody who's close to me. . . Those things will take care of themselves."
Defenceman P.K. Subban also turned aside suggestions the French flap, or perhaps the "interim" tag, may undermine Cunneyworth's authority.
"I don't know about that," he said.
"Twenty-two guys in the room, we're not focusing on any of that stuff. We're just focusing on getting wins . . In two weeks we could be on a six-game winning streak and we'll forget all about this."
Before the language issue surfaced the Canadiens were already facing a lot of pressure for not winning—the reason former coach Jacques Martin was fired in the first place.
Going into Thursday's game they sat at 13-15-7 with 33 points after 35 games, two points behind the Jets at just 33 games.
The Habs were beaten 5-1 in Chicago on Wednesday night, following losses of 5-3 to New Jersey and 3-2 in Boston after Martin's departure.
Winnipeg defenceman Ron Hainsey knows firsthand how intensely he team is followed in Montreal and Quebec in general. He was drafted by the Canadiens in 2000.
With the return of the Jets, Winnipeg fans have been making a reputation for themselves as pretty rabid and the media focus has been intense. But Hainsey says Montreal takes it to another level.
"There's a great deal of attention here right now, but it's not to that (extent) . . . (Montreal) seems to go up and down as the team goes, day to day," he said.
One example is a daily hour-long TV program devoted to the latest doings of the Canadiens.
"If you go and eat somewhere that's on in every bar and the city and there's really nowhere to hide."
Subban, who's from Toronto, insists pressure isn't the problem, at least for him.
"I don't know about the rest of the guys on the team but for myself, and I can speak for a couple of guys, we enjoy it, we enjoy the pressure," he said.
"Being in a city where people care about the game and people know their hockey, it's an opportunity. I know from the guys in the room we're not focused on anything else but winning hockey games. It sucks to lose. We want to win."
Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel, like Cunneyworth a veteran of the AHL, has faced a little criticism himself for not speaking more French.
The Franco-Ontarian answers the odd question from local French media in Winnipeg but mocks his linguistic abilities and says he just doesn't feel comfortable enough when dealing with reporters from Montreal.
"You're spitting out English words, half-French and just fumbling around," he said.
Noel was educated in French through Grade 6 but then switched to an English track and has spent much of his career in the United States, so he says his French has suffered.
His experience seems to suggest a few French lessons won't solve Cunneyworth's problems.
Cunneyworth laughed as he walked away and was asked if he wanted the job he has now next year. That may be a stretch, given the team owner's promise a French-speaking coach will be behind the bench.
Hainsey was more optimistic.
"Just because somebody doesn't speak French Monday doesn't mean they won't 25 Mondays from now," he said, pointing to Bob Gainey's example.
Gainey played 15 seasons for the Canadiens and went on to become general manager until last year, when he stepped down.
Gainey, of course, had time to learn the language. As the fifth head coach in five years (including Gainey, who held the job twice on an interim basis) Cunneyworth is facing longer odds.