Wanted: One coach with experience, please

Saturday, March 21, 2009

(This also appeared on All_Habs. Thanks to All_Habs for suggesting that I write this up and for putting it up on his wonderful blog).

One of the things that have come up the most about Guy Carbonneau during his tenure as head coach was his inexperience. Before he took over for the 2006-2007 season as the next head coach he had had only two and a half years of previous coaching experience.Two of those years came as assistant coach to Michel Therrien and the other half came when he was named assistant coach to Bob Gainey a few years later.

No matter what you think of Carbonneau’s legacy as a coach, the fact still remains that he had very limited experience before he was hired.Perhaps fortunately for Carbonneau, and unfortunately for the team, his situation is not new to the Canadiens. Since Jacques Demers was fired in 1995, every head coach of the Montreal Canadiens - with the exception of Bob Gainey - has been a rookie when they were appointed to the job. Mario Tremblay, Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, Claude Julien and Guy Carbonneau all had zero experience as a head coach in the NHL when they were hired.

As you probably know, these now former coaches also all have a French name and speak French as their first language. Now, this isn’t a jab at French-speaking coaches.While some people have stated that the Canadiens cannot win with a French coach and that they need to have an English one to win, they are wrong to say that. Demers, Jean Perron, Claude Ruel were all French Canadian and they all won the Stanley Cup as head coaches of the Canadiens. No, they didn’t win multiple Stanley Cups, but I don’t think it makes much sense to say that Dick Irvin, Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman won multiple Stanley Cups because they were English. There are many factors that go into winning a Stanley Cup, but I don’t think linguistics is one of those major factors. Irvin, Blake and Bowman won multiple Stanley Cups because they were good coaches. Not because they spoke English as their first language.

Language doesn't determine whether a coach is good or not. But the problem is that in this city, it does determine whether a coach will be hired in the first place or not. For various reasons, the general managers of the Canadiens have decided that a coach's linguistic abilities are more important than their ability to coach. And even there, we could make the argument that they’re not even picking the language in the dressing room.They’re picking someone who can communicate the best, not with his players, but with the media. And this, I believe, is one of the biggest reasons why the Canadiens have gone without the Stanley Cup since 1993.

You hear time and time again that Montreal is the toughest city to play or coach in. People often say that it's the city's fault and point out that the coaches enjoy success elsewhere. If it is so tough, wouldn't it be beneficial to hire a coach who has a decent amount of experience coaching? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to bring in someone who wouldn’t have to learn on the job in front of a very scrutinizing media and rabid fans?

At this point it’s tempting to point out the recent success of teams like the Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks as examples of teams that have found success with rookie coaches. But there are a couple of points missing from this. First, we don’t know how long these coaches will last with their current times. We don’t know what the end of the season or the next season will hold for them. Also, it’s a little presumptuous to think that a month or two of good playing will translate into playoff or Cup winning success. The second point is that unlike Carbonneau, Cory Clouston, Dan Byslma and Todd McLellan all have years of previous coaching know-how to their names. McLellan has roughly twelve years of experience behind him, while Clouston has just under eight years behind the bench and Bylsma has the least amount at five years. And the third point – and I think this is important – is that there’s a big difference between bringing in a new coach to a team that’s already been threatening to break out as a serious contender for the Stanley Cup (like San Jose) and bringing in a new and inexperienced coach to solve a fifteen year-old drought that has seen major failure after major failure in a city that is absolutely insane over its hockey. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it seems more than a little unfair to everyone involved to hire someone who is ill-equipped to do the job but is expected to do fix the problem anyway.

The French language is important to this city, yes. I’m aware keenly aware of that. It’s a vital part of this city’s culture. It’s important to respect that but on the other hand, if the Canadiens want to remain competitive in a league that now houses thirty teams, they have to have the freedom to bring in the people who they feel will do the best job. If that person is from Quebec and is bilingual, then that’s perfect. If that person is from Ontario and speaks minimal French at the very best then fine, hire him anyway if he’s qualified. Even if that person is from Australia and only speaks Swahili but can get the job done and win the games that need to be won, then why not? Being a good coach and a good communicator go beyond what language everyone in the dressing room speaks. I don’t think Mike Babcock can speak Swedish or Russian but somehow he’s managed to coach the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup.

If this team and the fans want to see Stanley Cup number twenty-five it’s absolutely vital that the management looks at a person’s credentials and their experience rather than just at their linguistic abilities. Because at the end of the day, hockey is won by how many times your team puts the puck into the back of the opposing team’s net, not by the amount of press conferences the head coach can deliver in any language.

2 comments:

Grrrreg said...

I did see this post, but I wanted to take my time to comment it properly.

To begin with, as an outsider, it's not easy to comment on the language issue in Montreal. I know it’s a sensitive issue, and even if I’ve spent some time in Montreal, I don’t live there, so you clearly know much more about it than I do.

Anyway, I agree that the most important thing they should be concerned about is not language, but experience and good references. But I don't think the language question should be totally dismissed either.

Of course, the French media are pushing for a French speaking coach because they have a direct interest here: a French speaking coach will give them much more titbits and direct comments than an exclusively English speaking coach. But let's not focus on the French media here. I think the franchise is right to be concerned about language, because in Montreal, speaking French will help the coach to address the media, and in my mind, that’s part of the job. That’s not the primary thing they should look after, but that’s a definite plus, and it should be taken into account in the selection process.

You wrote that "for various reasons, the general managers of the Canadiens have decided that a coach's linguistic abilities are more important than their ability to coach." I think that's the key question here. I think you can argue that this was true to some extent with Carbo. But I was not following hockey intensively enough when Julien was hired to know how much this was a factor then. If it was true too, then I agree with you, it's not the right way to go.

Wow, that was way too long... sorry about that! :)

Eternal Pessimist said...

No, dont' be sorry. I like long responses =) Mind if I add a long response back?

I think you're right that language is important here. Having a bilingual coach would be fantastic. But they can't just look at what language he speaks. Yes, communicating with the media is part of the job, but being able to talk to the media in a decent fashion isn't going to win you a Stanley Cup....Carbonneau would have had two by now, if that was the case.

I'm not ragging on Carbo. I think I stated that I thought it was unfair *to him* to be appointed to this job and to subsequently take the fall for a problem that was mostly not his doing. But as much as we would like it if a coach could talk to the media, I'd much prefer it if he could talk to his players and get them to do what he wanted them to do.

As for Julien... yes, I realize that of all the guys, he did have the most previous experience. He had jobs in the QMJHL and the AHL before he came here so that was a plus for him. But I still think his linguistic capabilities played a role in his hiring. Like you, I wasn't following hockey enough to know the exact circumstances of his hiring, but if his name had been Winston Churchill, I'm not sure he'd be considered as strongly.

As a random sidenote... If you look at the active French speaking coaches in the entire league as of the beginning of this year, the only guy that we hadn't already hired was Denis Savard. We had Jacques Lemaire, we had Michel Therrien, we had Claude Julien, we had Alain Vigneault. All seemed to have done better since gaining experience here...

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