Wednesday, November 09, 2011

It's Our Limitations that Make Us Who We Are

With apologies to The Mendoza Line, and the fans of 29 teams who will be angry with me after the last paragraph.

The Copper & Blue took the first Habs-Oilers game of the season as an occasion to post a little article on the role of language in the Canadiens hiring policies. The title of the piece- “The Canadiens are Limiting Possibilities with Language Requirements”- is a fact, insofar as any requirement for a position by definition limits the range of possible things that can occupy it, but the argument of the article goes somewhat beyond that. Quote: “Montreal may be doing more harm to the franchise through their extremely shallow candidate pool.” More harm than what is not specified.

The implication is, of course, that by restricting candidates for the head coach and general manager positions to fluently bilingual candidates, the Canadiens are passing up better monolingual Anglophone candidates and therefore weakening their chances of success. Well, probably they are. Possibly. Maybe. Zona, being a smart man and careful of his evidence, doesn’t go so far as to say they are hurting the team by limiting possibilities, because he can’t prove that.

And therein lies the core of the issue. For all the advances in data collection and processing in hockey over the past few years, nobody has any inkling how to objectively evaluate the contributions of coaches and GMs to winning. We can evaluate particular decisions, of course, a line-match here, a trade there, but ultimately these jobs are still judged subjectively. There is no metric that will tell me that Coach A is going to get my team 5.6 more points in the standings than Coach B. There is no credible projection that can say GM X’s strategy will get a team to the Cup three seasons earlier then GM Y’s. Right now, we know neither how to properly rank these talents nor how big a slice of the victory-pie they occupy, and so the ‘Better Anglophone Coach’ who might exist, somewhere out there, is sort of like the ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ torture scenario- it’s a fiction designed to try to force a particular conclusion, but it doesn’t actually exist.

Moreover, most of the potential coaches and GMs in the League are already taken. It is not as if the Canadiens could just have their pick of the Anglophone litter, if only they threw away their language restriction. No, they’d have to find somebody who was unemployed or failing so hard as to be virtually so, or a likely-looking AHL coach, or a discontented soul. And then, of course, they’d have to persuade him to come to Montreal, and we know from UFA day how that conversation often goes. So regardless of who is ‘the best man for the job’, it is highly likely that the Canadiens would have to choose somebody lesser in any language, just because of availability limits.

The choice is never between ‘good coach’ and ‘bad coach’. It’s between a whole bunch of maybe/maybe-not coaches. The NHL has 29 teams who have no language requirement whatsoever, and on average most of them don’t do all that much better than the Habs, which tells me that language is pretty far down the list of obstacles when it comes to finding the best man for either job. What good has this vast pool of English-speaking talent done the Islanders, or the Avalanche, or the Coyotes? Should I be envying the Flames all the superior front office men they’ve been able to extract from it? What about the Oilers? It looks to me like the Canadiens insistence on hiring Francophone coaches is hurting them in the standings about as much as insisting on wearing purple shoes would hurt one in a marathon.

I wonder why so many Anglophone commentators are pleased to give Montreal this little nugget of advice so often. ‘Give up on French, it’s only holding you back’ is not a new idea- it’s something people have been telling the Canadiens for nigh on 30 years now, probably more. And although I’m not Quebecoise and my French is not good, I find it rather irritating, because it is symptomatic of a more generalized habit of Anglophone hubris which one encounters the world over. The idea that language is just a piddly little thing that don’t hardly make no nevermind at all is, largely, a privilege of English-speakers. English is fast becoming the lingua franca of the world, although not quite everywhere yet, but monolingual Anglophones are a little too creepily excited to trumpet this fact and announce to all and sundry that they better get on the bandwagon or get left behind. The conflict of interest is no more obvious for being downplayed: every native English speaker who tells people that they better learn to deal with English for their own good is making the world a little bit easier for themselves, and a little bit harder for everyone else.

In the case of the Candiens, French is not just a little piddly thing that should be tossed out the window for anything that might possibly make the team somehow vaguely fractionally better. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it should not be put aside even for something that might make the team tangibly slightly better, and this is why:

Winning isn’t everything. That’s not a platitude, it is the obvious truth: if you are involved in hockey for any length of time, whether as a fan, a player, or a suit, most of what you experience will not be winning. The sad fact is that most of hockey is losing, in any language. There are thirty teams out there, continually picking talent off each other the way gorillas clean each other of lice. The competition is fierce, the available edges fractional, and even the most brilliant plans are often shattered by injuries, drowned in bad luck. Even the teams that make the best decisions lose more than they win. If winning were all that mattered, we all would have left this game long ago, because there just isn’t enough of it.

What is left when the game is lost? What sustains you, season to season, generation to generation, when the losses pile up beyond counting? What do you have when you don’t have the Cup?

There is community. The friends you have over to watch the game, the conversation you have with your mom about it two days later. The corner bar and the people who gather their, shouting in unison with every goal, groaning collectively at every penalty. The funny, theatrical guy with the talk radio show, the columnist you disagree with every damn day but read anyway. The flags in the windows, the jerseys on the kids playing ball hockey in the street. Few of us would be hockey fans alone in a dark room, we do it- in some part, large or small- for the pleasure of sharing it with others.

