ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Montreal Canadiens hockey team has lost more games than it's won this season. It's in last place in its division and so, as often happens when a sports teams does poorly, the Canadiens coach, Jacques Martin, was fired. In his place, the Canadiens, who are owned by Geoff Molson of Molson Beer fame, promoted the assistant coach, Ontario-born Randy Cunneyworth. Mr. Cunneyworth instantly encountered a serious objection, though. He may know hockey, but he doesn't know French.
RANDY CUNNEYWORTH: I will do my best to, you know, continue to learn French. And, you know, I am a Canadian, so - from Toronto. I grew up...
SIEGEL: That was at a rather polite news conference. Various vocal members of Montreal's majority French-speaking population have been less polite. Unacceptable and appalling were two characterizations of what one columnist summed up as the naming of a unilingual Anglophone as coach. In Quebec, those are fighting words.
And clearly, we're talking about something bigger than hockey. For more, we're joined by Stu Cowan, who is sports editor of the Montreal Gazette.
Stu Cowan, hello, bonjour.
STU COWAN: Hey, how are you?
SIEGEL: How important are the Canadiens to people in Montreal?
COWAN: The Canadiens are basically like a religion in not only the city but this province. The head coach of the Canadiens is more of a public figure, I would say, than any politician on television constantly. Every single Canadiens' game is televised on RDF, which is the French equivalent of ESPN in the United States. With pre-game shows, post-game shows, it's something that people in this city, and this province, follow on a day-to-day basis.
And the reaction to Randy Cunneyworth being named the interim head coach just makes you wonder what would happen if the interim tag wasn't there.
SIEGEL: Well, and the other question is, how important is the French language in...
COWAN: Well, the French language here - there's more than 50 percent of French people in Quebec are unilingual Francophones. And the Canadiens, while they are based in Montreal, are really - are a team of the province. And when more than 50 percent of your fan base does not speak English, that is what has resulted in the backlash against having a unilingual Anglophone coach.
SIEGEL: Do you now assume that if, indeed, Randy Cunneyworth makes it through this season as interim coach, that he won't return as permanent coach?
COWAN: I don't think that's going to happen. Geoff Molson made a statement yesterday not saying that definitely, but saying that the ability to speak and communicate in French would be very important in the hiring of the next coach of the Canadiens. So if I was a betting man, I would not bet a dollar on Randy Cunneyworth being back as the head coach next season.
SIEGEL: Way, way back when there were just six teams in the National Hockey League and two of them, only, in Canada, the great Canadiens teams included Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, all kinds of French-Canadians. Today, I looked at the roster. You don't have to know French to talk to that team.
COWAN: No, you don't. I mean, it used to be the Flying Frenchman. Times have changed. There is now 30 teams in the league; they're no longer six. The official language of the NHL, even the Canadiens, like even when Jacques Martin was here, all the practices are run, all team functions are run in English. It's not so much a case of the communication within the team, or even the communication with the media. It's more a case of the uproars over communicating to the fans and the public through radio or television.
Rejean Tremblay, one of the French columnists here for La Presse, wrote a column saying that his - I believe it was 80-year-old father who doesn't speak a word of English and his eyesight is bad, now, when he's watching television and listening to the Canadiens' coach speak, he won't be able to understand a word he's saying because he won't be able to read the subtitles on it. So that's just one person.
SIEGEL: It's not just about coaching hockey. It's about civilization.
COWAN: Without a doubt, this goes beyond hockey. This touches politics. It touches culture. It touches a lot of things. It touches - in Montreal and Quebec, it's a French community surrounded by Anglophones, and there's a sensitivity about protecting the culture and the language, both in Montreal and in Quebec.
SIEGEL: Well, Stu Cowan, thank you. Merci.
COWAN: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's Stu Cowan, who is sports editor of the Montreal Gazette.
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