Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wag the Dog

Decision time Mr. Molson (Photo credit: Paul Chiasson/CP)
The Richard Riot almost 57 years ago sparked the beginning of change, not only within province of Quebec but the Montreal Canadiens as well. And with that change, Dick Irvin would become the last unilingual anglophone to start a season as head coach of Les Glorieux.

Some have claimed over the years that Toe Blake and/or Bob Berry were anglophone but that's simply not the case, as much as some want them to be. Blake, whose mother was french, was born near a mining community with a sizable french population not far from Sudbury, Ontario and spoke the language very well. Bob Berry was from TMR and while his french wasn't conversationally fluent, he was able to speak the language. Debate his level of bilingualism all you want but neither were unilingual anglophones.

With Randy Cunneyworth, the Canadiens have ended a stretch of 41 years where they wouldn’t even allow a unilingual anglophone to coach the team mid-season. On both occasions, they were acts of desperation. Al MacNeil was given 55 regular season games to save the 1970-71 season and now Randy Cunneyworth has been asked to save the 2011-12 season in 50. One has to believe only movie scripts hold hope for a similar ending this time.

Ever since the Richard Riot, there’s been a struggle over language and culture with the Habs caught in the middle. Their desire and willingness to be sensitive to their community, proven by nearly 6 decades of action has been met with the desire for appeasement, primarily from politicians and sectors of the media, both hoping to use the Montreal Canadiens as a means to an end. Their definition of winning? Very different than most Habs fans.

Up until about 2 decades ago, it wasn’t that difficult for the Habs to maintain a balance between winning and appeasement, in spite of the fact that they’re conflicting goals. Francophone talent was spread across fewer teams, drafting lasted 12 rounds, not 7 and the league as a whole wasn’t nearly as interested in Europe, or the United States for that matter as they are now.

For the Canadiens who haven’t had a top 5 pick based on season performance since 1984, mediocrity slowly set in. As is often the case when you refuse to hire the best, it started at the draft table with a string of wasted 1st round picks that, by the early 1990s, would break the cycle of parlaying aging talent into high quality draft picks to keep the team stocked and competitive.

Because of that mediocrity, the francophone players the Habs would traditionally build around were either drafted before they had the opportunity or were both lacking in numbers and quality. With a league-wide prospect failure rate of 73% and up after the 1st round, its ridiculous to believe the Montreal Canadiens can build a Stanley Cup contender based almost entirely on francophones.

At least not when you consider that the QMJHL only produces about 10% of the talent pool, with the number of drafted Quebec-born players within it trending down for decades. The 2011 NHL draft for example saw 22 prospects taken but just 9 were actually born in Quebec. NINE. And for those who want to ague genealogical heritage to pad that number, the problem is painfully obvious.

So, how can influential politicians and media keep pressing for the Habs to draft more francophones under those conditions and maintain a straight face? Even the president of QMJ, Gilles Courteau has blamed the Habs for the situation. Great card players all.

The Montreal Canadiens have shown throughout their history that they want to please the community and have a number of francophone players for them to cheer for but when Quebec and the QMJHL in particular isn't doing their part, somehow the Habs are to blame.

It's that impact of fewer quality francophones across the league, combined with mediocre draft seeding and a front office not comprised of the best talent money can buy that's been reflected in the Habs roster ever since. Francophones have gone from being the elite, offensive core of the team, to second line contributors, to third line character guys to fourth line scrubs over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, this has been interpreted as some form of bias against francophones, even racist to a few, rather than the reality of supply and demand, combined with a management team that wasn't hired because they were the best in the business. Judging by the drafting frequency of the Canadiens, their demand has never waned. Supply? Not so much.

The only way the Canadiens can realistically hope to have greater success drafting talent, especially Quebec-born prospects that make up just 5-8% of the pool is to go after the best front office people money can buy while pressing both Quebec and the QMJHL to do more. A lot more. Given the current competitive landscape the Canadiens find themselves in, their desire to please the community and the desire for appeasement by others can no longer co-exist.

With the constant desire for at least one round of playoff revenue, marketed as "anything can happen" since the early 90s, the Canadiens began to sacrifice long term success for short term gain while fan expectation was slowly replaced by hope. The result? High round picks traded for rentals and UFAs that frequently walk away for nothing on July 1st. That's what teams do when they plan to go deep into the playoffs, not teams that hope it'll get them one of the last playoff spots and a profit boost.

How bad has it gotten? The Habs have traded roster players for 1st round picks just 3 times over the last 20 years; Max Pacioretty in 2007, Alexander Perezhogin in 2001 and Marcel Hossa in 1999. Rather than trade for high round picks, it's now more common to trade for prospects drafted by others or swapping problem players, hoping for a different result.

Simply put, when you don't have the best front office talent available and make a conscious decision to settle, assets will be squandered, either at the draft table, in trade talks or UFA negotiations with player agents. And if the Habs won't interview, let alone hire the best in the league, their competition will.

What upsets most Habs fans, and I mean real fans, is that they understand that there’s no satisfying the politicians and media who want their sense of entitlement reincarnated on the ice, reflective of the society they want to see. And by martyring themselves to please everyone, the cold, hard fact of the matter is the Montreal Canadiens have won their division just once, ONCE in the last 18 years.

It’s common sense to believe that during a typical 3 year coaching tenure, a head coach with NHL experience will, on average, win more games with the same roster of players than a coach with none. The learning curve for coaches doesn’t end the day they arrive in the show so how could anyone realistically expect a Canadiens team to perform well when 10 of their last 12 head coaches began the season with no experience, under the most stressful conditions in hockey? The answer for failure? More of the same.

The reason the Canadiens have become so dependent on rookie coaches is that language isn’t just “very important” as Geoff Molson suggested but “most important”. Appeasement trumping talent at the cost of wins. It’s wonderful that the Habs have been able to offer coaching jobs to so many francophones over the years but they’ve rarely benefited from it. Since the Canadiens joined the NHL in 1917, only 2 head coaches, Hart and Ruel returned to start another season behind the Habs bench. It seems once is enough in Montreal and nobody can blame them.

Any appeasement plan that would never interview a Mike Babcock, Lindy Ruff or Ken Hitchcock for head coach or Ken Holland, Lou Lamoriello, Doug Wilson, Ray Shero, Darcy Regier or Steve Yzerman for general manager simply isn’t trying to win. And anyone who claims otherwise is both a liar and great card player. For the opponents who feel a candidate's willingness to learn french just isn't good enough, it's both shameful posturing and disingenuous. Winning isn't their priority because their very actions serve to undermine it.

So, with Randy Cunneyworth as the trial balloon, the Canadiens and Geoff Molson in particular are at the crossroads. Will they continue to appease a sector of society that will never be satisfied, no matter what they do, or will they hire the best front office, coaches and talent evaluators money can buy, offering french language courses as needed? Will they let their desire for wins dictate policy and allow those who aren’t happy with playoff runs and Stanley Cups to expose themselves for what they really are? Opportunists.

Anything less is a willingness to accept mediocrity for the foreseeable future in order to keep the show going. Is calm water and profits more important than a Stanley Cup to the Molson family? Will their legacy become an embarrassment, compared one day to Harold Ballard's Leafs or Jeremy Jacobs' Bruins of the Harry Sinden era?

It's time to stop talking about scapegoats who weren't the best candidates in the first place. Leaders lead and that starts with ownership, so it's up to Geoff Molson to decide. Personally, I have faith that Quebecers will rally around a winner, regardless of language. Question is, does Mr. Molson have the guts?