Thursday, January 5, 2012

Quebec, the Canadiens and Sports Nationalism

When President Pierre Gauthier of the Montreal Candiens promoted non-French speaking Randy Cunneyworth to be interim head coach last month, he did not anticpate the firestorm of criticism from Canadien fans and Francophile anger. A mere week later he apologized to the fans all but guaranteeing that Cunneyworth’s tenure would be brief, “I'm sorry if we upset people (by not hiring a bilingual coach). Because that certainly wasn't our intention ... Having a bilingual coach is very, very important and will be part of the decision process going forward." Owned by a Molson with historic Montreal roots, this incident excavated the deep and sometimes dark roots of sport’s connection to politics and communal identity.

Forty years ago people died in Quebec as Front de libération du Québec carried out a decade-long bombing campaign to support Quebec separatism. The uniqueness of Quebec’s French heritage and language inspired massive political resistance against th dominance of English Canada and especially the Ontario/Toronto axis. The artful statesmanship of Pierre Trudeau saved Canada and reached an uneasy but workable compromise for Canada and Quebec. Canada exists as a bilingual country, but especially in Quebec the enforcement of French as the “mother tongue” and primary language remains a critical policy and article of faith among Francophile Quebecers. While support for secession has temporarily abated, the ley lines of French—English Canadian tensions are never far from the surface. Montreal, the cultural and industrial capital of Quebec, embodies all these tensions.

Canadian nationalism always feels like an oxymoron to many Canadians, although the French are involved in a tangle over whether a beaver or polar bear should be their national emblem. To the French  Quebecois, however, nationalism matters as a defense against perceived English assimilation of them. To the extent a sport or team contributes to affiliation, hockey and Canada had always been linked. The NHL originated as a Canadian league sprawled across Canada with small and medium, cities joined together with a common passion and pride. In Quebec, the Habs assumed a deeper identity as the avatar of French Canadian pride and aspiration. Their 24 Stanley cup championships resounded across Canada as reminders of the French identity that resolutely would not fade away to an English hegemony.

The Montreal Candiens exist as a source and beneficiary of Quebec nationalism. Certainly, the team does not represent the direct or manipulated investments that an East Germany or modern China make to deploy athletics as an instrument of national pride (this is Canada after all). But history has joined Quebecois pride with Montreal hockey. Even as modern Canada evolves its very uneasy co-existence with Quebec, the team itself epitomizes modern global professional teams. The modern roster has three French speaking Quebecers, five Americans, 2 Russians and a Czech among others. 

So last month when the team promoted assistant Cunneyworth as its interim coach, he became the first non-French speaking coach of the Canadians. Non French Canadians had coached the team but always as bi-lingual and aware of the city and state’s sensitivity to the alignment of the team, language and Quebec’s exceptional status in the federation. The appointment of Cunneyworth represented a remarkable tin ear for the emotional and collective role of the team.

The interim internal promotion aroused a firestorm of protest from the press. Quebec sovereignists, always looking for a reason to agitate about what they perceive as English domination in Quebec, jumped all over the symbolic implications of the choice. Follow up polls revealed that French speaking Canadians also wish the team would hire more French speaking players.

It also reminds us how ley lines of communal identity attach to sport and teams, even in a place that seems as placid as Canada (at least to uninformed Americans). I also think it highlights how situational this can be. The Quebec situation still simmers, and some still wish to leave Canada. The last plebiscite on sovereignty for Canada was in 1995, and only 51% voted to stay in the federal union. Teams, even one owned by a beer company, still stand as surrogates for deeper emotional attachments and agendas where identities remain contested and politics remains unresolved.

This nationalist incident highlights a parallel but very different phenomena in the world of soccer. Like hockey the sport has become global with multi-national teams common. But all over the world, the national teams are coached by non-nationals. This often occurs with imports into countries developing their own teams. Recentlythe United States appointed German national Jurgen Klinsmann our national coach for his skill and success. More interestingly he is recruiting and grooming dual citizenship Americans from all over the world. Many of them are products of sports academies and not college soccer. To his mind this gives them thousands more hours of practice and success. For younger players, he farms them out to European or English teams for seasoning and training. 

Klinsmann’s approach and appointment reflect the natural evolution of an internationally integrated soccer world. Players sprawl across the globe playing for different teams at various salary scales. Playing for a national team involves giving up salary and a true act of commitment for the players. Badly done, this approach can resemble pick up games of all stars, but I think everyone learned from the total failure of the American basketball approach that relied upon talent and press clippings hanging around together.

Professional hockey parallels the integration of soccer, but with a much smaller cast and much more closed world. Canada is small country with a disproportionate interest in hockey, and Quebec is as an even smaller state with a profound interest in hockey and its team. While modern professional players may come from all over as well as coaches, the Montreal Habs contretemps reminds us that the community affiliation runs strong and sometimes shallow, and sport is seldom just sport.

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