How do you run a business/association where twenty nine of the thirty members speak a language different from yours and your customers.
It's a problem that not only the Montreal Canadiens face, but many Quebec based business' as well.
While the NHL pays lip service to the French language, it's hard to miss the fact that the league and it's teams operate exclusively in English. Like international air traffic control, English has been adopted as the common language of hockey. The league doesn't even offer a French version of it's official web site - NHL.com.
Players who enter the league from abroad all understand that if they can't converse in English, they will be at a profound disadvantage.
Since it's inception the Montreal Canadiens have always been an anglophone company. In recent years (starting with President Ronald Corey), the team began an earnest program of frenchification, with the non-hockey, day to day business of the team switched to French.
However, on ice operations have always been and still remain an exclusively English affair.
In Montreal, some fans with surprising media support, have demanded that this change. They believe that putting more Francophones on the ice and hiring Francophones to run the team will better serve the interests of the team and the community.
Can the Canadiens disastrous on-ice performance in recent years be in some way attributed to this language battle?
The first shot in the hockey language war was fired back in 1991, when Eric Lindros was selected first overall in the NHL entry draft, by the Quebec Nordiques. Lindros had already signaled to the team hat he wouldn't play for the Nordiques, citing the French 'question' as his chief objection. The Nordiques who prided themselves on operating almost exclusively in French, didn't believe the threat and drafted him anyways. Good to his word, he didn't report and sat out the season until the Nordiques traded his rights to Philadelphia. (Ironically, the trade actually worked out in the Nordiques favour.)
The Quebec media tried to portray the incident as isolated case of a spoiled child and unrepresentative of the prevailing sentiment.
They were wrong.
While middling and journeyman players go to whatever team will take them, superstars shun Montreal like the plague.
Incredibly, that includes Francophone hockey stars who are warned that expectations are so high for native-sons, that the pressure of living under the microscope in such an intense environment is unhealthy, career-wise.
Those who insist on pushing the language debate onto the ice, do a great disservice to the team. The treatment of Saku Koivu by the media for his inability to speak French has sent a clear message to potential recruits- stay away.
Most hockey agents look at the Canadiens as a last choice destination and steer their charges far away from the franchise. Donning the storied Canadiens jersey has lost all it's caché.
It's hard to understand how insisting that there are two classes of players, (francophones and 'les autres') can possibly help the team's performance.
Holding a media wake every time a francophone is traded is dysfunctional and places an unacceptable burden on the GM. Demanding that the team boost the number of francophone players will turn the team into a CFL franchise, where Canadians by birth are guaranteed a certain number of spots on the roster, to the detriment of performance.
What can the Canadiens do?
Hire a Francophone GM who has the guts to tell the media that language will never be a criterion in player decisions. (Only a francophone can say this, an Anglophone would be run out of town). Make sure that he has experience and the intestinal fortitude to withstand language attacks. He also needs to have superior English in order to deal with the league's other GMs.
Once on an Air Canada flight, I was sitting in the first class cabin, across the aisle from Rejean Houle. He was on the air-phone, deep in conversation, his brow furled, trying as best he could to understand what was being. His stilted words, in broken English exposed the fact that he was struggling terribly and that's too big a disadvantage for the GM of the Montreal Canadiens.
The team needs to hire a Francophone coach with fabulous English. (the Canadiens have never had a problem finding these guys.) More importantly, let management trust him to run the players without interference from upstairs as was the case with the latest casualty, Guy Carbonneau.
I'm reminded of the famous TV commercial that reminded us, 'that you don't want tuna with good taste, but rather tuna that tastes good'.
In Montreal we should want 'a team that plays great, not speaks great'.
End the language debate and perhaps the team can improve, otherwise the Canadiens will remain as dysfunctional as they are now.