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 CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
MONTREAL - Fans filing into the Bell Centre on Saturday hoping for a Montreal Canadiens win were met by protesters with another goal in mind.
They want the organization to be more French.
Several hundred Quebec nationalists, handing out miniature Quebec flags and chanting "Montreal, en francais," held a rally directly in front of the building.
The group was protesting the recent appointment of Randy Cunneyworth as head coach. He is the first Montreal head coach unable to speak French in 40 years.
"It shows a lack of respect for Canadiens fans," said Jean Archambault, who was wearing a sweater of Habs legend Maurice Richard.
"We are not against the Canadiens as an institution. We are against the management of the Canadiens."
Guy Lafleur, one of the team's most-beloved players of all time, suggested the whole thing was overblown.
"It doesn't matter if you speak German, Russian, or whatever," Lafleur said Saturday in Vancouver.
"The bottom line is: Win the games and then make the playoffs and try to win the Stanley Cup."
Lafleur—who also played with the Quebec Nordiques and New York Rangers—said his old coaches Bob Berry and Scotty Bowman never spoke French in the dressing room and rarely with the media.
He acknowledged, though, that today's media is far more demanding and Cunneyworth would likely need to learn some French to keep his job after this year.
Geoff Molson, the team's president and owner, was the target of much of the protesters' criticism.
Someone even brought a dummy of Molson and put a noose around its neck.
Protesters also complained the music played at the Bell Centre is in English, that announcements are in both languages and that the team has few francophone players.
Archambault, 62, said the team had its best years when the team was stocked with francophone stars.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and other Canadian teams still make an effort to recruit players from their own backyard, and Montreal should do the same, he said.
"I think we need a minimum of at least seven or eight francophone players," he said.
The Canadiens had two players from Quebec in the lineup on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Other Canadian teams, in fact, also don't have much local content.
Toronto, for instance, only had one player from Ontario in its lineup for Saturday's 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Several protesters wore old Nordiques sweaters and argued a team in Quebec City would better serve francophones, and put pressure on the Canadiens to do the same.
Others at the rally said the kerfuffle involving the coach is a symptom of a larger problem—the regression of the French language across Quebec.
Cunneyworth was named interim coach on Dec. 17 and is expected to hold the position until the end of the season.
The hiring was especially contentious given that the Habs, for their entire century-long history, have always marketed themselves as French Canada's team.
Under Cunneyworth's guidance, the team has struggled and remains mired near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Many fans, both francophone and anglophone, said if the team put together a winning streak few would care whether the coach spoke French.
While the protest took place, a similar-sized crowd gathered on the other side of the Bell Centre to meet some of their hockey heroes.
Paul Henderson, who scored the winning goal for Team Canada in the iconic 1972 Summit Series, greeted fans alongside former teammate Yvon Cournoyer and Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak.
Most people waiting to see the trio ignored a man trying to hand out Quebec flags and drum up support for the rally.
"I think what's most important is we have the best coach," said French-speaking Karim Essoulaimane as he stood in line.
"I think that if we were in the top of the conference things would be a lot easier."
Inside the Bell Centre, there were few signs of the language controversy as the Habs beat the Lightning.
Few of the little Quebec flags were spotted in the seats during Montreal's 3-1 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday, though there has been a noted increase in French songs between whistles in recent games.
With files from Bill Beacon in Montreal and Monte Stewart in Vancouver.