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Soon-to-be-former Canadiens president discusses team’s problems with language barrier

May 18, 2011, 3:45 PM EDT

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If you’ve even loosely followed the history of the Montreal Canadiens, then you’re probably aware of the undercurrent of language-related political tension that surrounded the great franchise. The most obvious moment revolved around Habs legend Maurice Richard, whose 1955 suspension generated a riot after many assumed the decision was made because of Richard’s francophone heritage.

Those tensions rarely boil over on a comparable level now, but those problems still linger under the surface.

Departing Canadiens team president Pierre Boivin discussed that (and many other issues, including social media and the shared experience the Canadiens create in that community) when he looked back at his career with the Habs in a discussion with the Montreal Gazette. Boivin spoke of the demand for French-Canadian representatives – both on the roster and in the front office – that creates what he called a competitive disadvantage.

“If you had a star francophone player, nobody would be counting. You could have two – a star and a fourth-liner, and everybody would be happy. If you don’t have the star, then they want seven or eight, because it’s all about sens d’appartenance (a sense of belonging).

“If it’s a star, a Maurice (Richard), a Jean (Béliveau), a Guy (Lafleur), a Patrick (Roy), that’s all they need to feel the cultural and linguistic connection. If they don’t have the star, they want a whole bunch (of francophones) because one day they hate them, the other day they love them.”

(snip)

The team’s general manager and coach should be bilingual, he says, which means the Habs “are severely competitively disadvantaged.”

Added Boivin: “There’s one general manager in the league this year who speaks French and he’s in Montreal. If Pierre Gauthier gets hit by a bus, what does (team owner) Geoff Molson do? Every other team says: ‘There are 29 others out there, how many contracts are up?’ Thirty assistant GMs might be prepared to step up, like a Steve Yzerman (in Tampa), and then there’s 30 AHL managers.

“So they have a pool of 90, (even if) not all are good or are available. We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? It’s the same thing with coaches. And that’s a huge disadvantage when human capital is your most important asset. So we have to groom them.”

On the bright side, the Canadiens organization has indeed shown an aptitude for grooming successful coaches, even if other NHL teams often reap the benefits. The Montreal Gazette points out that three (Guy Boucher, Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault) of the four bench bosses in the 2011 conference finals coached the Habs and/or one of their farm clubs at some point in their careers.

Yet that coaching problem underscores the team’s decades-long dilemma. Leaning toward French-Canadians was fine in the team’s golden era in which they could poach young players without having to worry about the NHL draft and faced a smaller quantity of bidders for that talent. Now that the sport is more international than ever (and boasts 29 other teams), having to meet an unspoken quota of francophone players must feel like a burden.

Perhaps the team won’t be able to break through until they groom a general manager with a stubborn and unyielding view to simply construct the best team possible, regardless of cultural or political factors. That would take a very brave individual who deflects criticism with a deft touch. It won’t be easy to “groom” such a person, though.

(Be sure to check out the full article from the Montreal Gazette, which includes additional – and fascinating – insight from Boivin.)

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