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The coaching conundrum

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Is the method that the Canadiens use to select their coaches fundamentally flawed?

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, this article is not meant to spark an English vs. French debate, nor is it an attack on French-speaking communities in Canada. Not only do I have many French-Canadian friends and family members, I also consider the French language a vital part of our heritage, and a language and accompanied history that I voluntarily continue to study to this day. This article is simply a look into effective coaching methods, and how the Montreal Canadiens organization may limit their potential based on smaller coaching pools.

The Montreal Canadiens organization is a proud one, and rightly so. With their rich history, the fanbase expects greatness. Behind every great team is, of course, a great coaching staff. While some fans argue that the Canadiens have lacked a championship-level coaching staff for quite a few years, I wonder how deeply the organization's core beliefs affect the quality of coaching they can get.

Most coaches who have worked within the Canadiens organization have been, and continue to be, bilingual. Out of the 27 different coaches who have worked with the club during their time in the NHL, only nine were born outside of the province of Quebec. Of those nine, four played with the Canadiens at some point over the course of their career, and only three of the 27 were strictly English speakers at the time of their hire.

Name: Years Coached Win % Born Played with Canadiens Bilingual
Newsy Lalonde 1917-1922 0.537 ON YES SPOKE MINIMAL FRENCH
Leo Dandurand 1922-1926 0.511 USA NO YES
Cecil Hart 1926-1932 0.642 QC NO YES
Newsy Lalonde 1932-1934 0.464
Leo Dandurand 1934-1935 0.484
Sylvio Mantha 1935-1936 0.344 QC YES YES
Cecil Hart 1936-1939 0.480 QC NO YES
Jules Dugal 1939 0.583 --- NO YES
Babe Siebert 1939-1940 --- ON YES YES
Alfred Lepine 1939-1940 0.260 QC YES YES
Dick Irvin 1940-1955 0.566 ON NO NO
Toe Blake 1955-1968 0.634 ON YES YES
Claude Ruel 1968-1970 0.631 QC NO YES

Al MacNeil

1970-1971 0.645 NS YES NO
Scotty Bowman 1971-1979 0.744 QC NO YES
Bernie Geoffrion 1979 0.600 QC YES YES
Claude Ruel 1979-1981 0.669
Bob Berry 1981-1984 0.601 QC YES YES
Jacques Lemaire 1984-1985 0.557 QC YES YES
Jean Perron 1985-1988 0.588 QC NO YES
Pat Burns 1988-1992 0.609 QC NO YES
Jacques Demers 1992-1995 0.548 QC NO YES
Jacques Laperriere (int) 1995 0.000 QC YES YES
Mario Tremblay 1995-1997 0.525 QC YES YES
Alain VIgneault 1997-2000 0.483 QC NO YES
Michel Therrien 2000-2003 0.500 QC NO YES
Claude Julien 2003-2006 0.531 ON NO YES
Bob Gainey (int) 2006 0.598 ON YES YES-LEARNED WHILE COACHING
Guy Carbonneau 2006-2009 0.589 QC YES YES
Bob Gainey (int) 2009 0.500 YES
Jacques Martin 2009-2011 0.554 ON NO YES
Randy Cunneyworth (int) 2011-2012 0.450 ON NO NO
Michel Therrien 2012-Present

0.644


While there are many factors that come into play, successful coaches provide higher quality development, and generally engage in stronger relationship building with their athletes. So, what makes a 'good' coach? Effective leadership is essentially built on four main components:

effleadership

Successful leaders tend to display the same qualities, including integrity and patience. A key quality in a successful leader, however, is the ability to be flexible and adapt to various situations. Typically in Montreal, the head coach tends to gravitate towards an autocratic-style of leadership, where the coach 'calls the shots.'

As we have witnessed with the variety of punitive measures employed by the current coaching staff in Montreal, such as reduced ice time, being vanquished to the press box, and preferential treatment, a 'do as I say' type of coaching style is currently being implemented. In addition, though the coaching staff often attempts to shuffle lines when things don't seem to be meshing on the bench, as opposed to feeling deliberate, it often comes off as panicky and not terribly well-thought out.

The follower's qualities, or in this case, the athlete's qualities, also come into play. Coaches need to remember that each athlete brings with him a unique background, set of skills, and opinions. A true leader will understand the intricacies of working with individuals, especially as part of a group setting, and will mesh his leadership style with each individual athlete's qualities.

Again, I argue that we do see favouritism with our current coaching staff, and while this may bode well for those favoured, those in the doghouse may harbour some resentment. Perhaps most importantly, this tends to lead to questionable deployment.

Aside from what 'makes' for an effective coach, it should be noted that the Montreal Canadiens don't appear to consider all things equal when making their hiring decisions. Remember when the club appointed Randy Cunneyworth as interim coach? I like to try and forget about that, too, but I do want to briefly discuss the uproar that ensued.

Cunneyworth did not speak French at the time, the first time in a few decades that Montreal fans had witnessed a non-bilingual speaker behind the bench. There was such an uproar, in fact, that owner Geoff Molson released this statement,

"Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, 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." - Geoff Molson

Limiting who is considered for a coaching position can be a good thing, when based solely on qualifications, the individual's ability to work within a stressful environment, and their approach to ever-changing group dynamics.

While I absolutely agree that it would be beneficial for the head coach to be bilingual at the time of hire, I also argue that this limits the organization's ability to choose from an already small pool of viable coaching candidates in the future.

Some of my main issues:

  • Sven Andrighetto: Four goals in 12 games, shooting at 26.5% - scratched
  • Alex Galchenyuk: 23 points this season, consistently averaging much less ice time than David Desharnais (one assist in last month)
  • Breaking up the lines that earned us a 9-0 start. Yes, we are down (and have been down) some key players this season. But we pride ourselves so much on our depth that this shouldn't make or break us - how the players are being utilized will, however.
  • Our goaltending isn't at the level that we have become accustomed to, though it would be tough to put the lion's share of the blame on Condon or Tokarski.

To finish, let me be very clear: Is all of this to say that bilingual candidates are inadequate coaches? Of course not. Does seeking strictly bilingual coaches limit the organization's ability to adequately search for the 'right' person for the job? Absolutely.

1. Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of Sport & Exercise Psychology. (5th). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

2. CBC News. Habs owner Geoff Molson says speaking French 'very important.' Retrieved July 23, 2015, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/habs-owner-geoff-molson-says-speaking-french-very-important-1.998863.