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Healthy Skratch: Hiring of Sean Burke Speaks to Canadiens’ Hypocrisy in Language Debate

Out With The Old, In With The New

Let’s put aside that longtime goalie coach Stéphane Waite was unceremoniously fired during the second period of Tuesday night’s win over the Ottawa Senators, a win that marked Dominique Ducharme’s first as an NHL coach.

Let’s also put aside that the man he was replaced with, Sean Burke, plead guilty to the domestic assault of his wife in 1997. I’ve got plenty to say on the subject, but we’ll save that for the pod.

Let’s talk about the Montreal Canadiens firing a Francophone coach (Waite) and replacing him with an Anglophone (Burke), who they obviously view as the best person available for the job. Let’s talk about what that speaks to.

Fair warning, the goalie coaching change is the tip of the iceberg, and this article will be looking at what’s under the surface.

A Self-Imposed Handicap

In a reasonable world where equality and success took precedence over outrage for the organization, this coaching change wouldn’t elicit a second thought. But in the house of cards they’ve built around their insistence on hiring bilingual Head Coaches & General Managers, the decision is a bitter reminder.

We’ll hire the best coach available – as long as it’s in a role that won’t upset extremist politicians or the most toxic segments of our fan base. We’ll be the best we can be, but only up to the point that it upsets the xenophobic loudmouths who the city, never mind the team, are better off without.

We’ll cater to the loudest of the bunch, regardless of what they’re saying. We’ll put their agenda ahead of what’s best for the team and the city. We’ll act like we’re doing everything we can to win while directly impeding our ability to do so, and we’ll do it to appease bigots who show disdain for those who share their land but not necessarily their language, or at least not to the extent they insist upon.

At a time where the NHL is supposedly trying to stamp out prejudice and make the game a more inclusive place, I can’t believe this is still an issue. I’m not saying it’s on par with the issues of racism, misogyny and homophobia in the game – it’s not – but it’s rooted in the same tribalist bullsh*t.

An Issue Of Principle

In the wake of Claude Julien’s recent firing, Geoff Molson doubled down on the language issue by stating that future Head Coaching candidates would indeed need to be bilingual to get the job.

Let me make two things perfectly clear:

One, I am completely in favour of Francophone candidates getting every opportunity to interview for positions within the organization. The team needs to do its part to help support local talent, and stimulate its growth. It’s important to the franchise and the city. This is not about French v. English; I’m Québécois myself. It’s about Extremism v. Reason.

Two, Dominique Ducharme, and Joël Bouchard for that matter, have been rising stars in the coaching world for a long time. Whether it’s with Montreal or elsewhere, they’ll find work in the NHL. Ducharme, like Julien before him, passes the smell test here. I don’t want to take away from that. He deserves this shot; that’s not the issue.

The issue is the same as it’s always been – if you want to compete for what is arguably the most difficult trophy to win in pro sports, you need to hire the best candidate available, regardless of skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, or being unilingual. If you speak the language of business, an extra language is a bonus, not a necessity. A translator alone is a privilege, though it would certainly be an important one to provide in this market.

Even on a level playing field, there is so little room for error in the NHL. You can’t force yourself into limitations nobody else has and hope luck takes care of the rest. That’s poor management, and poor management is what leads to championship droughts.

28 years and counting.

Times Have Changed

This is an organization that wants to win. Badly. I have no doubts there. Look no further than Bergevin’s demeanour in his recent press conferences for proof.

It’s an organization that leads the league in Stanley Cups but that hasn’t won one in 28 years, in no small part because they allow a small minority of people to hold them to the standards set in their glory years, when there was far more French Canadian talent in the league and on their roster. Talent the Canadiens had first dibs on for many years.

The league is obviously a very different place now. A total of 11 Québécois players were picked in the 2020 NHL entry draft, none by the Montreal Canadiens. Why? Because 217 players were drafted. You don’t jump a player to the top of your list because of where he’s from. You draft based on ability, personality & team need, and you take the best player left on your board. If it doesn’t line up, it’s because the odds of that happening with 11 out of 217 players is slim.

