Official: Canadiens need French speaker

QUEBEC CITY -- The Quebec government isn't pleased about the hiring of a Montreal Canadiens coach who can't speak French.

The province's culture minister says she expects the Habs to correct the situation.

Christine St-Pierre isn't quite calling for the firing of new coach Randy Cunneyworth, who was just hired over the weekend.

But she says the Habs have given the impression his hiring is temporary, and she takes them at their word. The former NHL forward's title is interim coach.

The hiring has created a frenzy of media reaction, including calls for a boycott of products associated with the Canadiens.

But judging from the reaction on social-networking sites, the response of regular Montreal fans may be slightly less critical.

Identity debates like the current one occasionally place Quebec's Liberal government in a quandary. The pro-Canada Charest government often faces pressure from its more nationalist opponents to take an aggressive stand in defending Quebec's identity.

Critics of the hiring say the Canadiens are more than just a hockey team and, for more than a century, have been an institution that represents French-Canadian pride.

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson sent a letter to fans Monday to explain the hiring of Cunneyworth, who was elevated from his assistant coach job after Jacques Martin was fired Saturday with a 13-12-7 record.

"The action was taken to remedy the situation without further delay," Molson wrote. "Randy Cunneyworth is a qualified and experienced coach who has earned the respect of the players and everyone within the organisation."

Molson said language would be a factor when, at the end of the season, the team hires a permanent coach. He said finding a coach who can win is the main priority, but language ability will also count.

"It is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach," he said.

One columnist Monday compared the Canadiens to Spanish soccer team Barcelona, which expects its players to learn the Catalan language and whose slogan is "More than a team."

Francophone hockey writers are also wondering where else Quebecers can get a start in the NHL if the Canadiens won't give them one.

They point out that most other Quebecers coaching in the NHL, including both of last year's Stanley Cup finalists, got their start coaching the Habs.

Another common refrain heard in Montreal is that fans would be willing to support the hiring of a coach who can't speak French if it were someone like the accomplished Mike Babcock, or local hero Kirk Muller.

The Habs have not had an only English-speaking coach since the 1970-71 season, when Al MacNeil coached them. They won a Stanley Cup that year but MacNeil had a poor relationship with some players and was demoted to the minors after the season.

A Toronto native, the 50-year-old Cunneyworth played 16 seasons in the NHL with the Sabres, Penguins, Jets, Whalers, Blackhawks and Senators, scoring 414 points in the regular season.

"I have the utmost respect for the language here and I am very aware of how important it is to try and learn the language," he said after running his first practice. "Obviously I know a few words, and not all the good ones."