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Some New Year Thoughts

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

When you work for a hockey team that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, you don’t throw a lot of stones.

It seems especially foolhardy to criticize the Montreal Canadiens, historically the most successful of all NHL teams.

But Quebec politicians and cultural sticklers have eviscerated the Canadians over the hiring of unilingual coach Randy Cunneyworth. Since then, the owner and the general manager have backpedalled furiously.

Faced with a mob, the Canadiens’ management put a gun against their own temples.
The problem with blending culture and a ruthless competetiveness is that you never get the right guy, or at least you never keep him.

Since their last Stanley Cup win in 1993 the Canadiens have fired Jacques Demers, Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Claude Julien, Guy Carbonneau and most recently Jacques Martin.

Getting hired is a wonderful thing for an aspiring NHL coach.  With one act, all those years in the minors or as an assistant have been validated. But firing a coach tells the league the hire was a mistake, that the candidate failed when presented with a big-league job.

The fact that the Canadiens were the last coaching stop for Demers, Tremblay and Carbonneau suggests that the Habs’ embrace was actually death’s kiss.  Probably more galling to Canadiens’ fans was the sight of Julien and Vigneault coaching against each other in the Stanley Cup finals.  Put that in perspective:  the last former Leafs coach to make to see the Stanley Cup finals was the late Roger Neilson and he left town 32 years ago.

Even then, cultural  elitists  still find fault with the Canadiens for neglecting promising French-speaking candidates.

Why let Claude Noel, who has passable French, spend 17 years working his way into the NHL without benefit of a call from the Canadiens?  Why let Guy Boucher, a standout coaching prospect move from the team’s AFL affiliate in Hamilton to Tampa where he piloted a flawed Lightning team into the final four?

There is no winning this game. Canadiens have two mutually exclusive and correspondingly impossible mandates. They have to return the franchise to a level of prominence that is no longer feasible in a 30-team league while worrying about the cultural correctness of the coach.

Still the Canadiens ‘experience has a corollary in Toronto. Ron Wilson, born in Windsor of Canadian parents moved to the US when he was 12. He is invariably described as American.
When American-born General Manager Brian Burke announced the hiring of assistant coaches Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, one of the first questions was why the new hires were American.

Pat Burns used to say that if he won in Montreal he was French, if he tied he was bilingual and if he lost he was English. Phil Kessel will start being a whole lot more American should he fall out of the top 10 NHL scoring leaders.

The argument that as cultural touchstones, ethnicity is a talking point for the Canadiens as well as the Maple Leafs is as spooky as it is seductive.  Leaf fans may smirk at the Canadiens’ cultural millstone but the same misguided instincts have found traction here.

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