Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Noel Supports Cunneyworth

With Claude Noel being a former AHL coach in a hockey-mad NHL market, you get the sense that some of the guys from the junior circuit feel for one another when their teams aren't performing well. In the case of Montreal's Randy Cunneyworth, he's had to weather a slump and defend himself over the fact that he isn't fluent in French. With the Jets visiting the Canadiens tonight, Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel made a vow today that not many coaches outside of Quebec make: Noel will learn to speak French by next season! Does that mean he's looking for other jobs? Does the Winnipeg coach know something we don't?

In a word, no. Claude Noel's job is secure for the time being, and I doubt that a coaching change would be beneficial to the Jets at this time. They're playing pretty good hockey to start 2012, and the players seem to respond to Noel's coaching. In short, the coach is doing a pretty good job. So why is he learning French?

"I'll take questions in English because I'm more comfortable," Noel said to the press after explaining his preference to answer questions in English. "And I hope by next year my French will be good enough to take questions in French. It's difficult for me to express myself in hockey language. I do fine, but after a few questions, trust me, marbles start to fly out everywhere. So we'll speak English. No disrespect."

Noel went on to explain that it was important for him to rediscover the language he grew up with because of his Canadian arrangements. "I'm going to take an on-line course this summer to get better because I'm living in Canada now," he explained. "Winnipeg has a French community and I like speaking French. I have good days when the words are coming back and I have bad days when I can't think of my name in French."

Noel grew up in Virginiatown, Ontario near the Quebec border to French-Canadian parents. In moving to North Bay and then to Kitchener to play with the OHL's Rangers, Noel spoke less and less French. Once he began playing and working in the United States, the French language really slipped away. Noel feels it is important to be able to speak in Canada's two official languages, especially with the Winnipeg community of St. Boniface being the largest French settlement in Canada outside Quebec.

Of course, Randy Cunneyworth has faced the fire over his not knowing French since being appointed as the bench boss of the Canadiens, and there seems to be a belief that Quebec is the only place where a French coach can get his start at the NHL level. Pat Burns, Alain Vigneault, and Claude Julien are probably the best examples of French coaches getting their starts in Quebec.

But this myth can be debunked by a few examples as well. Jacques Demers started his career with the WHA's Indianapolis Racers before moving to the Cincinnati Stingers. His third coaching job was with the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA. Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion started coaching with the New York Rangers, and was the first head coach of the Atlanta Flames. Pierre Pagé started his head coaching career with the Minnesota North Stars before becoming the head coach of the NHL's Quebec Nordiques. Guy Boucher was hired out of the QMJHL to be the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs' head coach, but then was hired by the Tampa Bay Lightning in his first NHL head coaching job.

So perhaps the "need" to have a francophone coach is simply an image thing. Toe Blake is regarded as a Canadiens legend, and he was born in Ontario and was an anglophone first. Dick Irvin is also held in high regard as a Canadiens coach, and he was born in Hamilton. Bob Gainey is another Ontario-born man who thrived as both a Canadiens player and coach. The key for all three of these men is that they learned the language as part of their job. And Randy Cunneyworth should be given the same courtesy that these men were given.

While there's really no need for Claude Noel to re-learn the language he grew up with other than personal reasons, the fact that he's doing it to be able to speak to the French media is pretty impressive. He really doesn't need to do this, but he respects that there are two official languages and that he needs to be able to work in both languages if he wants to be successful in Winnipeg with their French community as well as in Quebec.

As for Cunneyworth, cut the guy some slack, Montreal. He could turn out to be one of those beloved coaches if you give him a chance to do a little learning - both in hockey lessons and language lessons - while he's on the job.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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