There is history. The memories you have of seasons gone by, heart-stopping comebacks and heart-rending defeats. All the first liners hanging from the rafters, all the fourth liners you loved and lost. That strange sense of both closeness and distance you feel when you look at those worn sepia photos and see your symbol on the chest of a long-dead man. It’s not just our contemporaries we share this with, it’s our grandparents, and our children yet unborn.

And, in the case of Montreal, there is culture. No other team in North America has this, and I think that’s why no acolyte of any other franchise really quite gets it, but there is a curious synergy that sometimes develops between a team, a place, and a people that transforms the identity of all three. The Canadiens are not just a team in Quebec, they are a part of Quebec, and Quebec is a part of them. They have the rare honor of representing not just some arbitrary geographic designation but a wholly unique place on the surface of the world, a people and a history that are utterly distinct from those around them. No other team in the NHL has that. Fuck the NHL, no other team in the NBA or the NFL or MLB has it either. You’d have to go overseas and look at soccer teams to find the next closest analogy. This facet of the Habs is not incidental, it is essential, and it is precious. It must be honored, and sometimes cultivated, in both languages.

The straw man Anglophone coach who might be out there in the 88% of the talent pool who might make the Candidiens some-unclear-amount better is a hypothetical value, whereas the real bilingual coach who can communicate fully and naturally with the fan base and the media is a concrete value. His bilingualism might not contribute to winning, true, but it contributes to all of those things that are more important than winning, the community, history, and culture that endure longer than any victory, that sustain us through any defeat. The Habs need those things, just as surely as they need Cups, and if it ever comes down to an either-or choice between French and the Cup, that will be a hard day, but it has not come yet.

This is the part where I show my colors, and my arrogance, and I apologize to fans of other teams in advance, but it must be said: better to be a Canadiens fan out of the playoffs than a fan of any other team with the Cup in hand. The Canadiens, by virtue of their cultural significance, mean more in the worst season of their worst decade than most other teams ever will, no matter how much they win. It’s not about this season, or next season, or the next season after that, kittens, this game is so much longer and so much bigger than these piddling little contests. In every area that really matters- length of history, depth of passion, strength of community, uniqueness of culture- the Canadiens have already won, and that is in large part due to the Francophone fanbase around them. That fanbase, their history, their community, deserve better than just a token translator. They deserve coaches and GMs who can talk hockey in their own idiom. The Habs owe them that much, in gratitude, and frankly, in rational self-interest. Without French, they’re just another team, only better dressed.


Jeff J said...

Boivin said:

“So they have a pool of 90, (even if) not all are good or are available. We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? It’s the same thing with coaches. And that’s a huge disadvantage when human capital is your most important asset.”

But I am in complete agreement: winning isn't everything.

It's funny, though. During my crucial pro hockey imprinting in the 80s, it was the Nords that were the true francophone club in Quebec. To the Eastern Quebecois and french-speaking NBers I knew at the time, the Habs were hated rivals.

E said...

hey, i totally agree that it's a limitation on filling positions, i'm just saying a wider selection in itself doesn't do anyone any good. you've got to know how to choose well, and i don't think anybody knows enough about how to do that anyway. i'd be open to revising my position if a) we develop some good (or hell, even slightly informative) metrics for measuring coaches and gms against each other objectively; and b) we discover that coaching and gming make a very significant difference in the success of a team (gming probably does, of course, but i wouldn't be surprised if we find out someday that the difference between the best gm and the worst gm is not so great as we'd like to believe). once those things are shown, then the argument for a larger selection pool has some teeth. until then, it's just hypothetical.

you bring up a good point, though, and one i didn't really make in the piece, namely that the canadiens cultural role isn't entirely positive. the fact that the habs have survived so long when other quebec/montreal teams have fallen is an accident of history, but it nevertheless leaves them as the center of the sports universe for the society around them. i think there's a weird dynamic that develops in montreal where there's a large population of people who are very invested in the canadiens, in that they spend a lot of time thinking and opining about them, but don't necessarily like them.

Kyle Roussel said...

A very thoughtful piece, well done!

As for not having metrics to show what a coach or gm tangibly brings, that may (or may not) be true. Somebody smarter than me can take up that task.

But would Habs fans want Mike Milbury if he spoke French? I would hazard a guess that they would not.

So while we cannot (here and now) compare one GM to another since each lives with a different set of circumstances, and while I went to an extreme to make a point, sometimes we can trust our gut instinct and know when something isn't right. We can sense when one GM or Coach is likely better than another.

Though similar in styles, Lemaire is a better coach than Martin, and I think everyone would agree.

We can probably also say that Ray Shero is a better GM than Garth Snow.

Now, is Randy Carlyle better than Alain Vigneault? A tougher question to answer.

We could point to the results of each as proof, but that may be selective. My point is that what we see with our eyes is sometimes right. We can see a plan in action, and conversely we can smell, taste, feel and hear disarray.

The language issue is always there, and always will be. Failure by a francophone coach (or one who was already passably bilingual) means that the Canadiens were caught fishing in the shallow end. An anglo coach who struggles always has the language issue posing as a trap door beneath his feet.

At the end of the day? Just win, baby. Success is a universal language and trumps everything.

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