Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Le Club de Hockey Canadien" is Really A Public Relations Company

When Geoff Molson lead a group of investors to buy the Montreal Canadiens, I was optimistic about the direction that the Montreal Canadiens were going to go in.  I thought the George Gillett era was a resounding success.  He took one of the most recognized franchises in sports from a beleaguered and non-profitable state and brought them back to a respected, successful and extremely profitable state.  Not bad for an American who had a number of detractors fearing that he would pick up and move the team altogether below the 49th parallel.  Not only did he not do that, but he hired Pierre Boivin to run the 'business' of the Montreal Canadiens as he saw fit.

One of Pierre's first moves was imposing on himself a directive that was wholly unnecessary and one that would eventually lead to the organization competing with a severe handicap.  For whatever reason (and maybe it was to allay the fears of those vocal minority which were unhappy with an American owner), Pierre instituted a policy of only hiring a head coach that could communicate in French fluently.  That policy may have been one that you could institute and get away with in years past when a team's payroll was limited to the wallet size of the owner.  You could hire a sub-par coach and mitigate that by attracting the best players.  But in the era of a salary-cap world and an uber-competitive landscape, you had to go out and hire the best coach out there, regardless of his linguistic abilities.

So, with Geoff Molson as the new owner of the Montreal Canadiens, that deep-rooted fear of a foreign owner should have dissipated.  Here was a young successful local man who was perfectly bilingual and well-educated owning our treasured Habs.  In my mind, I felt he stood with the right type of pedigree, background and authority to be able to make away with his predecessor's handicaps.  I first felt that he commanded that respect and carried that aura when he came out with a strongly worded statement following the Zdena Chara and Max Pacioretty incident of last year and followed it up by taking an active role in reducing headshots in the league.

Fast-forward to this season, when the Montreal Canadiens promoted assistant Randy Cunneyworth to the role of head coach.  This accomplished two things at once: 1) they ended the long-standing policy that Pierre Boivin had self-imposed to hire only a bilingual head coach; and 2) they opened up the possibility that going forward, the club would seek the strongest candidate to coach the team bar none.  For those reasons alone, I was thrilled with the prospect of what may lie in the future of the Habs.

Unfortunately, that thrill turned to anguish and extreme disappointment only a few days later when due to a vocal minority (some of whom unfortunately, control some parts of the French media) Mr. Molson released the following statement.  In it was one key sentence:
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.
And just like that... we were back to square one.  How did it become so "obvious" to what appeared to be such a strong leader after only a few days of discontent which were also compounded by a string of losses.

By no means, am I implying that a French-speaking coach might not be the best possible candidate out there.  All I'm saying is that the best coaches are the best coaches regardless of language and that means 30 teams will be vying for their services.  Considering there is no salary cap when it comes to coaching salary, this might be the one area where the Montreal Canadiens can outspend their rivals and gain a distinct advantage rather than create a handicap and play with a disadvantage.

What seems clear to me now, is that Mr. Molson's first, second and third priority is to try and appease the public in the short-term, all the while, losing the foresight to realize that a winning team is what would make the public the happiest.  That my readers, is precisely what a public-relations company tries to do - appease the public and mitigate dissent.  It's all about what the image of the Montreal Canadiens stands for and sadly enough, these past few decades that image is not a Stanley Cup.

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