In any language, Kirk Muller knew to stay away. Asked about the Francophone Furor in Montreal since the Canadiens fired French-speaking head coach Jacques Martin and appointed English-speaking Randy Cunneyworth their interim coach in his place, Muller spoke delicately.
“I look at it more like, my glass is half full,” Muller said. “Nashville gave me an opportunity to be a head coach in the minors and Carolina gave me this opportunity here. That’s really all I base my things on. I’m loving where I am, I love my situation and I hope (Cunneyworth) does well.”
Muller, who spent five years as an assistant coach in Montreal, left this summer to take a minor-league head-coaching job in the Nashville Predators organization before he was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes in November. One reason for his departure: Because he doesn’t speak French, he never expected a chance to replace Martin. As things turned out, Cunneyworth ended up getting that chance, somewhat unexpectedly.
Cunneyworth’s appointment has sparked an outpouring of Quebecois outrage, with owner Geoff Molson promising the next coach will speak French and politicians lining up to condemn the team. Meanwhile, three of last year’s Stanley Cup semifinalists were coached by French-speaking coaches who have worked in the Montreal organization: the Boston Bruins’ Claude Julien, the Vancouver Canucks’ Alain Vigneault and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Guy Boucher.
The uproar over a unilingual coach may seem a bit odd down here, where no one asks if a basketball coach knows how to use “y’all” properly when he’s hired, but the Canadiens hold a near-sacred place in the French-speaking culture in Quebec.
For decades, they have represented the epitome of Francophone pride. Montreal may be a wonderfully bilingual city, but the Canadiens still speak for a lot of people in the province who speak very little English. (Particularly with the Quebec Nordiques no longer around.) The coach, general manager and captain of the Canadiens hold the kind of honorific posts usually reserved for politicians.
(Former captain and Hall of Famer Jean Believeau, who in many ways represents the best of everything the Canadiens represent in any language, was once even asked to become Governor General, the Queen of England’s honorary representative in Canada; he respectfully declined.)
The current captain of the team, Brian Gionta, is an American, but the hockey fans of Montreal will typically accept that if the captain is hard-working and honest, as Muller was in 1994-95, and Saku Koivu, a Finn, was before Gionta. Since 1984, every coach of the Canadiens has spoken French.
It’s not just enough to speak a little French. Former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward would do interviews with Montreal’s Francophone media in his conversational French as a player, but as a broadcaster for Canadian sports network TSN, he was recently asked to do some work for its French counterpart, RDS. Ward had to script out everything he planned to say beforehand.
“It’s one thing to speak French, but talking about hockey in French is much harder,” Ward said. “The terminology is completely different, and you have to get it right to communicate.”
If Cunneyworth wins a Stanley Cup, it may not be an issue. Some of the Canadiens’ most successful coaches were English-speakers: Toe Blake, Dick Irvin, Scotty Bowman. Under slightly different circumstances, Muller might have had the chance to add his name to that list, but the Hurricanes are certainly happy to have him -- and Muller is happy to be here.
“It’s all about timing,” Muller said, and this time, it worked out for him and the Hurricanes.