Yet there was public outcry in the aftermath. Outcry that calls to mind past incidents, such as Réjean Trembley equating the benching of a francophone player in 2016 to “The Final Solution”, or the protest led by BLOC Québécois members Denis Trudel and Mario Beaulieu in the face of Randy Cunnyworth taking over as interim head coach in 2011.

So what do you do – aside from complain and make mind numbingly racist comments – if you’re a bigot and there isn’t enough Québécois talent in the league for the Canadiens to relive their glory years?

You channel that misplaced anger into insisting they hire French-speaking Head Coaches and General Managers, success be damned.

You hold management hostage, knowing that you can manipulate your constituents into buying a narrative of Québécois erasure if the team doesn’t bow to your demands. You view the Montreal Canadiens as being more important as an institution of nationalist pride than as a successful sports franchise, despite the fact that they wouldn’t be an institution of nationalist pride without their past success as a sports franchise.

You drive them into the ground until somebody finally has the courage to step in and say “Enough. We don’t bargain with extremists, and we’re sorry anyone who came before us did.”

Short-Term Sacrifice

I think bringing up the Québécois presence in the game both on and off the ice is an important part of this equation, but you can’t create that out of thin air.

In my opinion, the best way to do that is through returning the team to being among the league’s best for an extended period. Nothing inspires this city’s fans like a Habs team in the playoffs with a legitimate shot at winning. If you’ve experienced it, you know. There’s nothing like it. That is how you inspire new generations of fans – both Franco and Anglo – to get involved in the game.

To do that, though, the team has to give itself every opportunity to succeed, and that involves broadening their horizons beyond the small minority of French speaking Head Coaches, GM’s, and players available.

You’ve gotta give to get. I don’t want to hear another argument about how French Canadian kids need large-scale French Canadian representation on the team for them to be inspired. That’s like saying I can’t be inspired by Ovechkin because he’s Russian. It’s bigotry, and the only reason a kid would feel this way is if they were taught to.

Representation is extremely important, but there are currently 36 active Québécois NHLers who’ve played more than 50 career games. The team has always prioritized having representation on the roster despite the dwindling number of options, and representation has always been there in accordance with the options available – it just isn’t there to the unreasonable extent that’s demanded.

A Better Way Forward

So what do you do to change the status quo?

If you’re the fans and media, you can hammer on the issue harder than those on the other side of this. You can get as loud as they are, and hope that with renewed interest in a more progressive age, the ugly roots of the issue are exposed and appreciated for being what they are: hate driven and politically motivated.

If you’re ownership and management, you can try to find a middle ground, or a loop hole. Fellow HSS Blogger @eamonhamilton29 has a sneaky good theory that I’ve been given permission to share, and it goes like this:

Marc Bergevin will be relieved of his duties as General Manager, but will remain in the organization as the Director of Hockey Operations, opening the door for a GM search that legitimately seeks out the best candidate available.

Several franchises are turning to this option anyway, finding that a division of labour is a better way forward. If the best candidate happened to be unilingually anglophone, Bergevin would be right there to answer to the French media. Hell, they could sit side by side in press conferences. The media would be speaking to the same man they have for the past nine years.

Would this solve the coaching issue? Not immediately, no, but it wouldn’t necessarily have to. Ducharme, despite the interim tag, will have every opportunity to earn the job on a permanent basis. With his track record of success, and the early returns showing promise, I’ve got a good amount of faith in him being able to carry the job into next season. This would just be a powerful statement that sets the wheels in motion.

From there, it would set the stage for an about-face by Geoff Molson.

It would take one of the best public relations departments on the planet. It would take getting ahead of the narrative and directly targeting the same group of people as the opposition, and rolling out initiatives to include them that stress their importance to the fabric of the team and its fan base. It would take a detailed, long-term plan that explains the sacrifice and its purpose.

It would take moving heaven and earth.

But it shouldn’t have to.

Find me on Twitter @HockeyOMC

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