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Habs fans say wins will make language controversy surrounding coach disappear @NHLdotcom

MONTREAL - Montreal Canadiens fans seem to have a solution to the language storm surrounding the team: win a few games.

Stringing a couple of victories together could go along way to the team getting past the language flap and getting the focus back on the ice.

The hiring of Randy Cunneyworth as the team's coach, on an interim basis, touched off a language controversy.

It hasn't helped that Cunneyworth, the club's first coach in decades unable to speak French, has won just once since being named on Dec. 17.

Fans streamed back into the Bell Centre for the first time in 2012 on Wednesday, many saying they were eager to put the on-going controversy over language behind them.

"In Montreal, if we win, no one's going to care about language," said Tommy Tremblay, 35, a bilingual Montrealer originally from the Saguenay region, where most only speak French.

"They talk about it more because we are losing, if we win a few, no one will talk about it anymore."

The fuss is likely to continue, at least until this weekend, when protesters belonging to fringe nationalist groups will rally outside the arena before the Canadiens home game on Saturday.

They are expected to hand out Quebec flags for anyone wanting to show their opinion during the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Nationalists have seized the Canadiens coaching issue as part of a larger beef that Quebec is sliding backwards when it comes to the French language in the workplace.

But, fans attending the first home game back at the Bell Centre in 2012 reserved their boos for the visiting Winnipeg Jets.

Outside the arena, there were no apparent signs of language-related unhappiness.

Fans who spoke to The Canadian Press appear to be willing to give Cunneyworth the benefit of the doubt.

"There is an effort that needs to be taken on (Cunneyworth's) part to learn the language," said Stephane Richer, 45, of Varennes, Que., as he raised money for his son's hockey team outside the Bell Centre.

"For us, the effort will be to look at him as a coach and not as an Anglophone or a Francophone."

But Richer said it should come as no surprise to that language would be an issue when it comes to being the Canadiens bench boss.

"We're in Montreal here, this isn't Winnipeg or Vancouver," he said.

With the language controversy chasing them into 2012, Canadiens brass started the year with a mea culpa and a promise to do better.

First up was Pierre Gauthier, the club's general manager, who came out on Monday and apologized to fans for the team's decision to hire a coach who can't speak French.

"I'm sorry if we upset people. Because that certainly wasn't our intention," Gauthier told reporters.

Then it was Cunneyworth's turn on Tuesday after practice, who insisted he could be the full-time head coach and is working on learning French while trying to get the team on track.

"I'm working hard to pick up the language as much as I can and as quickly as I can," Cunneyworth said.

That's good enough for Pierre Allard, 44, who considers himself a bilingual Quebecer and can see why those who only speak French would be upset.

"He says he's going to try and that's great," said Allard as he waited at a concession stand between periods.

"We, as Quebecers, like to see an effort (to speak French.) Also, a winning team has a way of making controversy disappear," he said with a grin.

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