Randy Cunneyworth working on French

One day after the team's management seemingly sealed his fate with a public apology, Montreal Canadiens interim coach Randy Cunneyworth said he isn't buying the notion that he is a lame duck coach just because he doesn't speak French.

In fact, Cunneyworth, who was promoted after coach Jacques Martin was fired on Dec. 17, said he is trying to learn the language and silence the uproar coming from the team's French-speaking fan base.

"With any team, it can be uncertain if you don't win or accomplish the goals you set forth," Cunneyworth, a former NHL forward, told the Toronto Globe & Mail on Tuesday. "I'm working hard to pick up the language as much as I can and as quickly as I can.

"Hopefully that will be the case by the time some of the decisions are made. A lot will depend on how successful this team is and that's really my priority right now. The language is secondary, but very important as well for me because I think it's an important marketplace where I'd love to be able to address everybody in both languages and talk to everybody concerning hockey."

Cunneyworth's promotion to coach, which was front-page news in Quebec, caused a public outcry, including calls for boycotts of products associated with the Canadiens. The Quebec government even got involved, with the province's culture minister expressing her displeasure with the move and saying she expected the Habs to correct the situation.

The public controversy prompted owner Geoff Molson to issue a statement that the team agrees its coach should speak the language of the majority of its fans and also promised a bilingual coach for next season.

Then, on Monday, Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier promised there will be a French-speaking coach behind Montreal's bench next season.

The move left Cunneyworth in an apparent lame duck position, but Gauthier said the former player's mental toughness and commitment to work would see him through the season. And he did not rule out keeping Cunneyworth, provided he learns French.

Cunneyworth called it an "ongoing work in progress" on Tuesday.

"You hear people talking and you pick up on what they're saying because you know what it's related to," he told the Globe & Mail, noting he has picked up common expressions and hockey terms from the team's employees. "Hopefully over time, just being around and working at it, it would be exciting to pick up the language and learn it to a greater extent.

"It's an ongoing work in progress. I'm not ignoring it in any way. But my main focus is the hockey, for sure."

However, the coaching swap has yet to have the desired on-ice effect. The Canadiens (14-18-7) have lost seven of their last eight games, including a 1-6-0 mark since Cunneyworth replaced Martin on an interim basis.

Tempers also look to be frayed among the players, as defenseman P.K. Subban and center Tomas Plekanec exchanged punches during practice on Monday.

The Canadiens play 11 of their next 15 games at home, starting Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.